Chris Kassel is a Detroit-based writer with 14 books currently available on Amazon. He is a former columnist for the Detroit Free Press and has two Midwest Emmy Awards for writing. Lemonspouting's Editor, Jennifer Eagle, would like to thank Chris for donating his publishing fee to one of our next issue's short story writers.
Within the Chronicles of Nerdia, we children of the 1980s are a peculiar subset; for science geeks it was a fecund time to be alive. New cultural heroes breathed life into our condition every time we shoved clunky sneakers beneath sticky theatre seats or flipped on the tube, from Bart Simpson’s best friend Millhouse to Gary and Wyatt (those horny whiz-kids from ‘Weird Science’) to Data Wong and all his cool ‘Goonies’ gadgets. And of course, there was the chairman of the nerd board, Wayne Szalinski, who shrunk his kids to the size of grasshoppers.
At the time, my only issue with these archetypes was that they were boys and I happen to be a vocal member of Camp Female. And before you mention Velma from ‘Scooby Doo’, nobody wanted to be compared to Velma. Then Aimee Brightower appeared out of the blue, the smartest girl at Galaxy High, and I was in poindexter heaven: Like her, I was a physics freak with blue eyes and brown hair cut in a short pixie instead of piled high into a crimped perm—the preferred style of other girls my age.
Then as now (far more than flicks or television), reading was my ‘thing’. I’m not sure when I first encountered wormhole theory, but it must have been during the summer I turned fourteen because I used it as the theme of my Science Fair project at the end of my sophomore year. Briefly (for non-nerds unfamiliar with the concept), General Relativity imagines the existence of space-tunnels that connect two distant points in the universe, or perhaps might even lead to different universes altogether. Technically, they’re referred to as Einstein–Rosen bridges and colloquially as ‘wormholes.’ That summer, my dad introduced me to some classic science fiction, including ‘The Forever War’ by Joe Haldeman, where wormholes—called ‘collapsars’ by the author—are central to the plot. Another favourite was Carl Sagan’s ‘Contact’, a novel about a starship crew who travels to the center of the Milky Way galaxy via a series of wormholes.
Looking back across the decades, my Science Fair project was pretty silly, consisting of a sheet of hardware cloth (chrome-plated by my father) and rolled over onto itself in a semi-circular arc, like a sideways saddle. I also got dear old dad to use his company kiln to fuse a couple of Cole-Parmer borosilicate short-stemmed funnels, making an hourglass which I attached to the hardware cloth to represent the pathway between two sections of the universe. I jerry-rigged a DustBuster hand-vacuum beneath the exhibit table that created enough suction to pull tiny figures through the wormhole and deposit them in a glassed-in fantasy universe filled with sparkles. The project’s crowning touch (I thought) was the set of figurines I chose to get sucked through my Black & Decker wormhole: Tiny models from the Lego version of ‘Honey, I Shrunk the Kids.’
Over the years, my children shrank and expanded as their personalities dictated. I gave birth to three, but this story is not about the oldest two, Jonah and Elizabeth. It’s about Dayna, my baby, who died last year when she was twenty-five years old.
Dayna stood out virtually from the start; we were broody brunettes and she had chalk-white skin and hair the colour of coconut milk. We were studious and taciturn while Dayna was belligerent and self-willed, a private force of nature, endlessly bouncing off furniture, raising forehead knots and splitting lips. But her subsequent histrionics were quick summer storms where there’s a single peal of thunder and then the skies clear again; a minute later, she was again a balloon in flight, colliding with tables and chairs and then, buoyed by her diaphanous energy, moving on.
The older two were bookworms—peas from the parental pod. Avery and I (then happily married) saw Dayna as a natural-born leader who at the age of three was already herding six-year-old Jonah and eight-year-old Elizabeth like a Border Collie. They were somewhat cowed by her strength of will, although in the way of siblings and water, they sought their own level.
What Avery and I failed to recognize until it was too late—until Dayna was already off the diving board—was the sense of isolation and loneliness that undergirded her mood swings. We’re electrical engineers, not psychologists, and that’s not meant to be an excuse. It’s the way we’ve trained our minds to work: Systems-level thinking, where reality is the ebb and flow of mechanics, with nothing stationary and everything linked. This mindset produces engineering marvels, but—I’ve come to accept—often at the expense of humanity’s intangibles. Indeed, Dayna often seemed driven by a motor instead of a heart, and it was only in retrospect, after her death, during a prolonged period of personal reflection, that I saw what should have screamed at me as her mother: Her self-image within our taciturn and somewhat Chess-Clubby family, where she was unique, physically as well as emotionally. I can propose no better analogy than Dayna viewing us as a bison herd formed into a protective circle, with her as alone, spectral calf abandoned to the predators that lurked around the periphery.
It may sound maudlin and melodramatic, but to me, it is a perfect distillation of the truth. I will say this much: Our behaviour was not overt or intentional, but for us, it may have been unavoidable. We’ve always had an outsized view of our intellects, and this may already be obvious to those reading this.
Dayna’s early childhood passed in a blur of blurts—inappropriate responses to basic questions, quicksilver temper tantrums, meltdowns over lost homework. She followed a jitterbug trajectory with headlong crashes into obstacles that were most often herself. Along the way, Avery and I consulted many physicians, fielding mixed-bag diagnoses that included dyslexia, iron deficiency, minimal brain dysfunction, and of course, the trendy, catch-all, ‘attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder’. We devoured books on the subject and came to opposite conclusions. Avery was sold on medical intervention, but I balked, having found in the subjective lists of symptoms a condition that could encompass the entire population. Who hasn’t experienced occasional impulsivity or mood swings, time blindness or restlessness with confronted with ‘non-preferred tasks’? And to qualify for ADHD, you only needed to tick five of the eighteen boxes.
In Dayna, I didn’t see a child pining for a drug-altered worldview; I saw the culture in which she was raised-a civilization addicted to speed: Cell phones, 1000 Mbps Ethernet, overnighted packages and the high-stimulus deaths and rebirth in Nintendo games. Dayna was susceptible to the malaise of modernity—zero to sixty in under five seconds. It had become the human condition, and pumping her full of amphetamines seemed to miss the point, or worse, to ignore it.
So Avery and I compromised. First, we tried basic behavioural modification tricks—cutting out processed foods, ritualizing mealtimes, setting up consistent study times and giving her small, manageable goals like sitting quietly for 10 minutes and rewarding her when she did it. The problem was, our family routine was regimented as a matter of rote, and aggravating that made Dayna worse instead of better.
Over time, my stand against medication softened, through desperation more than conviction. Our little house had begun to divide against itself, and as my marriage disintegrated, Dayna—the youngest and most impressionable—felt it most keenly. She’d muddled through middle school with Cs and the occasional B-, but the impending divorce seemed to play havoc with her academics, and she fell well below average. Despite our issues, Avery and I had the same aspirations for Dayna that we did for our eldest two, who were at Dean’s List shoe-ins every semester and preparing to follow our footsteps to Carnegie Mellon. Out of workable ideas, I agreed to a low dosage of methylphenidate on a trial basis, and we started Dayna’s treatment just before she entered ninth grade, around the same time that Avery moved to a condominium in nearby Sylvan Lake.
I admit it freely: I noticed improvements almost immediately. Dayna’s focus sharpened, her behavioural problems dissipated, and throughout that school year, her grades began an inexorable climb in the right direction. By the time she entered high school, she appeared to have found her place on a path to the honour role.
But darkness hummed inside her cranium; an engineer might have phrased it, ‘The relationship between the modules of a system creates a whole that cannot be understood by analyzing constituent parts.’ The drug helped her symptoms but masked the underlying pathology. Midway through her sophomore year, she was busted for selling Ritalin to her classmates, and thanks to the high school’s zero-tolerance policy, she was expelled.
And that was just the beginning.
The parents of her teenage clients pressed charges, and frankly, I couldn’t blame them—I’d have done the same thing if the situation was reversed. A judge on the 52-1 District Court ultimately determined that Dayna was a threat to the community, and in October 2010, she was removed from my custody and sent to a juvenile detention facility in the north part of the county.
The Disney-sounding Children’s Village at least had an accredited K-12 school program with transferable courses, so the problem of finding her a new school district was solved. The curriculum was basic enough for frustrated delinquents, and Dayna coasted along until January when she announced that she was pregnant.
I suspected that the father was someone on staff, but I couldn’t prove it, and Dayna refused to name names—the only information she’d give up was that the sex happened in the girl’s restroom when she was supposed to be in class and had nevertheless been unsupervised for two full hours. Lawyers began a wearisome wrangle—Dayna was not even sixteen, and the county realized it was facing legal disaster, including a civil lawsuit. In the end, a judge agreed to commute the rest of Dayna’s sentence and returned her to my custody. I homeschooled her and became her support person through the remainder of the pregnancy. I went to Lamaze classes with her and was her birth partner that October, one year to the day after she was expelled was high school. In all the significant ways, these were wonderful months—the closest I’d ever felt to her.
Dayna’s labour was relatively easy, with a prearranged outcome for the baby. Dayna did not want to hold her new son (or even look at him), saying it would be too hard on her heart. I respected that. She closed her eyes as I took him from the nurse, still cloaked in his waxy white womb-skin. I smelled his head and instantly recalled the identical smell wafting from Dayna the first time I’d made a bison herd of my arms, with her, protected, in the center.
As I had done with all of my children, I kissed my newborn grandson in the soft indentation at the bridge of his nose and said, “Welcome to earth. You are loved.”
The child was given up for adoption, and for our family, he became a nameless spirit that somebody, somewhere would name—a living ghost to haunt us until we were no more.
But in the days that followed, I fixated on that brief moment in which I’d cradled him, awash in the redolence of becoming. However cliché it seems, there is nothing that compares to the smell of a newborn child. Perhaps for men, it’s also true, but for women, the concept is virtual without question; it is a primal, superlative chemical blend that we’ve evolved to identify. The baby smelled exactly like Dayna had, and in realizing that, I knew that I had finally found a genuine wormhole—a neural pathway that transported me through the ether of space to another place, another occasion in a universe I’d abandoned long ago.
At the age of twenty-five, Dayna died of acute alcohol poisoning. Besides a BAC level above 0.4%, the toxicology report listed other drugs in her system, including Xanax, diazepam and oddly, NyQuil. Her body was found by her loser boyfriend Dylan in a bathroom at his grandmother’s house. They’d been kicked out of every other place they’d lived, including Avery’s condo, where Dylan had stolen his Bluetooth home entertainment system. In the month before she died, Dayna was living a food stamp and pawnshop existence, on a mattress in the grandmother’s basement. The old woman was suffering from advanced Alzheimer’s and they were waiting for her to die so that they could take over the property. When Dayna preceded Granny in death, Dylan had a breakdown and I believe he was confined to a mental hospital. It did not matter to me—he was a foul smell on my daughter’s breeze, and when it blew past, it disappeared.
Dayna had veered far from the course we’d set for her and I believe to this day that her new direction was set by Ritalin itself: It has become glaringly obvious to me that if we telegraph to our children that we can solve their problems by handing them drugs, they will ultimately take that lesson to heart.
Dayna spent years after the birth of her son doing the rehab shuffle, entering a score of recovery programs and sober homes, beginning so many Twelve Step cycles that I lost count. Each facility had its strategy for success and all of them failed. I’ll mention only the worst and the best of them.
The worst first: After two DUIs and a prison-avoidance game plan, Dayna was placed at a detox facility in Flint called ‘New Path’. A cursory glance at the New Path roster showed two staff therapists, one called Star and the other called Ebony, neither with letters after their name to indicate qualifications. I visited every Sunday and arrived amid perpetual chaos: Long waits in a bathroom-sized entry hall and a receptionist in purple sweats who could hardly be bothered to put down her carryout ribs long enough to glance at my identification. Visits occurred within a dreary day room equipped with a prehistoric Memorex television set, the same place they held their twice-daily group therapy sessions.
According to Dayna, these sessions were free-form, open-ended dialogues without guidance or focus and involved (in her words) ‘fucked-up women sharing stories about how badly they fucked up after getting fucked up and counting the hours until they could get fucked up again.’
It was supposed to be a righteous alternative to incarceration, but in many ways, it was worse than incarceration, because jail, at least, does not pay lip service to unreachable stars. Most New Path residents had been charged with crimes related to methamphetamine, and between therapy sessions, they hung around a picnic table in a small courtyard and chain-smoked Newports and Marlboro 100s. Not that it matters, but I will note for the record that smoking kills more people in a day than meth does in a year.
If you grew up in relative affluence as Dayna did, the place was a diorama of how your life should not unfold: Shoddy, used-up and appointed with cheap, brutal, banal, bureaucratic bullshit. But if you grew up like most of her fellow New Pathers did, it was not a set piece—it was their universe, yesterday, today and likely tomorrow.
Dayna was at New Path for three months and relapsed the day she was released.
In contrast to this court-ordered clown show was the final place where Dayna sought help: A quiet, out-patient group program held inside a grand old Tudor on Elm Park Boulevard in Pleasant Ridge.
It was the home of Dr. Jillian Geisler, a scrappy psychologist in her early fifties who’d written multiple books on cognitive bias and prospect theory before having her professional self-confidence undermined when her son Simon died of a heroin overdose at 22.
Now she wrote exclusively about the psychology of addiction and had opened up her great room to a select group of hard-core addicts, nearly all the children of wealth—kids who had sought their summits and found them submerged beneath a black sea. Not that the addictions of inner-city children are any less tragic, but they seem to spring from different root systems.
I was happy to cover Jillian’s steep fees after I got to know her a bit: Like me, she was well-educated, single and pragmatic. She had as much therapeutic advice for parents as she did for our junkie kids. At our first meeting, she urged me to look at Dayna in multiple dimensions (as I had throughout her early life) and to see that in only of them was she an addict. And that was the dimension we would work to collapse. To me, this was physics, and so, a concept I could wrap my head around.
Recovery has many guises, but like babies, all addicts crave warmth and security—something that ice-cold New Path and all the useless clinics in between had failed to consider. “Substance learns to define someone’s life,” Jillian said, “especially to the addict herself. Every pursuit beyond getting high is grey-noise background static. It takes us—travelers from the dimension of sobriety—to steer them back to earth.”
Jillian had a thin, almost delicate exterior and a wiry-tough interior, and had either of us been gay, I think we’d have wound up lovers. In private, over several dinners and pressure-cooker meetings over cocktails, she told me everything she could remember about Simon and the intractable depression that had begun in his early teens. And how, in his short life, he’d found nothing truly gratifying except dope. Like Dayna, he’d resisted every attempt at intervention, and he’d taught his mother that ‘hitting rock bottom is a myth because things can always get worse until the day they really can’t, and that’s called death. When Dayna died (three weeks after dropping out of Jillian’s program and returning to Dylan) I called her before I called Avery or my parents. I did it because she knew. She knew the soundless abyss that opens when despair morphs into true horror; she knew the tone of the phone resounding into eternity as you take the call that all parents dread but few expect.
Dayna had a teal-blue Chevy Malibu, and once when she stopped by for what we both hoped would be a sober conversation about her future, she pulled a fifth of Jack Daniels Tennessee Fire from in her shoulder bag and got so mind-blowingly wasted that I had to call 911. By the time she’d been released from the emergency room I had removed, the battery from the car and the Malibu remained in my driveway, frozen in the instant, inanimate and empty, for the six weeks she had left to live.
After she died, the sight of that car made me forcibly and inexpressibly ill—it reminded me of an impatient pet waiting for its stupid owner to wake up and unlock the cage, unaware that the owner had died in her sleep. I put the battery back and started it, and I was overwhelmed, sucked down the unyielding wormhole: The smell of the car’s interior was pure, living Dayna; stale cigarette smoke and the low-rent perfume she wore because she’d rather spend money on booze than personal accessories.
A month after she died, I could no longer bear to look outside, and I asked Jillian if she’d be willing to sell the car for me. I didn’t want to do it myself—not because I feared it contained any bad mojo, but because I did not want to see the face of the individual whose scent would gradually replace Dayna’s.
Jillian instantly agreed and offered to send a tow truck. But I wanted to drive the Malibu to Pleasant Ridge myself. It was twenty minutes away, enough time for final farewells, not to my daughter, but her essence. I was ready to have her lingering air surround me one last time and, as a bison herd might, cradle me safely within its core. And perhaps it was a plea to Dayna to forgive me for not having found a way to do this for her.
When I searched the glovebox for the car’s title, I also found a CD—a mixtape that Dayna had done of her favourite songs. I listened as I drove, choking on the erupting tides of heartbreak that accompanied Joni Mitchell, Ani DiFranco, Indigo Girls and Shawn Colvin, my musical icons and the tunes I’d played for Dayna throughout her childhood. The final song came on as I pulled into Jillian’s neighbourhood, Rod Stewart’s preciously simple ‘Forever Young’, which is almost too sweet to bear. On that occasion, it nearly took away my breath, and it haunted me long after that moment, leaking from radios on random beaches, from tape loops in workout clubs, from overhead speakers in malls, perfect and pristinely painful. But it offered me a way out and I took it: To hold close to my heart an image of Dayna as a rambunctious child instead of the childlike adult she became. She will always be integral to my haunted future, of course, but as something still more profound—a sober, quiet and happy spirit ascending when there is nowhere deeper to fall.
In Jillian’s foyer, I fell into warm and secure arms. She led me gently to her great room, saying, “I know, honey: Death storms our fields and stomps out our children without accountability. But there’s an Achilles heel; you’ll see. Something that keeps death from becoming omnipotent. In all its might, in all its anger and all its malice, death has a fundamental weak spot.”
“What is it?” I heaved through sobs.
She said, “Death cannot prevent someone from having lived.”