Perhaps we are not meant to understand the workings of an ill mind. It is enough to endure its notions – enter scenes that make no sense, seem unsafe. I have hated that it happened. As much as I have been taught by your life how to love. Was trained to never betray, raised to remember whatever occurred was not really you.
Chotsie, give me something to eat.
This is your voice in the past, although it is not you. It is an old sentence that has outlived your life. One that persists through time; continues into the present with all the sureness it held back then. Sometimes I still hear these words faintly when – through memory – your dementia appears, creeps up like fog or comes out of nowhere riding the back of sudden wind. Like today, as it entered unexpectedly. Just as I rise…. thoughts come of your brain damage, how shortly thereafter you called me your deceased sister Chotsie. How often over the next 30 years you thought I was she, the one who actually died from rheumatic fever at age twelve, twelve years before I was born.
I said get me something! Chotsie?
This is you, my father.
Starting the first year after your heart operation, when I am 14 years old and you 49. We are walking home from Aunt Dee and Uncle Mario’s, managing the three blocks from their house to ours, from #907 to #1143. Both of us cold, wrapped in our coats. Walking through what should have been a glorious day: trees lining the curb, grasses shifting in shades of emerald and lime. Instead our eyes are ignoring the earth, overlooking the songs above wherever a bird touches a branch. We do not notice the maples that arc in autumn splendor. Not any leaves in their turning so beautiful, their undersides flickering over us like excited hands, like the palms of outstretched hands, fingers, greeting us.
Instead we head home slow and unsure, my arm slipped through yours, guiding your steps. I lead with a heart that is vacant; because of your own ruined mind I have nothing to say. After all, this is what the living do when overwhelmed. Shut things out, find a way. Or shut down. Or slip into sickness wearing the look of loss. Or the one becomes like the other who is ill, pairing to form a twin tragedy. Side-by-side as a side effect, as if by growing sick with another, one finds a mutual place to survive.
Like with you.
Like me with your delusions, acquiescing to seek common ground – to hold on to the parent I lost.
This is exactly what happened. During our walks that season, I gave in to dementia until my own eyes dulled. Whatever life force they carried just left, minus the soul. Even so there were moments I grew alert enough to see with clarity. This happened especially when you entered another time frame or could not recognize me. I could never accept I was Chotsie, the sister you often insisted I was. The one with golden locks who skipped about the dining room table, her dress swirling, a satin sash wrapped to the back, tied in a bow.
Ring around the rosy, pockets full of posies.
Her little legs springing into a lively gait, her little voice singing ashes, ashes before the fever came on. Her skinned knees…. We all fall down!
This is a scene our relatives speak of, which reminds me of another family story from before I was born. After her death in 1946, at the house on Green Avenue that summer, Chotsie’s friends still played in the yard. Scurrying about in a game of tag, round and round the giant pine on the lawn, their starched dresses loosening in the wind, their soft hair blowing, all before they knocked on Grandmother’s door. They wanted to say hello, to visit with family even for a moment. But Grandmother would shoo them away, her hand flying to the air like a snapped dishtowel before turning from them with all her strength and with all the fight left in her. She walked back through the dark corridor and up the stairs, past the forbidden bedroom to reach her very own. She grew bitter, closing the door to her daughter’s room after her death, and no one was allowed to enter.
I’m not Chotsie.
What do you mean you’re not Chotsie?
I’m your daughter.
The season is ending and the ground is quickening with coldness when there begins the browning of leaves, their gestures fading just as ourselves. It is November, the month we become true shades of each other. Our lives are cold, our faces erased of the bright stories we used to wear. You have cortical blindness, another outcome of the tragedy. Still we keep passing the trees and their muteness, what they bear witness to and won’t ever tell. Afternoons, after school, we head home from Aunt Dee’s while leaves fall like tossed confetti. We keep a safe distance between the houses and ourselves, from certain neighbors who watch, their curtains torn back. We shuffle side by side while the winds pry us open. The fearless wind; our lives laid bare. You, wearing a drained expression. Me, thinning in a way that I look outstretched.
Yes, I thinned drastically. Yes, starved myself until I almost died. It began with a small notion that season. Soon after our lives changed, when Mom needed work and Aunt Dee offered to care for you during the day. I remained steadfast, walking to school through Saddler’s Woods, taking the frost-bitten footpath which wove among the old trees. And it happened on a day not committed to a calendar, that there was a notion to lose weight. It was an urge, let’s say. A distraction I had never before considered.
It set my young thoughts on a different course.
Mornings in the woods, passing the three-hundred-year-old beech, I would reach into my satchel and lift out my lunch. Toss it so the bag would soar through air. It could land in the brambles along the trail or sail past to where a low stream meandered among stones. Every day flinging the lunch, the sandwiches flying. I was losing weight but gaining in terms of control, pound by pound as a way of gaining back my life. This led to whole days of not eating.
I said I want something now.
I’m not Chotsie.
I was starving with as much determination as you sought food. Not that you were hungry. This was another outcome of oxygen deprivation during surgery. Anoxia they called it, which damaged your frontal lobe – the area of appetite in your brain – so that you never received signals that said your stomach was full. No short-term memory. No sense of time.
The heart-lung machine was relatively new in the 1970s. You were the hospital’s seventh patient to be at the mercy of this loud animal that throbbed and pulsed, puffed like a grand lung letting the air in and out.
We will never know the full story. But at some undisclosed moment this machine could have failed. Its important flow of air cut off while the surgeons worked, exposing your heart under their bright lights, that sweet red thing – lifting it out of your chest to hold in their plump hands, the very color of love. While the brain turned vacant, was being swept out. No air, beginning with borderline areas and then spreading into denser, more centralized zones. It was something the team never knew as they kept your chest open, probed the cavity where all your compassion and soft pity moved.
While the brain, the brain kept being emptied of memories, abilities. Everything was sucked out: family members, friends, acquaintances. One after the other taking leave until, well, the mind was blank. All of your accumulated joy. Every second of fatherhood. While the brain, the brain was emptied.
Only the deepest recesses went unharmed, zones where time did not pass and monsters lived. Still the surgeons remained oblivious.
They took veins from your arms and legs, sewed them onto coronary arteries, grafting them.
There were risks, as with any new invention. In later years, Mom reluctantly shared with me – her voice trailing off as if she could not fully return to that distant time – that you were actually becoming conscious at some point during the eight-hour operation. She said the doctor eventually told her your body offered a sign. That your mind was coming up, as if out of a hypnotic trance, escalating into awareness so that you were given more than enough anesthesia to lower you to sleep.
She said that once you were moved out of ICU to a room on the fifth floor, the anesthesiologist checked on you daily. He would walk in wearing a dropped face. Sorrow lowered his eyes. He kept doing this. Standing there, not moving, until the day his face became readable.
His mouth undid itself.
He admitted to widespread injuries.
He said the doctors were blaming him for inducing you to a depth from which you could not rise.
What can I say? he said. What was I to do? He was coming to light. What was I to do, but to give him more? These were his words.
Of all the stories recorded, this one I think, should be included in medical history. Not for its faults or facts, but its honesty. Of his coming in, of his saying these very words about the life he ruined.
No. I can’t be. I’m not.
I said give me something to eat!
Through the woods that year, going softly each morning, it was strange how the very path I walked was also part of the Underground Railroad where slaves once ran through the night, their bodies dodging the moon that shone through the spaces between trees. The white moon chasing them and still they kept on, going the distances they were willing to endure to set themselves free. Doing what was needed to reclaim their lives, dashing, scrambling in the undergrowth. I was walking across the same earth, getting as far as I could from becoming Chotsie, escaping the awful strangeness at home. Seeking my own freedom by way of not eating, dwindling enough that I might disappear.
Pale, I no longer breathed regularly. My heart was so infused with sorrow, seemed its aching tale could never be freed, could never let out that I might come back to myself and then into my life. To what lengths does one go to remove oneself from what seems too hard? It is the beating heart that determines this, that wins over or destroys a life. The area of love that guides one to either leave or find ways to accept what happens.
Like what happened with Grandfather when passing his deceased daughter’s room, becoming overwhelmed by his own feelings of loss. It was said the closed door called more attention to Chotsie’s death, a longing in his fingers to go for the knob. And that this went on. And that Grandmother’s bitterness made the house unbearable. Until he could not bare the tension and the day came when the forbidden room was too much. Then out the back door he went. Out to the garage in a sudden frenzy for wood, his hands upset, gathering up long boards, piling them in his arms. How quickly he nailed them over the door that belonged to his little daughter. Hammering, then plastering over, to whiteout the memory.
I see now, this many years later, how my own heart handled you. It conjured a distraction, turned my attention to starving so living was not a concern. This was apparent by my protruding bones, flesh fading from my limbs and cheeks, by the hollow quality of my cheeks, by the silence of my eyes. Still, you had no knowledge of my weight loss or walks that detailed our lives that autumn. No inkling of winter, its freezing winds.
You had no awareness of how you could shape-shift your own appearance and change personality. Or the fact that this would happen while alone with you in the house. After walking you home, during the two-hour wait until Mom returned from work when, out of nowhere, some dark recess of your mind would part open, like a boulder rolled back from a cave where a monster lived. You shuffled from the den into the kitchen, walking in the way of Frankenstein’s creation, acting it out. You would act it out, I said. I said I would be in the kitchen reading Mom’s note on how to heat a meal. Standing over the sink with my back turned while you came with your hands outward, eyes glaring. Eyes that had lost their shimmering goodness, their glint of dry humor. The qualities that held your family behind them, kept us safely locked in your look. Your eyes, turned into Frankenstein’s creation, as if this was child’s play, as if you were back in time scaring your little sister. Coming for me, but not fast, not dangerous, more like sleepwalking so that I could always get away. I would slip by you quickly, my thin frame sliding under your outstretched arms.
The attic bedroom was my refuge where I could conquer hunger by watching the sky. I could huddle on the floor. Sit with my body pressed against the heater mounted to the wall and spend time looking out the low window at a bird in sudden flight. A bird could bring me back to myself, what little was left of me that year. An iridescent raven or black crow. Any offering of sky. Purple sliver of sundown and from it a feeling of peace.
The year we fell down Mom did too, but not in the way you might think. Her inclination was to move toward your illness, not to fear suffering but take it on to where I sensed her heart raised to rare heights. Up, into a state of grace, the kind that arises from rare devotion. This was even noted by your doctor whom I met during one of your many subsequent hospital stays. It was the day I rode the elevator down to the lobby and it stopped on a floor, the door parted, and in he stepped. The two of us were standing before each other. And I must have been see-through in that moment, because as our eyes locked his turned aware. He stared hard as if parting me open, penetrating to a place where your dementia flared. Seeing then, every awful thing inside – your delusions, your wife’s constant care-giving – before he winced and withdrew from those scenes in me, back to his own safe world, back into the silence of our ride, ending it with your mother is a saint. The door then opened. His words began trailing us. The sentence duplicated as we went separate ways. Your mother is a saint … is a saint … a saint … saint.
One sentence, yet it resounded many more years.
In the house it never occurred to us to look at how we were living, let alone speak of it out loud. In one sense, silence dignified our family. But in another, maybe we denied our emotions because, at the slightest admission, we might collapse. Our endurance was more like the very trees I passed to and from school. Maples, that continuously lost their leaves and said nothing about it. The cold beech in the woods taking a wintry stance. We housed your behavior like a tree’s expanding rings, each incident secreted inside the circumference of ourselves.
I want to eat. I said I’m hungry.
Thinking back, the attic was a place to imagine cherry blossoms all off the tree. This is actually a fond image I have as a toddler wobbling on the pink petaled lawn of our first home. You’re in the background smiling, sitting on a step. This is one of several images I could easily return to, each time I disappeared up the attic stairs.
There, I could choose any season to awaken, until the child in me ached to live in the world. Until she was as willing to run outside the frail body in which she was trapped, hurtle over a white fence of bones, cross the thin border of skin and breathe the air once more.
In the attic I could relive any day I had had with a well father. It would not be hard to choose from several recollections. Simply, I would enter inside myself. Call up any past moment willing to live on present land.
I could turn real in that room anything willing to loosen itself from time.
And be with it easily and often enough, to hold onto life.
Therése Halscheid‘s essays have appeared in magazines such as The Gettysburg Review, Tampa Review, Columbia Journal, and South Loop, among others. Recent awards include First place in Welcome Table Press‘s 2014 Creative Nonfiction Contest. Her latest poetry collection is Frozen Latitudes (Press 53, 2014).
She teaches for Atlantic Cape Community College and has taught in varied settings including the Ural Mountains of Russia and Alaska’s far north where she lived with an Inupiaq Eskimo tribe.
For many years Therése has been writing on the road by way of house-sitting. Her photography chronicles her journey and has been in several juried shows. Visit her website at ThereseHalscheid dot com.