The Answer

One of the long-standing questions I’ve always had is:  what exactly happened that made Dad check Mom into the hospital when I was about 6 months old?

No one seems to know, or if they know, they aren’t telling.  I asked my sister once, and that was a disaster.

But I recently had a FB convo with some of my online friends, and in the course of that, the significance of something I’ve known forever finally, FINALLY struck me.

Here’s something I wrote 2 years ago:

The family had been limping along for months, if not years, in denial, trying to function as best they could with a mother running the home who was increasingly nonfunctional. My dad never talked much about it, but he referred a couple of times to things such as, “soiled clothing being put back in drawers,” instead of being washed, and that I “had diaper rash so bad that [my] butt was bleeding”.

I think I missed one super-important thing about these statements.

These are the ONLY two specific things that I can remember my dad ever saying to me about this period.

And I finally realize that there’s a good chance my dad was actually telling me what the crucial incident was.

If these two discoveries happened simultaneously, wouldn’t that be enough to make you realize that something was seriously wrong?

Mom had a lifelong habit of putting things off, and also hoarding things.  Her apartment was home to stacks of newspapers and old magazines, “waiting for the boy scout paper drive”.  Her kitchen counter always had dirty dishes on it, along with old vitamin bottles.  I can’t tell you what it was like cleaning out her fridge (well obviously I can, I did it many times, but it would take too long and that’s not the point).  So the idea that she would have stuffed shit-soiled clothing in a drawer to be “taken care of later” is not out of character.

I was the first infant she had dealt with in this particular house.  My next oldest brother was about 2YO when they moved in, and about 3YO when I was born.  So if he wasn’t toilet trained by the time they moved in, he was probably on the way — and at any rate, a toddler doesn’t require as many diaper changes as an infant.

There were three floors between the bedrooms and the basement, where the laundry was.  There was a laundry chute, but you wouldn’t throw soiled clothing down it to sit with relatively clean clothing.

I have to do a LOT of guessing from here on out, but –

I am assuming cloth diapers – disposable diapers were invented in 1948, so they’d been around for 20 years, but I suspect they would have been seen as an extravagance.  I also have to assume there was a diaper pail in the bedroom or bathroom somewhere.

The simplest thing to do would be to put such clothing in with the cloth diapers, maybe?  But diapers get bleached, I am guessing, so that wouldn’t work, in my mother’s mind.  Clothes just don’t go in with diapers.  (Or if disposables were being used, then clothes to be washed would not go in with trash.)

The next obvious thing to do would be to have a second diaper pail or other container for soiled clothing.  This was not the kind of solution that would come easily to my mother.  And if one wasn’t already there — and she couldn’t just go out to buy one, because she didn’t drive — and if she had asked Dad about it, he probably would have said something like, “You don’t need a second diaper pail, just take care of it right away” — the groundwork was already well-laid by now that my mother didn’t hold up her side of the deal — anyway, if the solution wasn’t right there when she needed it, I can totally see her deciding that a dresser drawer was a good enough “container”, and stuffing it in there to somehow deal with it later.  Only “later” never comes.

It’s unclear to me from the words my father used whether his discovery was an ongoing thing, or a one-time thing.  My gut feeling is that he discovered something that had been going on for a while, enough to be shocking.

Now, throw in the fact that whatever happened, happened sometime in the fall:  after all the older kids, including my sister, had gone back to school after the summer.  So now my mom didn’t have my sister around all day to do her work.  It would have been more-or-less the first time since my birth that she was on her own with all the housework and chores.

It’s even possible that it could have been my sister’s job to deal with the soiled clothing in the drawer:  and maybe that worked over the summer, but once school started, maybe she forgot, or maybe my dad found it before she could get to it one day.

Finally, for Dad to be home, it would have had to happen on a weekend, during the evening/night, or at lunchtime.  The fact that my sister was apparently present would rule out lunchtime.  So it was probably outside of normal office hours.

So you’ve got Mom’s established habit of putting things off.  And whether it was because of postpartum depression, or a lack of interest in having yet another baby, it’s clear that Mom was neglecting me and my diaper changes.

So maybe I needed a diaper change.  Maybe Mom refused to do it, or said she’d do it later.  Maybe Dad tried to make her do her job.  Maybe she couldn’t or wouldn’t.  Maybe Dad finally took care of me, or watched Mom while she did it, and found that I was bleeding.  Maybe that’s also when he found the soiled clothing, and found out whatever the rigmarole was around that.

So I can easily see where that would have led to a fight.  But they fought all the time, in my memory, so what would make this one different?

The physical neglect of a baby, to the point of injury?

The shock of finding shit-soiled clothing in a drawer?  Maybe in multiple drawers?  Who knows, maybe there wasn’t a clean item of clothing left for me to be put into.

Either or both of those together might do the trick in a normal household.  But this one had been coping with dysfunction, jumping over the missing stair, for quite some time.  People were adept at making excuses for behavior that was outside the realm of normal.  I don’t know if those two things would have been enough, or not.  My gut is, maybe not.

I think there’s probably one more ingredient missing:  which would be the clue from my sister, that my mother didn’t seem to know what was happening.

I still think this indicates a psychotic break or other acute episode.  Maybe Mom was just out of it, or maybe during the fight she said the kind of bizarre things that people say in a psychotic break, or maybe she even tried to harm me.  Maybe she got angry at actually having to take care of me (!) and tried to do something violent to me — shaking me or something.

I think something like that would have been required to get Dad to realize that he had to get actual medical help, get her out of the house, maybe just get her away from me for my safety — even during an evening or night or weekend.

ETA:  a few days after I wrote this post, I remembered one other fact I was told by my dad.

On at least one occasion, Mom was out wandering around at night, in the park that was across from our house, in just her nightgown.

Remember this all happened somewhere around October or November, so it would have been too cold to simply be out for a breath of fresh air or a walk, without a coat or footwear.

Maybe this fact completes the puzzle.  Maybe I was crying and I woke Dad up.  At first he didn’t know where Mom was.  Maybe he went looking for her first, or maybe he took care of me first – hard to say.  If he thought she was just in the bathroom or something, maybe he went looking for her and then found out she had left the house.  Or maybe he took care of me and found me bleeding and the soiled clothing, then went looking for Mom.

Either way, I’m assuming that when he found her, she wasn’t particularly lucid.  And I’m guessing that this would have been enough of a jolt for him to realize that she wasn’t well, and needed care outside of what could be done in the home.

Today, one would call 911 in this situation.  But in 1969, 911 was still in its infancy.  So Dad would have had the choice of calling the police, the ambulance, or the fire department.  Obviously nothing was on fire.  Presumably no crime had been committed.  So it would have been an ambulance — but no bones were broken, no one was bleeding (except me and my diaper rash).  And an ambulance in the middle of the night attracts attention, too.

I can see where Dad would have not called an emergency service, but would have taken her to the hospital himself.  He might possibly even have gotten Mom back home and into bed, with the intention of calling her doctor in the morning, and when he did so the doctor told him to take Mom to the hospital.

There’s one more tiny piece of evidence that what my father told me was significant:  which is that diaper changes for us younger kids have always been voiced by my older siblings as a source of contention and resentment.  I don’t know how many times I’ve heard, “We changed your diapers!” from my older siblings.  And changing a diaper is unpleasant enough, sure.  But the way they say it, I think it means more than just an unpleasant task done by unwilling teenagers.

If it was known to my older siblings that the incident that led to my mother’s hospitalization, which led to her psychological analysis, and finally to the breakdown of the marriage, “started” with me and my diapers — which is a huge oversimplification, of course, but one that isn’t hard to conclude —  then it isn’t hard to imagine that those diaper changes, and therefore me, is where the blame would go.

And “We changed your diapers!” becomes not only an accusation against the person who needed the diaper changes– “It was YOUR fault!”– but also a defense — “It wasn’t OUR fault!”