Illustration by Popularium
I am sitting in my Dad’s 1990 Ford Ranger. He’s at the wheel. The Ranger is a stick shift and the ride is bumpy, but the cab is comfortable and smells like aftershave. The seats are brown cloth — the bare minimum for a practical man.
We are driving the familiar route north from Detroit, toward the hospital where my grandmother has resided since her stroke. The sun is setting to our left, and the headlights of passing cars cut through the misty dusk. My head leans against the tension of the seat belt and my hand absentmindedly fiddles with the squeaky window crank. The defroster carves out two circular patches of windshield. I snuggle into the seat, feeling warm and safe, wishing this drive would last forever.
My Dad is talking — half to me, half to himself — telling the story of his childhood.
Floyd and Charlotte fall in love in the romantic way we imagine all grandparents do. They marry soon after the Great Depression. But then war beckons and he joins the Navy, leaving his pregnant wife for a nightmare in Asia that will haunt him for the rest of his life.
Forever changed, he comes home to a son. He starts working at the Rouge Steel Plant, producing components for Ford cars. He owns Fords all his life, starting with the Fairlane, and eventually the Crown Victoria. He buys a new one every few years, always in cash. He never finances a single one.
Ford is his bedrock; he’s in a union, he’s financially secure.
But just when he is learning to manage his WW2 demons, Charlotte begins to hear the voices. She often wakes in terror, yelling at invisible tormentors.
He feels totally lost. A devout Catholic, he turns to the only authority he trusts. He climbs into his big-bodied Crown Vic and starts her up. Dreading what he has to ask his parish priest, he takes the long way there. Driving is his comfort. He pleads with God for answers — something to ease Charlotte’s suffering. His fingers drum nervously on the wheel as he pulls up to the church. He sits for a minute. Finally, he kills the engine.
Inside the church, Floyd consults with his priest. “She hears voices,” he explains. “The doctors say it’s a sickness.”
The priest looks sadly at the 29-year-old father. “It’s not your responsibility to fix her; she needs to be institutionalized. It’s beyond hope.” Floyd approaches the altar, drops in his coins, and kneels. He lights a candle and looks up at the crucifix for wisdom.
Seeing no other option, he reluctantly checks his wife into the Ypsilanti State Hospital for the Mentally Ill.
But he never stops caring for her. Every weekend for several years, he and their three boys eat breakfast, comb their hair, and pile into the car to visit her. When he turns the key in the ignition, the gentle growl of the engine greets him like an old friend: the sound of dependability.
Sometimes he doesn’t say much for the 50-mile drive, allowing the boys to chatter and joke. Sometimes he gives them impromptu lessons on how to fix the Vic. They’ll share his love of Fords, and they’ll always be able to fall back on these lessons. The four of them make the drive to Ypsilanti hundreds of times.
When they arrive one Sunday, the attending physician pulls Floyd into his office. “The treatments,” he says. “They’re not working.”
He is referring to electroshock therapy, a treatment so severe that it breaks bones. Floyd feels his ears heating up; what kind of torture do they want to try next? Cold wet sheet pack? Jet showers? His heart is pounding in his ears.
“We would go up through the nasal passage,” the doctor continues. “She won’t feel a thing. Then we’ll remove the small piece of her brain that is causing the hallucinations.” Floyd pictures Charlotte strapped to a gurney, her head shaved, the doctor sticking an instrument up her nose, puncturing her brain. He imagines the shell of his wife that they would leave behind.
He jumps to his feet and screams, “If you touch one hair on her head, I will kill you.”
The drive home is filled with the boys’ laughter and excitement. They can’t believe it’s their mother in the front seat. Floyd never says it, but everybody knows she’s not going back.
Floyd awakens, startled. Charlotte is standing above him, holding a butcher knife, babbling like a confused child. Floyd’s body tenses; in this state she’s unpredictable. He looks into her eyes and sternly tells her to put down the knife. She drops it and bursts into tears. He gets up, kicks the knife away, and tells her to breathe deeply. He holds her until she falls asleep.
That is the scariest episode, but there are many draining days and nights. He often wonders whether bringing her home was the right decision. There must be something he can do. One weekend he returns to the house with cans of pink paint stashed in the trunk. He sends her out with the kids and gets to work.
Upon returning, she can’t believe her eyes. “Did you do this all for me?” She smiles in a way she hasn’t in decades. She is enveloped in pink: the walls, the cabinets, and even the stove. Whenever she feels tense, she can go to her island of pink, where the voices can’t take away her feeling of peace.
When we get to the hospital, my Grandfather Floyd is crying. “She is still the girl I married,” he says. “She always looks that way to me.”
I hold her hand, hoping to help keep the voices at bay. Her eyes dart around the room and settle on her husband, silently imploring him to rescue her again.
He gazes back with soft eyes and a gentle smile. Her expression changes slightly — the hint of a smile, maybe? I’m not sure.
But when I look back to him I can see in his eyes that he knows she can hear him, can feel his presence.
In the Ranger, Dad turns on the engine and cranks the radiator. We sit for a moment, letting the cab warm us before he grabs the stick shift and throws the truck into gear. I reach out and squeeze his shoulder, letting my hand linger until we’re back on the highway.