I was in eighth grade the fall that Dad drank the mercury. Mr. S, our science teacher who gave each of us a blob of it in an envelope to take home, probably never imagined that decades later, at a Tacoma-area school, someone would drop an old barometer with mercury in it and cause the school to close down for days while experts in protective clothing cleaned up the hazard.
I dumped mine out on the kitchen counter, chased it with my finger and tried to touch its essence. When I was bored with it, I herded it into a glass and left it by the refrigerator.
But, when Dad drank the mercury, no one surrounded him with yellow caution ribbon or ordered a shutdown of our house. I was the only person who raised an alarm. I was upset, not because it might be toxic, but because I had to go to school and explain to Mr. S what happened to my science project.
Dad was the editor of the Wheaton Gazette in rural Minnesota. He wrote a weekly column for the paper called File’n Forget. He was a man of humor—a notorious punster who called the world “his oyster.”
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But Dad was also known for waking up with a great thirst, raiding the refrigerator and drinking things indiscriminately.
“How could you drink my mercury? Didn’t you notice what was in the glass?”
“I did notice that I felt like I was swallowing a raw oyster,” he quipped.
Our family doctor was stumped. Of all the heart attacks and sore throats and broken bones he’d treated, no one had ever admitted to drinking a blob of mercury. No one knew exactly what to do except have Dad come into the clinic.
During the visit, the doctor discovered that Dad had high blood pressure, was overweight and was diabetic (hence the enormous thirst). No one came from the state to declare him a hazard. No one reprimanded Mr. S for giving us the mercury. Winter blew in, and Dad put sucrose in his coffee instead of sugar and started high-blood-pressure medication.
Then in December, Dad suffered a major stroke that left him paralyzed on his left side. He was 54 years old. When he came home from the hospital, I knew that he would be changed, but no one told me about the damage to his brain that left his thinking muddled and his emotions on a roller coaster.
The owners of the Gazette realized that Dad couldn’t handle the paper anymore. Less than a year after Dad drank the mercury, the paper was sold to new owners. He kept his sense of humor as he wrote his last File’n Forget as editor of the Wheaton Gazette: “Like most of us, what I know now might fill a small book, what I don’t know would fill a couple of libraries.”
But he couldn’t stay away from the newspaper business. He loved the smell of the ink and the clinking sound of the linotype as it molded the lead type. He loved the layout and the design of the paper. So, he bought a weekly newspaper in another part of the state. We moved, and I left behind the only friends and home I’d ever known.
Three years after Dad drank the mercury, Mom died and he sold the paper. A massive stroke took him several years later.
I learned that life is not predictable and that you can never go back to what you had. But I also learned that you need to face whatever comes next with optimism and hope. And if that fails, a pun might help.
I’ve often wondered how much the moment that I decided to herd the mercury into the glass and leave it by the refrigerator played into the disintegration of our family. Mom once reassured me that if it wasn’t for the mercury, we never would have gotten Dad to the doctor.
I’m sure that if Dad had heard this remark, the punster in him would have said, “Your mother always finds the quicksilver lining.” For that, I am grateful.
Linda Norlander of Tacoma is a writer and a retired nurse who worked for many years to improve end-of-life care. She is one of six reader columnists who write for this page. Reach her by email at firstname.lastname@example.org