I am committing a crime against the doctrine of precise writing by beginning this narrative with a generalization: good, bad and all places in-between, people are products of their parents’ childhood experiences. In fact, people are often trapped by their parents’ rules of engagement in regards to dealing with their offspring. There’s the rigid, pseudo-fascist “do as I say or your ass is mine” militaristic parenting, the “do your thing, go with the flow; make love and be free” hippie-style non-parenting, and the ultra-confusing (for the children) schizoid mixture of lovingly devoted tenderness and attention combined with emotional and/or physical abandonment, shaming and debasing techniques, and/or raging brutality that creates adult neurotics at the least, monstrous socio-paths at the worst.
Now, let me direct your attention to a person who is the perfect embodiment of my generalization: Douglas Beauregard Lacherlich, whose name is, of course, a pseudonym. I have given him that appellation not because I wish to protect his privacy, but rather, the name fits his awkward, disproportionate personality and body better than a Speedo, in contrast to the seemingly arbitrary one given to him at birth.
I’d heard about Dougie B. two years before I actually met him. I was in Raley’s Supermarket on Folsom Boulevard (located in the “charming” little city known as Rancho Cordova, California), talking to my friend Linda (also a pseudonym, this time to protect her anonymity) as we meandered through the vast aisles of food and other products. She picked up an item; it might have been pickles or some type of salad dressing, then put it back on the shelf.
“I can’t buy that right now, “she declared. “I promised my husband that I wouldn’t spend any more money this month.”
I was confused by that statement. She lived in an upper middle-class neighborhood, and the two of them made very comfortable salaries as computer technology professionals for the State of California. Naturally, I had assumed that she could readily afford a jar of salad dressing or pickles.
“Well, we have to help out my husband’s brother,” she explained.
Of course, that statement aroused my journalistic curiosity. I had worked for an adult day program several years earlier, supposedly to teach my developmentally delayed clients self-expression through poetry. More often than not, I was a glorified babysitter (who did everything a good sitter would do, including change diapers), referee, and alarm clock, since most of my well-medicated students could not resist sleeping during class. I wondered if Linda’s brother in law was like my former students.
“Is he developmentally disabled?”
Suddenly, she became flustered.
“No…he’s not disabled…well, he has disabilities…he has trouble walking, and he hasn’t been able to work…I think he has learning problems, but he’s not…you know, retarded or anything like that.”
That was confusing. I had figured the brother-in-law was in his late teens or early twenties and had a milder form of diminished mental capacity that made him unable to manage his personal affairs, but capable of living independently with some supervision. This was the case for some of my former clients, whose older siblings had become their conservators when the parents had either died or become too old to care them. As usual, my assumption was wrong.
“How old is your brother-in-law?”
“He’s in his early fifties, somewhere around there.”
That revelation surprised me.
“Early fifties? Why do you have to support him? Doesn’t he qualify for Social Security and SSI?”
Linda appeared to be very embarrassed.
“I don’t know…it’s a really long, complicated story.”
My mind was buzzing with questions typical of someone who has read far too many books about co-dependency and co-dependently wants her friend to benefit from this knowledge: Don’t you know that when you enable a full-grown man, you put him in the “Peter Pan” role, and he becomes the maligned, resentful yet dependent child in an adult body? Fortunately, I remembered the old adage, “takes one to know one”, and kept my mouth shut. Since I have enabled many full grown adults as recently as yesterday, I recognized my own hypocrisy that time. Clearly, this was an issue that had a profound effect on my friend’s life, and I didn’t want to cause her any more discomfort than I had already. I apologized for being so nosy, and wandered off in search of the non-fat, plain yogurt that I customarily eat for breakfast.
Fast forward to August 31, 2010, the day my podiatrist informed me that I was scheduled for posterior tibial tendon surgery on October 1. The aforementioned tendon had been badly frayed by my reckless, tomboyish ways (sliding into first base, playing tackle football) in childhood and massive weight gain as an adult. A lifetime of being careless with my health finally caught up to me when I got into bed one night and had the very painful sensation of a strong, electric jolt in my right foot, followed by some inner tissue wrapping around one of the cuneiform bones the way a severed fan belt wraps around the nearest part of a car’s engine. (This happened to me while driving west on Interstate 50 one sweltering100 degree day.)
A phone call and a hurried appointment with my podiatrist the next morning confirmed that my posterior tibial tendon had finally snapped, and there was no way to repair it without surgery.
However, this was not particularly upsetting to me. Since July 11, 2001*, I have had the following surgeries:
- Roux-en-Y gastric bypass
- Emergency transfusions for menorrhagia ( life-threatening loss of blood due to abnormally heavy menstruation)
- Uterine ablation with dilation and curettage
- Three stomach hernia repair surgeries
- Complete replacement of my left hip
By the time my podiatrist scheduled me for posterior tibial tendon/arch reconstruction, I was emotionally immune to the surgical process. To me, the most difficult part was surgery prep, when the poor anesthesia nurses had to find a vein that didn’t dance away from the IV needles. I learned to joke about the “electric slide” tendencies of my veins to ease the nurses’ anxiety.
My doctor informed me that even though I was a surgery veteran and not at all nervous about going under the knife, foot surgery was “probably the harshest” of the orthopedic procedures. Former patients reported they were in extraordinary pain after surgery, and I would need four to six weeks of intense rehabilitation to learn how to take care of myself without the use of my right foot and leg. After my stay in a rehab facility, I needed to be living in a place that was completely handicapped accessible.
“You won’t be able to put any pressure on that foot for six months,” he told me. “And you will be in a heavy cast for at least that long. You can’t climb stairs at all the way you did after your hip replacement.”
That ruled out the house where I was renting a room at the time. There were very steep steps leading to the front door and back doors, and there was no room for a wheelchair ramp on either stair case. In fact, even the interior of the house was completely inaccessible for someone with my condition because the door frames were too narrow for a wheelchair. The situation was clear—I really needed the surgery, which meant that I had to find another place to live.
My friend Linda offered a viable solution to me: her brother-in-law, Douglas B. Lacherlich, had been looking for a roommate to share the costs of the house that he owned with his brother and mother. His mother, who was 94 at the time, had to go live in an assisted living facility. The facility required every penny of her measly pension funds plus a supplement from the State of California to pay for her care. This meant Dougie could no longer depend on his Mom to pay for half of the monthly expenses, especially since they were more his income from state disability could pay. He had rented out his mother’s old bedroom in the past, but the roommates never lasted for long. That should have been a foreshadowing moment for me when I found that out, but at the time, I was more concerned with finding a suitable place to live after surgery. Dougie’s habitat, which was actually a fair looking mobile home, had a ramp and doors wide enough for a wheelchair. That was good enough for me.
During my last appointment before surgery, my podiatrist told me, “Sure, you can walk on that foot; but you wouldn’t want to.” I’ve had a practice of trying to prove to my doctors that all of their education, training and years of experience means nothing when it comes to my body. This belief was validated by my friends who, like me, struggled with weight issues and disliked seeing doctors because they tended to tell us the truth about our conditions. However, since I’ve lost a significant amount of weight and kept it off, I’ve discovered that my fear of doctor visits has been removed. Not only that, my doctors have literally saved my life on several occasions, which brought me to the conclusion that it would be prudent to follow their advice and stay off my foot before surgery. I ignored my martyr complex that kept telling me that I could do all the packing and moving by myself, and my daughters eagerly (they know me well) took over. Within one week, they gathered my meager belongings (“Mom, do you really need so many books?”) and moved them to my room with a view of my former high school’s baseball field. Best of all, I had my own bathroom! I looked forward to enjoying a shower or sitting on the toilet without embarrassing interruptions. All I had to do was sail through surgery and rehabilitation, then settle into my new abode.
Time for a cliché insert “Easier said than done.”
This is the short version of my post-surgery experience: “MORPHINE! OH, GOD, MORPHINE, PLEASE!”
No more “brave martyr suffering in silence” for me. That role was possible to pull off after the equally painful Roux-en-Y gastric bypass because I had a morphine pump, which was set to deliver a prescribed amount of the sweet pain killer every eleven minutes. I watched the clock anxiously for that moment of salvation. However, there was no morphine pump after my posterior tibial tendon/arch reconstruction surgery. The nurses gave me some pills every four hours that was totally incapable of relieving the vicious, fiery, whole body-encompassing agony, which was what I experienced within seconds of waking up in the recovery room.
This pain did not subside in any substantive way until after my second week in the rehabilitation center. By the way, my rehabilitation experience caused me to make the following resolution: I will take much better care of my body so I would never have to be a pain-in-the-ass patient like the ones in the rooms near mine. It is NOT cool to wake up fellow medical care consumers at three a.m. with screams that sound like harpies being sent to the bowels of hell. I wish I could say that I was compassionate and understanding of their overwhelming confusion and miserable situation, but I found myself muttering that those poor souls were fortunate I was unable to walk.
After three weeks, I was more than ready to go to my new home. I didn’t care that I had very briefly met my new roommate a month earlier, and hadn’t talked to him since that time. I wanted OUT of that rehab center, and I did not want to wait until a family member or friend got off work in the evening to pick me up. I made arrangements for Paratransit to transport me.
My last morning in the rehabilitation facility was a rough one. The nurses had to scurry to give me my last breakfast, help me pack up and sign me out. After a very pleasant mid-morning ride and conversation with the Paratransit driver, I breathed a loud sigh of relief when the van pulled up my new abode. While the driver was operating the hydraulic lift that would transfer me from the vehicle to the sidewalk, Dougie lumbered out of the front door to the porch with his hands on his hips.
“I was wondering what was making all that racket”, he said. “That thing sounds like it needs some WD 40. You ought to tell your mechanics to fix that.”
The driver and I exchanged puzzled looks, and I shrugged. That’s one hell of way to greet people you don’t know very well, I thought.
As the driver pushed me up the ramp in my wheelchair, he called out, “Just ignore that bush that’s growing through the boards there. I was going to cut it down, but I didn’t feel like it. I have a hole in my foot that won’t heal and the doctor drained about a quart of pus out of it the other day, and I have to stay off of it.” (I’ve since learned that he had been “staying off it”, i.e. laying in bed for about five years.)
“Jesus,” the driver muttered through his teeth. He was a very decent and courteous man, in my opinion. I discovered we were both “friends of Bill*”, although in different programs. We talked about our recovery experiences, and he told me that he was once “a very bad guy” who had been in a Mexican gang and did prison time for his various escapades. Even though he had been feeling depressed in prior weeks, he realized that the problems he was experiencing were vastly preferable than the ones he had during his gang-banging days. We had been laughing about that just before Dougie appeared on the porch.
“Acceptance is the key,” I whispered as we arrived on the porch close to Dougie.
I was surprised my recovery friend heard me. Unfortunately, that slogan didn’t help much during the exchange that followed.
“You know, you should turn her around the other way,” Dougie still had his hands on hips. “It’ll be easier to get the chair through the door.”
“Mister, I’ve been at this job for ten years now. I know what I’m doing. Could you move out the way, please?”
“Yeah, well, I’m just trying to help you out.” He reluctantly stepped aside so the driver could wheel me in backwards through the door, as Paratransit had trained him to do.
“I know a lot about loading and unloading things.” For reasons that I would discover over time, Dougie could not let the issue rest. “I drove trucks for years, and I used to haul everything from heavy machinery to grain…”
I could see my friend was struggling with the concepts of patience and acceptance as he undid the safety straps from my chair. Silently, I began repeating the “Serenity Prayer” for both of us. I really didn’t need that dorky-faced, marshmallow-looking, bespectacled galoot of a man who obviously knew nothing about fisticuffs to discover what it is like to piss off a former gang member. Besides, it was nearly eleven, and I hadn’t taken any medicine since five thirty that morning, which was when a nurse jolted me out of sleep after another night of trying to block out the screaming with pillows over my head. By the time my friend and I arrived at my new home, my foot was radiating pain all the way to my teeth, and I really needed to lie down. Unfortunately, Dougie seemed completely unaware that he was not only testing my friend’s patience, but mine also.
“…and my supervisor told me that I was the best damned driver he ever hired. That’s because I knew what I was doing; I could tell if the load I was driving was going to be too heavy and slow me down, so I would tell him, that load is way too heavy, and that icy road through the Sierras is enough to make someone like me spin out of control.”
“And he says to me, Doug, I tell you what—I know you’re an excellent driver. And you know what you’re doin’ not like these other bastards around here. So I tell you what…if you can get that load in on time, I’ll pay you triple. So we shook on it, and I got that load to Susanville with two hours to spare!”
“I came back and told him he better pay up, triple, just like he said. And you know what? That old bastard looked at me and called me all kinds of sons-of-a-bitches because he couldn’t understand how I’d done it. And told him, look, old man, just pay me my money. And the old coot paid it, too. He better had, because he knew there’d be hell to pay. He knew my old man, and my old man would’ve brought the whole house down around him.”
Dougie crossed his arms over his chest with a satisfied smile and waited for our reaction. My friend seemed to be gritting his teeth as he wrapped the safety strap into a tight ball.
“Um, thank you for all your help today,” I told him.
“Yeah, you ought to get those lazy-assed mechanics over there in that Paratransit shop to fix those brakes. A good friend of mine was a supervisor there, and he says to me, Doug, why don’t you come to work for me? But I told him, no, I make more money hauling cotton than old sick people.”
That was enough for my friend. “Look mister, I’m just doing my job, okay? I don’t need your comments or anything else, all right?”
He gave me a better-watch-out-for-that-one look. “Take care, sis. I’ll be seeing you.” With that, he let the screen door slam violently behind him.
“Hey, you’re lucky that door didn’t break,” Dougie called after him. “I would’ve made Paratransit replace it, and you’d be paying for it out of your check!”
My plaster-encased foot was throbbing by then, and my head didn’t feel much better. But I could have sworn I heard my friend yell, “F**k you, motherf***er,” as I turned my chair towards my bedroom and headed in that direction.
“I can’t believe that guy,” Dougie exclaimed, following behind me. “I ought to call up Paratransit and complain about him.”
Over the successive hours, days and months of my infirm, it became a typical scenario: I would retreat to my room as quickly as possible while he walked behind me, jabbering away about some nonsensical event that took place within the realm of his desperate imagination.
The stories he told me were numerous, but the trope was always the same. Dougie the hardest working, most efficient and capable employee ever, Dougie the wise counselor to friends and family members who seek out his advice (but never follow it), Dougie the neighborhood avenger and conquering hero, who has frightened thieves, vandals and high school gang members with his presence and his shiny, professionally sharpened knives. (“They all know me, Big D! And they know what I can DO with my knives!”)
Because I am supposed to be working towards acquiring the virtues of patience and kindly acceptance of every single person on this planet, I listened to his soliloquies as much as any human being can before shouting, “Stop the madness!” The only method I could deploy to avoid his continuous need of an empathetic audience was to declare my post-operative achiness the reason for my silence and hurried exit. Obviously the concepts of patience and kindly acceptance of my fellow human beings have remained well beyond my grasp. I yearned for the old Angela, the pre-Bahá’í/12- step recovering person. The former Angela had been more comfortable in her dealings with people because she employed soul-piercing glares that promised (and on occasions, delivered) major damage to a person’s body. As a consequence, that Angela never had to deal with roughly hewn social misfits like Dougie. Someone like him has probably meandered within my range of attention, but never registered in my brain as a person of interest. The tiny amount of “patience” that I have managed to acquire over the past twenty five years has been tested to its limit whenever Dougie follows behind me, yammering away. My level of irritation raised even more when he stood in the doorway to my bedroom while he continuing his stories.
“I’m trying to educate you!” he exclaimed during one of his sermons-at-my-door because I was probably showing signs of extreme annoyance. The subject of my “education” was the more effective way of chopping up lettuce, knowledge he proudly acquired by working for years between firings as a prep cook. Admittedly, my over-inflated ego took great offense to that declaration. It is my belief that someone who is functionally illiterate may not presume to “educate” a person who has finished a master’s degree program in English.
An excerpt from one of life-according-to-Dougie-fables: “I tried to show that dumb-ass chef he didn’t know the difference between sugar and salt!” I’m sure the chef didn’t appreciate his attempt at “education”, either.
After several minutes of silence (during which I am praying, “Is there any remover of difficulties save God?”), he sighed reluctantly.
“All right, I’ll leave you alone. Do you want the door open or closed?”
Of course, there are reasons why Dougie behaves in socially unacceptable ways. He was a change of life baby, born when his mother was forty years old. She had been a widow for many years, and raising two sons by herself. One day, she attended a parent-teacher conference and met Dougie’s father. He was a widower and a single parent, too. They eventually got married and produced Doug after a year, much to the chagrin of his older half-brothers, who chose to beat up on him as much as possible while he was growing up. His father was a fork-lift driver for the Nabisco Company who was, like his son, illiterate. He ruled the home with the proverbial iron fist and a sailor’s vocabulary. Dougie’s mom was the perfect match for his father: “full of piss and vinegar,” he once told me. She preferred to bark out commands at her offspring, punctuated by ear-piercing screams when they weren’t followed precisely to her satisfaction. If Dougie and his brothers remained defiant, they were given the “just-wait-‘til-your-father-gets-home” line, which meant their Pops tanned their hides “something fierce” (as my mother used to say) after he came through the door. No, they were definitely not the Cleavers.
I’ve been amazed over the years by the number of people have approached me—let’s say at a bus stop, or in the waiting room at a doctor’s office—and before I know it, their life story comes tumbling out of their mouths . This is extremely bizarre to me; I never utter a word to anyone unless spoken to first. Even then, I am wary about revealing details about myself. This is the direct result of my mother’s teachings: don’t trust strangers; what happens at home; stays at home. Yet people like Dougie have revealed some of the most intimate details about themselves to me without a single indication of reserve. I find that incredible. I can be forthcoming about myself in writing, but I clam up when it comes to personal interaction with people I don’t know very well. I wonder how Doug and others come to the place in their lives where they are willing to pour out their hurts and failures into a porous cup like mine. Certainly, I can do nothing more than listen, and I barely manage to do that. I’m too conscious of the fact that my personal ongoing crises (“I want some of Zelda’s deep-dish Chicago style pizza, NOW!”) require most of my attention and remedial measures. If I’m not praying, I’m on the phone discussing these problems with someone who understands the unbelievably insane manner that I process situations and react to life. That’s why the tendency of people to voluntarily share their stories with me is baffling. I can’t get out of my own head enough to be concerned with them With Dougie, the reasons he is desperate for another person’s attention have become apparent over time, though the dribbling of personal truths that he would spontaneously reveal between his heroic epics. He has been abandoned as a child and an adult– physically, emotionally and spiritually. His father and brothers (except for one of them), were physically and verbally abusive. His mother screamed instead of talked, and kept herself emotionally distant from him instead of giving her baby boy a reassuring hug and kiss. I’m sure it didn’t help his situation much to be relentlessly needy and emotionally sensitive, either. The role he etched out in his family was tattletale, and his brothers physically expressed their displeasure with that whenever he played his part. Even as a adult, he has maintained the pattern of finding out “the scoop” about other people, and sharing that intel with the ones he considers to be in positions of power.
Or he would provoke people, ostensibly on an unconscious level, but he would get himself into situations (like the verbal conflict with my ex-gang-banger friend) where he would need to be bailed out either by a parent, or these days, an authority figure such as the managers at Paratransit. It’s him versus his brothers, over and over again, the proverbial “I gonna tell…” syndrome being played out in adulthood. He’s the six feet, five inch man-child who’s never been picked for the team, doesn’t get the girl and cries to an uncaring mother about it. He might as well share his pain with a total stranger because he’s accustomed to cold, distant family members. Perhaps it’s even comfortable in its familiarity.
He once told me that he has had only three girlfriends in his entire life, and every one of them dumped him for another guy within one month. No, that’s not entirely correct. One hopped into a car with one of his friends after agreeing to his girlfriend for five minutes. I’m not proud of the fact that my initial response was a gigantic belly laugh, which I choked down with a gulp of water.
According to collected wisdom of people who know more about life than I do, Dougie and I have some important spiritual lessons to learn from each other. I have a suspicion that mine has to do with being patient and loving with the people I come into close contact, even those who are extremely annoying to me and everyone else around them. There are slogans around 12 step groups that offer me moments of relief whenever I contemplate undertaking this mission: “Easy does it.” “Progress, not perfection.” “Sometimes quickly, sometimes slowly.” I believe I’ve nailed the “slowly” part.
So what about Dougie’s spiritual lesson? Well, I don’t know, and frankly, it’s none of my business. I have to pick up and get rid of my own garbage, which is pretty malodorous after years of piling up into a ripe, composting heap. However, I hope his lesson would be to learn how to take care of himself so other people, like the one brother who still bothers to speak to him, won’t have to. I also wish he will stop re-creating his emotional abandonment issues with the few people he still has in his life. Who knows? If he’s successful, the girl who jumped in his friend’s car might be willing to go for a do-over.
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* Prior to 2002, I had given birth to three children, had a reconstruction of my right cheekbone (due to spousal abuse/domestic violence) and a tubal ligation.
* “Friends of Bill” refers to Bill Wilson, one of the co-founders of Alcoholic Anonymous. His “friends” are the members of not only A.A., but the numerous groups that have emerged over the years based on the original program.
 A prayer revealed by the Ba’b, one of the Prophet/Founders of the Bahá’í Faith http://info.bahai.org/.