Thursday, July 19, 2018

First House*

First House
Ann Arbor, Michigan

Yesterday had been eventful. It was a big day. In just one day, Sarah and I had put down a payment on our first house. We signed the preliminary papers allowing “them” to check out our credit and general honesty.  That had gone well. It was routine for the bankers but it was not routine for us.  It thrilled Sarah and me.

We giggled in our Ford Pinto as we drove back through the snowy streets of Ann Arbor.
“Each of the girls will have their own room.”
I can’t wait to show it to them. 
I love the big basement. Those stairs near the kitchen seem scary. We can keep the laundry down there and eventually fix it up as a playroom.  We can dump all the toys down there.
“It even has a built-in dishwasher. Can you believe that?”

I dropped Sarah off at the University. She waded through a snowdrift.  She had chained her ancient bike to a No Parking Sign.  She wore a parka and boots. I had on the same outfit.   This was Michigan in the winter.  We didn’t care: We were buying our first house.

Idrove back to work. Although still in graduate school, I worked for a small consulting firm.  These kinds of businesses grow around major universities like parasites.  Or were they like barnacles that attach to the big graduate schools?  I was working on my Ph.D. and the company was busy harvesting federal money.  It was all efficient.

Mary and Bill ran the company, two young Ph.D.’s who had created their own business: OASIS (Organization for Applied Science In Society).  Despite the big name, it only employedabout five people.

OASIS was on the second floor above a retail business in Ann Arbor. I walked in stamping the snow from my boots.  I chatted with Mary in an empty conference room.

“Mary, how do you set the price for something like this project?  We don’t know how many hours it will take.”

Don’t worry we will just double the estimate.  Remember, they call these contracts COST Plus.  

“How does that work?”I asked.  “It seems weird, I know you told me, but…” The contract language confused me.

Well, we put in our invoice each month and then we may tack on a 25% mark-up. That is the plus partof cost-plus.  So the more we work and the higher our costs, the more money we make. Cool? They guarantee us profit.

It still didn’t seem right to me.

I was a young graduate student with a wife and two kids.  I was about to buy a house. This contract was a very goodthing!

Mary invited her business partner, Bill, to join us in the conference room.  He shut the door.  “OhOh.,I thought.

“Mike, we know you are buying a house, but we can’t give any more salary until you get your Ph.D.”
“What!”  “But your other partners only have BAs. Why do I have to finish?”  I was getting wound up. 
“So do you give me less work or less responsibility without my degree?” 
“No,”they both replied in unison. “We expect the same from you.”
“We are doing this for you, Mike.” “Trust us.” If you earn too much, you might never finish.

My face flushed with anger.  I felt righteous.

Graduate school folklore indicatedthat the more you earn before you finish schoolthe less likely you were to finish. But I was angry. I thought: “To hell with folklore.  These two are cheating me.” 

“This is not fair,” I said aloud.  
I stood up and left the room slamming the door. I rushed to my office gathering my coat and a few belongings.
I stumbled back into the conference room. 
“OK, if my work is inferior because I don’t have a Ph.D., then I quit.” 
Mary said, “Oh come on Mike. You don’t mean that.”
“Yes, I do” and with that I walked out of the building.

I believe it was the poet William Bendix who said: “What a revoltinsituation this is.”

In one day, I had signed to buy a house, and the same day, I quit my job.


Sarah and I were living in a rented house. It was inferior to our potential new home.  It had only 2bedrooms and a special feature. It was tilted. If you set your child’s ball down on the living room floor, it would roll of its own volition.  The whole place tilted.
We sat on the high end of the room in our thrift store couch and tried to figure out what to do.

We sat quietly.
“Jesus, what are wegoing to do?”
“They will want to do an employment verification.”
Sarah said, “My job won’t be enough.”
We sat silently, worrying together.

It was the very next morning I sought solace at the cafe with my grilled cheese.

Gloria,who I casually knew came in and sat down next to me. I was clutching my coffee mug.  I pressed the warm cup against my face.  I did that when feeling anxious.  I was worrying intensely about money and the new house. I was off in anxiety-land when Gloria turned her stool toward me.

“Hey, Mike, do you know anyone who is looking for a job?”
If there had been a soundtrack orchestra, they would have played a great crescendo. Or perhaps two trumpets could have sounded.

“Well, yes, in fact I’m looking for a job.”

“Well, you know Saul Cooperwho runs the mental health center. They are on the top floor of this building. Why don’t you just go up and apply? You are more than qualified. I think he likes you.”

I dropped my sandwich, threw some money down and walked to the bank of elevators.  I shot up to the 8thfloor and asked to speak with Saul. 

As fate had ordained, we set the girls up in their own rooms. We filled the basement with all the stuffed animals.  The stairs to the basement were still scary. The stairwell light was poor. But we could fix all that.

Wednesday, July 18, 2018




I worked with a great group of friends at the mental health center in Ann Arbor, Michigan. We worked very hard at our jobs.  In 1972, I was a data analyst with a very early computer system.  I was in graduate school at the University. My friends and coworkers were doctors, nurses, social workers and a melange of administrative types in finance, accounting and human resources.  Every Friday afternoon someone would yell out:

“We will have the happy hour at Jimmies.”

This was not news. They always went out for drinks on Fridays. None-the-less whoever announced this non-news got an enthusiastic:

“I’m in.” “I’m In,” “Do you need a ride?” “Meet you there.” “Be careful it is snowing.”

I was 30 years old and different from most of my Co-workers. I was  marriedman with two daughters. The others were mostly single. So, with family duties, I rarely joined these mini-events on Friday.  But today, I did.

About 20 of us sat at the long table in the dimly lit bar.  The room was smoky. It was a loud scene.  I stamped my feet to shake off the snow as I walked in and took off my giant fur hooded blue Air Force parka. I sat down and wedged in between two pretty women.

I don’t know quite how it happened.  I’ve replayed this scene many times.  In the rhythm of such things, I ordered one drink after another.  As a parent, I felt a constant pressure to go home to my family, but this was so much fun.  We laughed. We argued and gossiped. We flirted.  

The pay phone in the corner seemed to be always busy. I watched the phone for a while, but as the evening wore on, I stopped worrying about checking in with my wife, Sarah.  

In only an hour, I was, by my standards, drunk. It was 5PM.  Normally, by this hour I would be home helping with the kids and dinner.  I felt guilty. Finallyyielded to guilt and abruptly stood up from the table.

“I’ve got to go home. It's late for me.”

“Oh, you can stay more, Mike
Others chorused “Stay!” “Sit down!”

No, I didn’t responsibly wait around and become less drunk. No, I stood and went straight back to my car.

Once outside, I thought the blast of the cold winter air would help me.  Now snow was falling giving everything that special white glow. I stood at the edge of my car and scooped up some icy slush and rubbed my face. 

When I started the car, the radio blasted a cassette tape I already had in the car. It the music was The Dark Side of the Moon.
I rolled down the windows. The evening commute had begun.

“Ah good.”
“A wet face and the blast of air will work.”,  I mumbled to myself.

I edged out of the slippery parking lot and drove to our home on newly plowed streets. Streams of cars crawled along. Headlights glared through the frosty windows.  The road showed only by the tire tracks amidst white newly fallen snow.  I followed the tail lights carefully. 

I made it home safely because everyone was driving so slowly.

I didn’t see the note waiting for me until I pulled open the ice-covered storm door.  

The note hung on a nail. It flipped frantically in the wind. The hand-written   note  read:

Call Emma—Sarah has taken Suzanne to the hospital.”

I didn’t go into the house. I jumped back in my car, now pumped with adrenaline.  Emma lived a block away, and she came to her door quickly and told me to go straight to the emergency room. 

She said only: “Your daughter, Suzanne, fell down your stairs. Go to the ER.”

I didn’t say more. I turned and returned to my car.

As I headed to the ER, my headlights showed the blackened drifts of snow and the partially blocked residential streets. I kept the windows down and could hear the crunching of car tires around me. It was early evening and everyone was driving home.  I turned off the radio.

I talked to myself.  I spoke in a loud clear voice.

“OK, you must calm down.”
“You have been drinking and you have to get to the hospital.”

The icy wind burned my face and numbed my hands.

“Calm down. Calm down.”
“Get there.”
“I should be there.”
“I should have been home.”
I thought, What has happened? I knew I had to suppress my fear.

I knew nothing. I only knew that my wife Sarah had taken daughter Suzanne to the hospital.

We had only moved into our house a few weeks ago.  As the saying went, “we were still in boxes.” This was our first real home. We had moved from an apartment to a house with three bedrooms. Each of our daughters, Suzanne 4 and Laura 6, were ecstatic to have their own bedroom.  We put all of their toys and games in the unfinished but dry basement. 

I arrived at the University of Michigan hospital.  I parked oddly near the emergency room entrance.  I worried about my parking as I went through the automatic doors. 

Still in my parka, I seized the edge of the ER nursing station and asked for Suzanne.  I could see her name on the big whiteboard behind the reception desk.

“Your daughter, Suzanne is in pediatric intensive care on the 8th floor.” “Take the blue elevator, then follow the red line.”

At the intensive care unit, Sarah came to my side, and we went to a small waiting area.

Parents and family crowded the room with pain and grief.  Someone had vainly tried to make the room home-like with couches and floor lamps. The light was low. Several people were smoking. The smoke made the room seem more oppressive.

Everyone in the room was waiting for the next word about their ill or injured children. Over several days, I would hear each story.  Some children would die.

Sarah and I sat on a vinyl couch together.  It hissed and sagged as it tumbled us into the middle. We could whisper. Sarah began the retelling:

“I was reading in the living room while Suzanne played on the floor.”
“I noticed Suzanne was not within sight and called out.”
“Suzanne, where are you?”  “Where are you, baby.”
“Suzanne, come here!”
“Suzanne?  Suzanne?”
“The house was silent except for the thumping of the dryer in the basement.”  

“I ran upstairs to check Suzanne’s room. I called Suzanne, Suzanne! 

Sarah paused her narration and began to sob quietly. Despite our whispers, others in the room were listening to her every word.

Sarah continued,
“Finally, I went to the basement stairs. I didn’t see her from the top of the stairs.”  There was no light in the stairwell. I yelled:
“Suzanna Bannana, you come here. Don’t hide from me!”

“I went down the stairs steadying myself on the stair-well wall. You know there was no railing.  When I was about halfway down the stairs, I looked over the edge and could see Suzanne curled up on the cement floor.”

“I picked her up and could feel something soft on the side of her head. She was unconscious.”
“She was limp and like a doll.”

Sarah told me she ran barefoot as she carried Suzanne along the icy streets to the home of our friend Emma. Her husband, Ernesto was a physician. By good fortune, Ernesto was at home at four in the afternoon. 

He came to the door. He briefly looked at Suzanne on the porch. He touched the soft spot on her head: Ernesto spoke to his wife Emma:
“Here are the keys, drive Sarah and Suzanne to the emergency room right now.”

He grabbed a blanket from inside the house, urging Emma and Sarah towards the car.

Sarah spoke with that strange politeness we all have drilled into our heads: “Oh, I can drive myself over.” “I hate to bother you. 

“NO!” Ernesto said loudly.  Sarah understood.  As Emma drove, she agreed to pick up our other daughter Laura and put a note for me on our front door.

I was somewhere, but no one knew where I was.  There was no way to reach me.

In the ICU, Sarah explained to me she had not been there long before I arrived and she (now we) waited to hear from Suzanne’s physician.

A nurse appeared with the doctor. They had some paperwork.  The doctor told us that Suzanne had a fractured skull and that they might need to do surgery. We had to sign authorizations, and we did.
I said to Sarah, “We have to sign it.”

I later learned from friends that this physician was in the last week of a three-year neurosurgery residency.  He had learned a lot. We were fortunate. 

The doctor told us Suzanne had had a major seizure and that the trauma caused her brain to swell. He explained that he might need to do surgery. He wanted to wait to see if they could reduce the swelling with only medications.

Over the next seven days, we waited.  Our daughter, Laura, went to stay with good friends and Sarah and I stood vigil in the hospital.  We went to the waiting room and joined the parents of the Pediatric ICU.  We drank coffee. We shared food brought by friends.  We overhead each other’s news.  Sometimes parents disappeared without explanation. Other times, folks made joyous farewells as they took their child home.

In a few days, as the swelling in her brain subsided, we tried to talk with Suzanne. Whenever we approached her, she would scream and have what we might call a fit.

In any other setting, a 4-year-old having fit meant very little. 
“I want the yellow cup.”
“I want a hot dog not grilled cheese. 
“I want candy.”

But Suzanne screamed at the sight of us, Sarah and Mike, her parents.

Was this some kind of brain damage? We could barely voice our fears to each other.

A nurse approached us:

“You may want to just let us care for Suzanne for a few days.”
“Do you see she is calm until you come near her?”
She continued to explain:
“Remember, she was home and happy and then suddenly woke up in this scary place. She has pain.  In her world, you two are responsible for everything. She is angry at you!  This will pass. We see it all the time. It will be ok.”

We were both reassured by the nurse. Indeed, wesaw that the nursing staff could pick up Suzanne, play with her and care for her without incident.  For the moment, we were triggering the “fits. ”

While the hospital days continued, I went home to look at the scene of the accident.

It was a gray two story home with drifts of snow piled near the temporarily abandoned front steps. Inside, the stairs to the basement were dark and there was no handrail. Worse still about halfway down, lacking a railing, you could fall over the side. This is exactly what Suzanne had done. She fell about ten feet down to a cement floor.

I was not a skilled builder, but I was determined to make sure Suzanne would not return home to this dangerous place.

I bought timber, wallboard, stair treads, a railing system, lights and began fanatically working late into the night. In only a day, I completed the project.  Although I was forever after afraid of those stairs, they were now more safe.

Suzanne came home after a week.  Immediately, she wanted to go downstairs where her piles of stuffed animals lived.  We both went with her.