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The Cellar Stairs
Linda Spear

 

     From early childhood on, when my father routinely staggered down the flight of stairs from his bedroom to the kitchen, I was absolutely certain, at some point in time, he would fall to the bottom and die.

     To this day, in middle age, I still try to remember a time so long ago, when I did not hear the shuffling feet,  staggering gait, and the jarring falls as he haplessly wandered around the house.     

      My dad; my sweet, good-natured father, became a barbiturate addict in middle age due to the mounds of pills the family doctor gave him to control his escalating depression.     Throughout his life, there was no treatment for the wrenching; emotional pain he suffered with what is now a recognized and sometimes controllable condition.        Daddy cried a lot; he grieved for his parents who were killed by Cossacks in Poland before the First World War, he mourned the death of his little sister, Leah, who died at age four from a congenital hole in her heart which was a terminal condition in the beginning of the 20th century.  He wept most of all, for his agonizing isolation.     

     My dad also saw his mother cut down by bullets as she instinctively pushed him behind her.  A short time after, he was hustled on board a freighter in steerage, along with my mother’s sister and shipped to Baltimore.  He disembarked at the Harbor and instantly became James Morrison, instead of pre-teen Jacob Moroshinsky from Warsaw. Brilliant by genetics, he won a full scholarship to the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, where he gained a bachelor’s degree in business as well as an intense desire to go to Law School.   My mother said he was always melancholy, even as a young man.  All he’d have to do to ratchet up his grief was to think about the injustice he saw in Poland to long for a career as a defense attorney for the falsely accused.      

     But the stock market crash of 1929 curtailed his plans as he went to work as a traveling salesman. With no money for law school, he reverted back to the job that he held every summer in order to pay his way while in school.  Dad never referred to himself as a traveling salesman; he had heard all the jokes. By the time I was in grade school and asked what my father did for a living, he told me to refer to him as a sales agent.  But I was a child; I didn’t know why he kicked up such a fuss if I forgot and called him a salesman instead.     

      By that time, my father had turned into a full-blown barbiturate junkie as well as an alcoholic. My mother referred to the pills and the Old Grand Dad as his “medicine.”  But I always knew that Daddy’s “medicine” was not therapeutic. Daddy’s pills tended to knock him out cold for hours at a time, but long before dawn, while everyone else was asleep, he would gradually wake, disoriented, confused and nauseated.

     I would hear him stumble out of bed, tripping on the cuffs of his pajamas, catch the bedpost and then reel back on the bed to steady himself.  In my father’s case, it usually took a second try and sometimes more. Then he’d be up, aiming toward the stairway.  Bruises on his shoulders, arms, torso and legs attested to the fact that he usually careened around the doorframes and furniture as he stumbled out of the room.

     The stairway was in the center of the hall.  With luck, he’d grip the bed post and propel himself to the top of the railing so as to slide his hand down the banister.

     He’d stagger through the living room, make a turn through the dining room and manage to get to the kitchen, flip the light switch and head for the refrigerator.  There, he’d search for the eggs on the middle shelf and make a grab for them, along with the margarine.  He’d take a few eggs out of the carton—three, four at a time—often dropping one or two on the floor, reach for a mixing bowl above the sink to scramble the remaining ones  while his trembling hands would hold onto the bowl. Next, he’d go in search of a frying pan, throw it on the stove; most of the time remembering to put the margarine in before pouring in his egg mixture.     

     The problem was that what he created it in the middle of the night while under the spell of his medicine left caked eggs and melted margarine, milk or juice all over the counters, stove and the kitchen floor.  It wasn’t unusual for us to also find one of the front burners of the electric stove still brightly burning when we came downstairs early in the morning.  I’d hear my mother mutter under her breath, a sense of relief, that there were no kitchen towels nearby the stove to turn our house into an inferno.

     Once we weren’t so lucky.  There must have been a nearby kitchen cloth that hovered near the blazing burner on the night when flames soared toward the kitchen ceiling. Our beagle, Sonny, tipped us off when he began to bark and howl.  We all got out of the house in plenty of time, and my mother ran to our next door neighbor to call the fire department.      

     The firemen and the police got there in enough time to secure the rest of the house, leaving the kitchen and part of the dining room charred, caked and water logged.       My mother was desolate; my father was nowhere to be found. I was frozen in space, unable to catch my breath.  A policeman asked my mother where she kept her Homeowner’s Insurance Policy and she thought for a moment and told him, with relief, that it was upstairs.      Only in that recollection did I see her face relax.  The damage, she was told, could be repaired in short order with insurance money. I watched my mother dart back into the house to survey the damage.  I think she cried silently as she never wept openly, even that night, and she never looked back to see where I was.

     After the firemen were certain there was no more fire risk, a policeman took Mom by the arm and with a high density flashlight they looked around the house and grounds for Daddy.

     It took only minutes to find him in a small grotto in the backyard. He was leaning against the side of the house, unconscious, with the bottle dangling from his hand. The cop called for an ambulance. Minutes later, it arrived, sirens blaring. The medics slipped Daddy onto a gurney and scuttled him off to the local hospital for detox.

     The next morning which turned out to be less than three hours later, I left my house to go to school, while our neighbors retrieved their newspapers, walked their dogs or turned on their lawn sprinklers, shovel snow or leave for work.  Nobody said a word to me; it was easier to ignore the obvious.     

     This was not an unusual event for our family or our neighborhood. During this time, Dad would come home on Friday night, after spending five days on the road, eat the dinner either my mother or I prepared, wrap his trembling arms around my mother, who stood stiff as an iron rod—arms at her sides—and he would sob at her rejection. He would then hug me and I would try to comfort him as best I could.  After these repetitive anguished gestures of affection, he’d head upstairs to his bed, flick on the TV and take his “medicine.”       

     At some point in the night, he’d begin to wander again; he’d take more pills, drink more alcohol, and sometimes he’d make it back to bed.  My mother and I would feel lucky that the house remained in tact. But we could do nothing.  My mother said she had tried for many years prior, to cajole him, sympathize with him and to find ways to take the pain away. The resultant pain was spread between us—Mom and me.       

      Before I became a teenager, he could no longer go on the road and he took to his to bed for good. My mother took a full-time job in order to pay the bills and put food on the table.  My days of childhood were over when my mother went to work every morning and I went to middle school.

     Since I always arrived home before her, I’d never know where I’d find my father or in what condition.  Sometimes, I’d be lucky and he’d be asleep in his bed.  Other times, he’d be unconscious on the kitchen or living room floor, lying in a pool of vomit, urine or excrement.

      My job, from age twelve,  until I left home for college at seventeen, was to clean him, clean up after him, clean the rest of the house, do laundry, ironing, if necessary and start dinner. I’d do my homework at night when Dad was asleep and mom would read.      Every six weeks or so, he’d pass out after a binge, and remain unconscious. The routine was rudimentary by then. The medics came, strapped him to a gurney and whisked him to the local hospital.  Sometimes, he’d suffer more seizures before they arrived and I’d think he was near death. Then there were times when he’d be placed on the gurney and awaken to find himself strapped down and trapped. If it was a school day, I’d try to move along as fast as I could, not daring to ask mom for lunch money since she was involved in far more difficult issues. After my father would go through detox at the hospital, he would be shipped of to the nearest state mental hospital for six weeks or more.  During the sixties, people with mental illness or addictions were treated the same as convicts in correctional facilities.      I understand this procedure has changed dramatically in recent years, but at that time, Dad was deprived of his own clothing, shoes with laces, his glasses and anything else that could potentially aid him in a suicide attempt. I also suspect that he was subjected to electroshock therapy, which was inhumanly administered at that time. My mother insisted I visit him there, alone. I was in school until three and she was at work until five.   I’d brace myself to take unfamiliar buses to get there because I wasn’t old enough to drive.      

     At age seventeen, I was lucky and grateful to get into to a prestigious university, earn a scholarship, grant money and a work/study program.  I left home at the end of August following my high school graduation, without looking back.  For spending money, I worked twenty hours a week at a printing firm doing basic setup work for the printers, long before computers performed those tasks, and I loved the freedom.  

     After college, I became a teacher, and applied to graduate school because I earned full scholarship money, as long as I trained student teachers each semester in my classroom.  I went to class in the evening and during summers.  It was everything I could hope for—a good job, great schooling and freedom to live with friends. But by the time I reached the age thirty, I was married for seven years and the mother of a three-year-old, with another baby on the way. 

     One morning, on the fifteenth of May, I received a phone call from mom. A call from her, in itself, surprised me. But what she said came as no shock. She calmly said, “Your father is dead.” There was a long silence on the phone.  I remember asking her, how he died.  Her flat monotone never faltered.  She stated: “Your father fell down the stairs. There was more silence.  It took seconds to process the thought. I suddenly recalled all the dreams I had of this event in the past. Then I told her that my husband and I would on our way as soon as I packed enough clothing for the short run. I couldn’t consider a longer stay.

    When we arrived at my parent's house a few hours later, my mother was seated on her living couch, with one of the neighbors by her side.  I hugged her and she remained motionless.  I wracked up her lack of reaction to grief.  It was years before that I stopped expecting a reflexive return of affection from her.

     Eventually, she got up and led us to head of the cellar stairs.  It was where my father began his flight to death on the concrete floor of the cellar.  Although the coroner had already removed his body, the puddles of blood and body tissue remained in place on the concrete below.

     According to my mother, my father was headed down to the basement from the kitchen. For a short moment, he perched on the top stair and called out to her.  She told us that she was in the basement trying to fix the oil burner.  For some reason, the toggle switch that led to the circuit was broken.

     But, at eight in the morning, Dad was still customarily drugged and drunk.  Instead of falling on the carpet on the living room landing as he had so many times before, he plowed down the stairs, already out cold; never knowing he was headed to his death.

     Because he died violently, the County Coroner accompanied the police. After interviewing my mother, they told her that they would return later to talk with me when I arrived. I doubt my mother realized that she had been under scrutiny by the local police all that day.

     Within minutes of our arrival, the police reentered the house and drew me aside to the dining room. In a somewhat gentle way, they bluntly asked me if my mother could have pushed my Dad down the stairs.

     I clearly remember taking a huge gulp of air.  The thought never occurred to me. But they were direct and I was required to reply.  After all, my parents had amassed quite a rap sheet while living in that house. I answered the detective’s questions for what seemed like hours and the questions were the same, delivered in many ways.  I stated frankly that I could not imagine my mother doing such a thing.  It would be totally out of character.

      But that wasn’t the only thing that day that seemed out of character for my mother.  I saw her cry. In fact, she wailed.  She told them that she was down in the basement when he fell and she reiterated what she did.  The police, knowing how often he fell in other places around the house agreed.

     Through that first day, my husband shepherded Mom through the legalities because she had no one else to help her with the death process.  Someone had to deal with the police, the coroner, the funeral home, the casket, the cemetery, the county clerk regarding the death certificate and even the clothing in which my father was to be buried.

     The cleaning up of the large deep puddles of congealed blood and brain matter in the basement fell to me. I recoiled, as I used to, when I was forced to clean up the messes Dad left behind when I was a child. Just as I did then, I used old towels, older sheets and Clorox to sanitize the area. Then I hosed down the area. 

     I was six months pregnant and constantly gagged and vomited at the distinct metallic sweet smell that emanated from the dense pools of blood. This clean up was far more difficult than any I had undertaken as a child or have endured since.

     When the job was done, I threw the towels and sheets and my blood stained maternity dress into two large plastic leaf bags. I took second thrown and sealed in that plastic bag.  When I returned to the living room, I was dressed in other clothing that I am certain no one noticed.

     Relief did not arrive until the next day when the detective assigned to the case came to tell her that the report revealed Daddy had a precariously high blood alcohol and barbiturate level in his body at the time of death.

      The rest of the autopsy results indicated there was no blunt force trauma that would precipitate a fall, but only the routine bruises that remained on his body that appeared to be tattoos of remembrance.

     The pall that lay over my parents’ house lifted with the words on the report.  My mother was awarded the official death certificate as if she had been judged “not guilty.” She also received copies of the certificate so she could give several to the funeral home and go ahead with the plans for my father’s burial, tentatively scheduled for the very next day.

     The night before we buried father, my mom went to bed early. She was clearly beyond exhaustion.  In my childhood room,  lay in the same bed, where I remained rigid with fear, listening to the shuffle of my father’s feet, the jarring falls, his wracking sobs, the breakage in the kitchen, the fire; the fear of a fatal fire. I rested in my husband’s arms, knowing I had cleaned up after my father for the very last time.

And then out of nowhere, I heard my mother gasp and whisper:Thank God it’s over.  Thank God, it’s finally over.”     I had never heard her talk of, or to higher power in my life. But before I could consider this out-of-character behavior, she added: “But God, will you forgive me?”   

Comments
3 Comment count
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Raw and close to the bone...

Linda,

I just want to tell you that this story is heartbreaking and so well told. I feel it is raw and close to the bone. I am sorry that you had to live it, but grateful that you could express it so beautifully.

Thank you for sharing….

Carol

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I'm sorry , too

Dear Linda,

Your story will remain etched my heart, always. I am sorry for you, too. But I am happy that you turned this completely around for all of us to walk with you from this day forward.

Thank you very much for sharing "The Cellar Stairs"

Best wishes and blessings on all you do!

Truly,
Catherine Nagle

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Thank you, both

Yes, it is a very raw story and at the time, it was closer to the bone than I even knew. The thought that I could have been with him when he died, scares me still. The police had an eye on the house, long before I knew.

And to this day, I don't know the truth, but I am stronger for it all and have lived with and loved my own family all the more.

Thank you so much for caring. I am fine now. I am even better for being able to voice it. There are so many people out there who cannot vocalize the pain because they don't have an outlet. I was blessed with this type of voice and I'm happy to share it with you, who care.

Thanks so much,

Linda