We were on something like the 15th round of rummy, and my father was winning decisively. He cracked a wide, toothy grin as he laid his cards on the table. “That’s 321 for BaBa, and 227 for String Bean,” he said, tallying the ledger we were keeping on a piece of scrap paper.
Before he finished writing the numbers, he began a rapid succession of anecdotes about his first car. And his second. And his third. He reached for a magazine to show me the vintage Mustang he said he was planning to buy my mother for their 45th wedding anniversary, which, he reminded me, was just six months away. Then he began speaking Sicilian, instructing me to repeat after him: “Napeladan mangia pane!” (“People from Naples eat bread.”) “Calabrese testa dura!” (“People from Calabria have thick heads.”) My father has the most amazing blue eyes, and right then they were wide and eager, like an overexcited child’s. He was rambling, and the inflections of his voice betrayed sheer manic joy. It was a mood completely incongruous with our setting.
We were playing our card game at the Psychiatric Emergency Screening Services, or PESS, a small locked-down unit in the community hospital near my parents’ apartment in Somerville, N.J. Harsh fluorescent lighting fell on cracked and faded yellow walls. A disheveled, rail-thin woman paced and wept in the room across the way. Down the hall, a police officer guarded locked double doors.
It was early December 2010. That August, my father, who was 69, became abruptly and deeply paranoid. Convinced that nameless people were trying to kill him, he slept no more than an hour or two a night and started drinking after five years of sobriety. When his suspicions grew to include his immediate family, he became violent and threatened suicide. At one point, he tried to jump out of the car as my mother was driving down the highway on the way to the doctor’s office. On another day, he poured motor oil over her windshield as she was pulling out of the garage. More than once, he hit her. More than once, he threatened to burn the house down.
By JENEEN INTERLANDI, The New York Times