You could say it started when I was seven, looking through slats on the venetian blinds from my bed at sunset. It was the bedroom I would share with my little sister, who wasn’t on earth yet; it was the blinds I’d grow to loathe, dusting them weekly because of Dad’s asthma. Those wicked metal slicers ripped my fingers, and then I’d have to clean up blood as well as dirt. But this was before chores, when I was still an only child, still Daddy’s little girl.
I stared at shades of pink and orange littering the horizon, the glare of the sun-ball blinding, and that may be the reason. Or, maybe not. New Jersey set crimson fires twice a day then, thanks to the smog from Esso’s nearby refineries. Their aerial effluent polluted lungs, but created spectacular skies.
As I looked harder, waves of color washed over me and I tasted strawberries and oranges. Then it happened. Jesus. Tall and regal and as real as the sun or the bed with its chenille spread that I loved to touch as I fell asleep. But it was too early to go to sleep. Too bright.
He wore white robes, long like a dress, and there was a brown beard, a subtle smile, and one hand raised in blessing beside his long blond curls. Just like the statues at church. He was pretty far away to be sure, but I think he had blue eyes like my mother’s. I knew this didn’t happen to just anyone. I was about to make my first holy communion, so I knew my catechism. And I knew a little about miracles, but that only happened to saints or people with pure hearts. And I doubted my heart. But still.
I held my breath, blinked, touched the spread, balled it in my right palm and released the slats so they slid together. I peeled them apart again and there he was. I think I held my breath a long time.
I thought about my outfit for my first holy communion, waiting in the closet. White. Patent leather mary-janes, lace-trimmed socks, and the new white dress smocked by Nana. My great-grandmother, Granny, gave me a pearl rosary that rested in my underwear drawer, which I wasn’t allowed to pray on until after. Nana had also hand sewn the white veil and fake flowers to circle my head like a crown. She had raised me my first five years, when I lived with her and Bop-Bop and Granny and Mom in Brooklyn because Dad was overseas in the war, and Mom was so sad missing him, she was almost invisible. I had tried on the veil in Brooklyn and liked how it covered my brown baloney curls. My hair was not romantically raven-dark or beautiful blond like Mom’s, nothing really special. It was simply brown, close to the color of Jesus’s beard.
Seeing Jesus like that made me know I was special though. Special in the way Nana and Granny and Bop-Bop treated me, with kindness and patience and truth, being as careful with my feelings as if they were made of butterfly wings. I’m not sure now why I thought I was special the night of that sighting, because Jesus didn’t walk on the clouds of color toward me. He didn’t wave his arm the way the Pope did in dispensing grace; he didn’t say anything. He simply stood there. But he didn’t go away either. At least not immediately.
The room filled with an evening spray like lilac, a kind of infusion of confidence that stilled my heart. I know now I should have asked him a question or two. Like, why me? Or was this a test? Was I truly special? Was I good? Was I a good girl? But I was young and shy and innocent, just at the beginning of life. I sat on the bed, stunned and overjoyed he had picked me.
I felt the same way years later when my husband asked me to marry him. Shocked and ecstatic that I was his first choice. There would be many others, but neither of us knew that then. I never thought to ask him if I was his good girl, or good enough. Nor did I ask questions of him. But that night of proposal I was not silent. I said Yes, oh yes. I love you.
Maybe if I’d asked questions of Jesus, or if I’d been smarter and not as good when it came time for marriage, things might have turned out differently. Maybe if I’d been mouthier with Jesus or my husband, or if I’d dared talk with either him, I might have avoided what happened. But that’s just regret and speculation and knowing how life turned. Everyone understands you don’t get a replay, unless you’re Hindu. And I was definitely Catholic at the time of Jesus.
I’d like to say I sprinted through my growing years, but truth is, I struggled. By high school I staggered. I was a good student, got great grades, just not high enough for Dad, a schoolteacher and harsh judge. I had a few geeky companions, bookworms all. As a young girl I’d had more friends, but then I changed schools three times, developed breasts, adolescence.
My family always considered me a dreamer, lacking common sense, and high-strung. I knew I was in the way at home, a burden. My parents had an encapsulating romantic love, exclusionary. They adored one another, a kind of unquestioning worship I’d search for all my life. And find only with pet dogs.
I was eight when my sister, Naomi, came home from the hospital in her pink receiving blanket, little white cap, and adorable smile. Within a week, she began to smell like Danny, the brother who’d died from dysentery three years before. The living room with her bassinette grew that thick sweet odor which coated the back of my throat during Danny’s short life. Five weeks.
Naomi developed diarrhea too, runny and green like Danny’s, then Mom collapsed into tears. She didn’t bother to bathe, wore her bathrobe all day, stopped combing her hair, and tore her cuticles until they bled. Dad raged through the house when he came home, banging things and never, ever smiling. I stayed in my room when I wasn’t at school, stopped touching Naomi’s toes, walked the edge of the living room, and didn’t even say hello to the baby. I knew I’d carried something contagious and deadly to Danny, and I couldn’t risk being responsible for two dead babies.
I did whisper her name at night over and over before falling asleep. And she led the list of people I asked God to bless. Maybe the prayers helped, because she didn’t die. Or maybe because this time my parents got better doctors. Anyway Naomi recovered, but the odd thing is I have no recollection of her first year. I could draw you the wrinkles on my brother’s long thin toes. I can close my eyes and still see his face, the way after three weeks, his cheeks sank in, his eyes receded, with what I now know was severe dehydration. My fingers retain memory of his silk-soft skin, and my heart leaps to this day, knowing how he loved me, how he laughed and kicked his feet and let out weak cries whenever I passed him, touched his toes, tickled his belly.
I got a lot of beatings from Mom and Dad. Dad’s were scary because when he got on a roll you never knew if you’d survive, if you could start to breathe again. Or if you should. It was common in that era, beatings, plus we lived in a very blue-collar neighborhood. My father had a master’s degree in education, taught school, and was a Jew, which set us apart. All through grade school and junior high that fact left me at the mercy of classmates, even though I was raised Catholic.
We had our family routines. My sister and I lined up to greet Daddy when he returned from work. We didn’t have to courtesy exactly, but we had to act enthusiastic. Mostly we were afraid. What if we’d done something wrong that even mother didn’t know about? He’d ferret it out. Would I get the belt? The brush? My sister was too little to get the beating. Besides, I was supposed to have watched her.
Dad wasn’t all bad. He loved science and taught me to care for wounded creatures. We had a box or pen in the backyard with broke-wing birds or a snake that someone ran over, or an abandoned baby raccoon. I learned to use an eyedropper to feed the baby robins neighbors would bring to our house. I wasn’t afraid to hold the snakes and let them slither through my hands and wrap my arms. Dad said I was brave. Learning from him, making mistakes even, as long as I didn’t kill anything, was okay. It one of the few times I felt at ease around him, outdoors, where anyone could see us and I knew he wouldn’t go off.
Dad was also funny. He played practical jokes and made fun of people so we could all laugh. When it was just the family, he’d use me as the butt of his jokes. You’re old enough to learn to laugh at yourself. Or he’d hide and jump out, frightening a scream from me and then fall down laughing.
He’s teaching you a sense of humor, something I don’t have. Be grateful, Mom said, Catholic patriarchy shining her face. He dressed in mother’s clothes every once in awhile and that upset me, but she laughed and they enjoyed it, so I swallowed the discomfort. The only time I got really embarrassed was when my cousins, aunts and uncles visited and he cross-dressed. Other people never found his “antics” as amusing as Mother. Then again, they didn’t love him the way she did.
We lived in a tiny apartment in northern New Jersey, a cluttered, claustrophobic space with a minute bathroom, two tiny bedrooms, and a living room busy with patterns: figures on the wallpaper, floral drapes, chairs and couch covered in different prints, and an Oriental rug. We had a miniature dinette and dollhouse, space-for-one kitchen.
I had chores: set the table, dry the dishes, take out the trash, mind my sister, fill the pot of water balanced on the heater below the grate, in the dark hall between bathroom and bedrooms. Nasty thing could have held a dragon. If the water level got low the pot spit, smoked and burned your face like crazy as you angled the pitcher, closed your eyes, hoped.
My sister, mother and I went to mass every Sunday. After my first holy communion, I went to confession too, reciting a string of small infractions. I spoke back to Mother, stuck my tongue out when her back was turned, cursed under my breath, fell asleep before saying my prayers, had bad thoughts.
Dad’s asthma captured everyone’s attention. The rescue squad were chronic visitors when I hit puberty. Ambulance men danced over him, flat on the living room floor in a dead faint. He’d already sucked hard on the mask attached to the giant green oxygen tank Mom rolled out from their bedroom. She boiled countless pots of water with his needles for injections, but the medicine didn’t stop the attacks. And the attacks were my fault. I was naughty, defied him, had mouthed off. I hadn’t cleaned the toilet well enough, I left toothpaste on the sink. Most times I had no idea what I’d done wrong, maybe not gotten the right screw driver fast enough, not said, Thank you after a spanking.
My sister and I were never supposed to upset him because that could trigger an attack and he could die. The older I got, the more about me there was to hate. I was dirty, disgusting, a girl. I tried to be good, I really did, but I never made the grade. Naomi stole candy from the closet, took things and broke them, lied about it, stuck her tongue out and never got caught, didn’t upset my father like I did.
I admit there were times I defied him on purpose, hoping the threats of those scoldings would come true; he would die. I’d disappear when things got too awful. Not literally vanish, although I spent my entire eleventh year trying to figure out an airtight way to suicide. This in an era when children were happy, and no one discussed depression.
When he got on a roll with a beating or a screaming jag, throwing things at me, completely out of control and swearing I’ll kill you, you filthy, nasty…I’d go away. I’m not sure exactly where I went, and sometimes I’d find bruises I couldn’t relate to days later. I never heard voices, then. No one ordered me to kill him. Or myself, for that matter. That was my solution.
And I always came back. I wound up on the bed next to my sister at night, whether or not I’d finished supper and done the dishes. I’d be in my pajamas, lights out, and my sister, all sweetness then, would lay awake waiting for my return, extend her hand across the dark, welcome me. That was a comfort, our habit. I was never confident enough I would succeed with death, so I never swallowed the poison, jumped off the dam, found Dad’s hiding place for his gun. I’d already been hit by a car at ten, thrown into the air and knocked out cold. I was rushed to the hospital with a concussion, but didn’t die. Not foolproof enough.
My sister knew how to live in our home of lies and deceptions. She didn’t mind it as much as I did. Then again she hadn’t lived five years in the bosom of Nana and Granny where truth and irreverent humor were practiced daily. She only knew New Jersey rules.
Naomi wooed Dad, became so expert Mom told me to watch and learn. But I never wanted anything enough to lie and worm my way into his graces. A poodle skirt, my own record player, a ten-speed never meant that much. Books did, but I could get them out of the library. Instead, I tried very hard to be good, stay out of his way, away from his hands, keep doors shut while I changed, and if all else failed, I could go away.
My sister perfected her shtick. She waited until Dad relaxed after dinner, then crawled into his lap, nestling her head against his shirt. He loved her. I often sat nearby on the couch, but maybe because I was too big to rest on him, or because I was not well behaved enough, I was not welcomed. Or maybe it was because I didn’t trust him.
Two bathroom events stand out from that time. I was developing breasts, nubbins really, and bathed with my sister. We played in the tub, and because Naomi was with me, Dad left us alone.
One spring Sunday our Jersey City grandma, cousins, aunt and uncle visited. We were eating a late picnic lunch outside under the weeping willow when my father brought the photos he’d taken through the bathroom window. Naomi and me and soap bubbles.
I can still taste the bean salad coming up the back of my throat and hear Mom’s laughter, as my aunt and uncle averted their eyes. I don’t recall what Grandma said to her son, but I didn’t play with cousins that afternoon. I got sick in that same bathroom of treachery, and went directly to bed. No supper for such a squeamish young lady.
In high school I got periodic enemas. Mother administered the majority and I no longer recall how my parents knew about my stools, when I missed a day, or if I was constipated. I remember the huge amount of water in the bag and the instruction, despite my begging, crying, pleading, that I bend over, shut up, take it all, hold it. I can still feel the fullness in my belly, the way my gut would cramp and almost explode in protest. I especially remember the way my ass would clamp closed against the nozzle. Mother drove that water into me with determined force. And then, there was a Saturday when she took Naomi shoe shopping.
Once they’d driven away, Dad said, Let’s get all that crap out of you. He was far more aggressive than Mother, rammed the tip and tube up my anus without so much as a Here it comes, or Relax, open that sphincter. He poured the water in, hotter than usual, at record speed, and I vomited into the tub over which I was bent, like a child being spanked. I remember the feeling when he finally pulled out, the way it was familiar somehow, like when I was very small, and we were alone together. There was a body relief at the pulling out that I recognized. I did as I was told and held it and held it and held it. Finally he left the room and I emptied myself on the toilet, which I then cleaned thoroughly. I don’t think I looked at my father for a month. Then I forgot the incident entirely. Who wouldn’t? Fifteen years old, getting an enema from your father.
Later, decades later, I asked Mom about the enemas, about the spankings and bare-assed beatings, and she said, Daddy never did anything to hurt you. He was just toughening you up. He tried to teach you lessons, to prepare you for life. You’ll see, things will get much harder as you mature. She turned away, mumbling. Daddy loves you. I did the best I could.
By senior year in high school I was almost invisible, a study wart. My hair was permed by one of Mom’s friends; I wasn’t allowed to choose my own clothes or wear makeup. Rebellion wasn’t in my power, nor my imagination. The president of senior class asked me to a dance on Valentine’s Day and I fell immediately in love. He was handsome and popular, smart, suave, sophisticated, or so I believed at the time. I was gone. We rapidly became a couple and since we were both quite Catholic, there was an understanding about morality. By graduation we were going steady. I was excited to be salutatorian in a class of four hundred. My father was furious. Why not valedictorian? What about those 98s you kept bringing home in trig, couldn’t you have worked for those extra points? Mother praised me in private, tried to get him to back off, but she was no match. He blamed it on Johnny.
At prom I felt John through all the crinolines, strong against my belly while we slow-danced. We French kissed after prom for hours and I loved tasting his mouth, running my tongue around his slippery front teeth, touching tongues. I loved him. He didn’t even try to get to first base; like I said, we were Catholic. But I was so ignorant of sex that when I hadn’t gotten my period by summer’s end, I counted back and believed I was pregnant because of the French kissing. Inauspicious beginning for a girl who would pursue biology in college.
In the fall I was anxious to move away. I would miss Johnny desperately, and Naomi and Mom, but I’d won a full scholarship so my father wouldn’t have to pay. I really wanted to be a stewardess, anyone with a sense of adventure did then, but my education was paid for, and I agreed to spend a year studying. I didn’t know how thoroughly I’d be seduced with learning.
My parents seemed proud to drive me to Douglass. The weekend before I left we’d visited my grandparents in Brooklyn. Nana didn’t truck with a mind stuffed with facts and figures. She’d finished eighth grade, and there was Dad, working on his PhD, proof of the danger. Don’t forget cutie, the line’s fine between genius and crazy.
I push back the tent flap, inhale early morning sky, that merger of periwinkle/gray before it explodes to tangerine, magenta, cerise. My eyes sweep the campsite, week two at Rabbit Ears Pass outside Steamboat Springs. It’s 1972 and this is the transition we choose before the big adventure. I wonder briefly how sane it is to leave this pristine, magnificent state. All the wildness, the expanse, the way you can escape crowds here, be alone together. Colorado holds our early marital history, learning to make love, to grow adult, plus, those brutal years of medical training are behind me. This is the birthplace of our children. Our home during the daring protests against the Vietnam war, years I was constantly pregnant, nursing, birthing. There’s a healing quality in these mountains, they restore us over and over.
Sunshine stabs the silver-edged spruce, bleeding green to blue. Light filters through purple ponderosa boughs, which lift with the wind, release a vanilla fragrance over the campground. I try to imprint this physicality, this place, as something moves low in my belly, a subtle feeling like the first flutter of a pregnancy, as close to happy as I’ll be for years. I close my eyes, and the emotion’s gone.
The premonition was fast, furtive, like a bee sting or an injection. I braid my hair into one long dark line, pull it over my shoulder, brace my naked chest into the frigid morning, retreat back to the twin-mummy-bag, pull my worn flannel shirt on and grab the campfire-scorched jeans. I close the stuff-sack pillow gently to not disturb Winton, push my legs out of the tent, and struggle, wild and unladylike, to penetrate the stiff denim. My behind’s still wedged inside. It takes an oomph effort to stand. I stretch my arms high overhead, pull socks out of the hiking boots, slap them hard against my thigh, and jab my feet into them, doing a little dance against the cold soil. I struggle into the boots, my only pair. They’re from my medical school days in Philly, ancient cracked leather; they’ll be uncomfortable and rigid from the overnight temperature at altitude. They stand sentinel next to my husband’s new gray suede ones, and three tiny pairs of sneakers.
I light the camp stove to boil coffee, ease along the picnic table, and sort through the canvas bag that serves as toy box, purse, dry food cabinet, catchall. I find my journal and pen, but I cannot date this entry, although I suspect it’s still June. Late in the month. I no longer have crisp calendar time, one of the blessings and confusions of being liberated to nature.
Camping moves the body to primeval rhythms: fresh air stimulates real hunger for meals, a fatigue that encourages afternoon naps, early evening somnolence, and the startle dawn that tears dreams. No phone, no pagers, no hospital emergencies. We talk around the campfire after the children are in their sleeping bags, sometimes share a J or drinks with neighboring campers. Winston strums his guitar. But this, this morning solitude is a kind of ecstasy. No one, child or mate, will claim me for a full half-hour. The beloved, needful children, my adored husband are nested less than ten feet away, as I sip thick coffee, feel the balance of the pen in the curl of my hand, caress the white expanse of page. I notice shadows flit across it before looking up.
The sky’s blue now, backlighting distant dark wings. A pair of golden eagles plummet in skydives, their midair mating ritual. They bond for life and that knowledge is breath-stealing, unsettling. I should find fidelity comforting, natural, but it shivers me. Perhaps it’s permanence, stark contrast with our nomadic plans. This is not just another camping trip, this is a transcontinental car crossing, setting up and breaking camp daily for seven weeks before we join the Peace Corps, go to Uganda. Our U.S. adventure will precede the exodus, all done with three children under four, two of three in diapers. Oh, we’re going to Africa to do good; we will train medical assistants who’ll bring modern medicine to city slum dwellers and bush tribes.
The sun hits my hand, urges me to begin. I only have a few more minutes. I want to record the animal I saw last night, sketch it: the long lean body of a hare, upright on its haunches, short arms, small head with thin, peaked ears. But the fur was red, like a fox, and it had a fox’s voluptuous gray tail. I pointed to this chimera near the fire, but nobody else saw it. We’d had more than a few tokes and I was high, but still, to be chosen as the only witness. Weird. Maybe it was an omen.
As I stroke a few lines on the page I realize this will look like a Dr. Seuss animal so I stop, recap the pen. I think of the regularity of my “normal” life, overly busy, structured to a fastidious schedule. Minute-by-minute Denver was dictated by hospital and home, an uneasy compromise with no sense of balance. One side always tilted down. I was dedicated to desperately ill children, attended staff conferences, ward rounds, lectures, then my children, their dinners, spinal taps, bone marrows, evening baths, oncology board, holding the hand of a dying child, reading bedtime stories, relaxing, rarely, at home with my husband. Now, this reprieve.
A flicker catches the corner of my vision. I turn from the solid glaze of the page as small fingers knead the edge of the tent flap. My daughter’s curls elope, dancing along the fawn-faded canvas like leaves in the wind. Behind her the tent is sleep encrusted. She belongs here, safe in the woods, and I hold my breath, suddenly fearful as I was at the sighting last night that something strange is happening, something I cannot control, can’t quite comprehend. But I know with certainty she will be taken from me in some kind of cataclysm. Soon.
Her voice ripples, barely audible, so we can stay alone for a few more moments. She will not disturb her brothers and father. “Mommy, come Mommy.”
Her arms stretch up as I close the space and scoop her onto my hip, nuzzle coffee breath into her hair, hug her tight. She straddles my waist in her footed sleeper, secure as we walk to a spotlight of sun. Our time.
She blinks against the light’s intensity, points to a shape, barely discernable in the distance, a form among the trees. A deer in shadow, it freezes. We all stop breathing, not daring to risk, not even to share this treasure with the boys.
She wriggles off my hip, moves over rocks and roots to where it was. Then she slip-slides down the embankment toward the creek, the direction it ran.
“Hungry, Abbey?” I call softly, trying to get her to return to reality with me.
But she’s a child, a baby really, and will not tolerate ordinary. “Mommy, come. Come now.” She flips her head toward the creek.
“Oh, honey, it’s gone. You can’t possibly catch it.”
“No catch Mommy, come see. You ‘n me. Now.”
She wants to prolong this interval, and maybe we will find a feather, a wildflower. It’s as though she senses we haven’t much time. I catch up with her baby waddle in a few long strides and sweep her back on my hip. We descend the rest of the slope and are embraced by the sweet sound of green mountain water. Moss rocks and foam splinter the light into tiny rainbows. On the bank a clutter of periwinkle butterflies rest, wings moving rarely until Abbey gets down and scatters them. They carve the air with the precision of a scalpel. I’m forged to this moment and released, finally, from my murderous doctor routine, the missed diagnoses, the rare success with the child whose tumor recurs, the way I ignored friends, all those unread novels, poetry barely scanned before sleep. I push back the loss of my kitchen, the no more home.
I had tried hard to recreate Nana’s home out West. Her brownstone had a big bay window, which held Granny’s rocker, where I was cuddled into my fifth year, rocking late afternoons as we waited for my grandfather. Our Denver square had a similar wrap-around window in the dining room. I’d even hung lace curtains, recited Granny’s tales at our table. I told of her early years as livery maid in Greenwich Village, her work as charwoman after her husband ran off. But Winston said this was unhealthy, that the children were too young to follow, but if they did understand, the stories might stain them. “This is the West, we don’t speak about broken homes or poverty; it’s all new starts and hopeful futures here.”
I switched to when my father and I walked the creek in the Catskills when I was little, how he showed me pollywogs changing to frogs, taught me to feed baby birds, handle snakes, distinguish conglomerates from crystal and sedimentary rocks. I didn’t fear family genetics then, the way I would forever watch and worry later.
And Winston and I created new rituals. I lit candles and murmured blessings over our home every Friday at sundown. Winston sliced challah and brought fresh flowers each Sabbath, although he wasn’t Jewish. I made meals from scratch most evenings, no matter how frazzled the day. I believed routines could protect us; a sort of sacrifice to the gods of stability.
But here now, in the same kind of dapple that curtains provide, I’m near a stream with one small, fragile daughter. We’re caught in a spell. I pull her up again, tight to my torso as her brothers call “Mommy.” We mount the hill to the table, where I put her down. “Don’t go back to the stream, okay?”
Before moving to the tent I pick up the journal to hide it, as a page falls open. It’s in a handwriting I don’t recognize. I rappel a cliff rope shears to threads I clutch fragments. I shut it, stuff it deep in the catchall and put on the pot of water for oatmeal. The boys emerge and I bound to them, kneel down, feel their supple bones dent my belly and breasts as I circle an arm around each son. Winston looks out at us and Abbey crawls back inside to cuddle.
Somewhere near my shoulder blades my shirt billows behind me, as if structures were floating the cloth up and away. I throw my thick braid back down my spine, to where it ends at my butt and it flattens the fabric against my skin. There must’ve been a breeze. Winston comes out, pulling on his jeans, releases Abbey to the ground with one arm, fluffs his hair with the other hand. I lean on tiptoe to kiss him, but he turns his head, says, “Uhn, uhn, night-breath. Don’t.” My lips brush air.
I return to the table, mix powdered milk and sugar in his cup before pouring the coffee. I can do this, I can. I’ve done all these things people said I couldn’t. I’m thirty. I’m a doctor, a pediatric oncologist. I’m married to a great, handsome physician, still madly in love. We have three fabulous children. He’ll never leave me. Us.
I hear the ruffle of feathers, as if wings were unfolding, so close I imagine they brush my back. I think eagles as I reach behind my heart, but there’s nothing unusual.
I offer win his coffee as he returns from the car and snaps open the map.
The room spins, a vortex of improprieties. First there’s the act, mesmerizing, orgasmic, a gasp. Then the still dark penetration, the depth. Broken. The wrench is from real to somewhere.
Like a clown-faced street-mime I palpate invisible walls, separate from everything. But in truth, there is no longer any me to separate. I’m gone. There is no thing to separate from, because sound, vision, odor, touch, terror merge with my new form. It feels like someone else slipped into my skin. A relief in a way. I’m out of time, out of place, definitely out of body.
There’s no way to verify this. Pinching my ear lobe, an old trick Dad taught me as he dug stones out of my knee, doesn’t work. It doesn’t help because there is no me, so how can I, who no longer am, tell if I’m being pinched? And am I being pinched if I am not?
In madness you cannot say you’re this or that. Depressed, ignored, wild with joy, fear-filled, enraged. That implies an: I think therefore I am mentality. The experience is more swirling, an almost apathetic confusion, loss of self by self. Yet some sensate core remains, writhes against what’s happening. This shell is an observer wittingly, unwittingly, witlessly hangs to see how it will turn out. No suicide yet.
There’s no distinction between the steps you mechanically climb, the clown face applied for others, and the angels who fly, issue instructions, caress, comfort, seduce. There’s no solace that you, the used-to-be-I, can also fly. At light speed you traverse corridors, which others lumber down. At the least discomfort, the approach of a new doctor, the cajole in a nurse’s voice trying to get you to trust, you can just bolt. Eject through walls and locked doors. You watch this process from the ceiling, as the doctor begins a conversation with someone who now inhabits what was your body.
The problem is getting back. An old, old game, played since forever. As a young girl the call of overwhelm, fear, boredom was less frequent. Out-of-here worked both ways. Now getting back requires more than an act of will, more than a conscious assertion of I am. It needs luck, or a surge of energy you no longer possess.
I need to return, desperately. I must collect my children and get out of here. I want to reassure them I’m okay; they’re okay. I need to hold them close, smell their breath, chortle against their bellies until they laugh uncontrollably.
But I cannot get back. I don’t know who has my body, my face, my voice. I don’t even know where I am. It’s cut off; cut out. And the fear is paralyzing. Sophisticates call it paranoia. Terror’s too tame a word. It’s a gagging, slimy invasive panic. It’s huge; it’s evil. I fall to a tucked fetal position on the floor. Blank eyes eye the crib, the blankets, my children. They stride, giants over my head and feet, laughing at this upside down version of Mommy. They are big and whoever is down here is very, very tiny. Like a bug, she whimpers.
It’s as I knew, because I heard it laid down by voices days before. There will be a wrenching of the children. They’ll be removed from you, cared for by others. Competent adults.
My children? I cannot, will not, could never ever never permit such an atrocity. It would be a kind of extermination. I’ll cease without them.
Days sift by. I wander in and out. Sold into slavery. Why not? I’m hip, attractive, fairly intelligent, a bit hairy, but fertile, definitely fertile. Three babies in four years.
Then I’m back. It’s from before. I’m in a diner with Win, eating a grease-gobbed hamburger, fidgeting across the table from master. Knowing I was just somewhere else, somewhere bad. I start to tell him about the voices, the warnings about the children, but he shushes me, reaches across the Formica. “Here, honey, take a hit. It’s good dope, mellow out.”
I do as I’m told. We go home. But it’s not home; it’s my parents’ house, and it’s just before my sister’s wedding. We’ve driven across the United States in seven weeks, breaking and making camp daily, the children up nights with bronchitis, then diarrhea. I’m beyond exhaustion. Now I must prepare for my sister’s ceremony. I don’t want to.
I crush that rebellion, clasp the children close. Will they sever them from me? Will they take them? Will they take me? Who are they?
“Honey, come, on. You’re blowing things out of proportion. It’s just nerves. What are you afraid of? What could possibly hurt you?”
Can fear drive you out of your mind, out of your body? Of course not. I’m a doctor, I know better. And at first it gets better. I identify the source of my fear. I am not loveable. I never have been. I’m a danger to my husband’s career. There’s some damage going on in my mind, his area of expertise. He doesn’t love me. Why else would he fuck around the way he does? It doesn’t matter what any of them say, I know the truth.
They all lie. They always lie. My parents say oily proper lines everyone longs to hear, but they don’t mean it. They’ve perfected this their whole lives. I will not live in this sewer of deception.
“Winston, we need to leave. I don’t want the children contaminated by hypocrisy. Let’s go.”
“What do you mean? Your parents are the only people making sense. You’re uptight, Jo. You’re starting to sound incoherent. Here, take one of your mother’s tranquilizers. It’ll calm you.”
I swallow, dutiful wife. Before I go under, Nana starts. The woman protected me from my father’s rages when we visited Brooklyn, ate his slimy soft-boiled eggs from my plate on the sly, hid me from his groping hands. “Your children are out of control. Rude, wild. Your husband’s right, you need to get some discipline and order into those little ones. You weren’t raised a hippie, Johanna. It’s ridiculous for you to work out of the house. Your husband makes a good income. Go back West and be a mother, a wife; it’s enough. Didn’t I warn you about too much education?”
Winston, love of my life, I want you to put your arms around me, save me. I’ll ignore what I know in my cells about you and your philandering. I want to lay my head on your lap, fold in, be protected. Let me give you my mind, you’re a renowned therapist, make me okay. Clarify the world for me, please.
We’re going to Africa next month to do what JFK encouraged, make the world a better place. We’ll live in Kampala to train medical assistants. We’ll have lots of household help. I’ll have more time with the children, much more time. Wonderful. This is how I solve our marriage. Mired in a strange world, we’ll either become totally alienated and fly apart, or we’ll resurrect love.
And all right, there’s fear associated with Africa. Bringing three small children to a land of primitives, is that smart? Idi Amin’s in charge, but he hasn’t gone completely bonkers yet. What about native practices, all those vigorous young men, what if Winston wants me to do it with them? He’s suggested swinging in the past, but I refused. “Sex is heightened by sharing,” he intoned, all authority. I remained a prude. Perhaps it’s time to experiment.
Then, after the wedding, before the wedding actually, we begin. Sex gets more intense as I get more intense. I insist. He arranges, pushes. We drink each other dry. We drink. We smoke, we exult. We stink of love. We embrace and come, again and again and again. The meldings erase my terror. But then I worry, will he bring others? How can I find the courage to deny him, to say I only want him? Will he shuck me if I refuse? Will he love me if I agree?
He’s rational, complete, a man, a physician, a psychiatrist, more a personable person, will he win the children? I had them. They gored out of me. How could it happen that they might not be mine?
The pronouncements said they’ll take my children for a long while. Then give them back. Much later. When they’re grown. Or was it when I’m grown? And who are they anyway? Where are they? If I knew I could avoid them. Do they plan to return me? And if so, to whom?
Today he calls Washington, not quite out of earshot. Idi Amin evicted the Peace Corps volunteers from his country. He’s expelled 60,000 Asians who lived in Uganda for generations. The Peace Corps offers Kenya, but I only hear Win’s polite, “Oh, I don’t think that will work.” I assume he’s refusing a change in our departure date. We have all our shots. I packed a trunk in Denver for all of us, shipped it to New York. We’re scheduled to learn Swahili by immersion after the wedding.
We visit friends from Denver who relocated to northern Jersey. It’s wonderful to see them, to be with like-minded anti-war folk again. The children play easily with their old friends. We smoke a lot of dope, drink three bottles of wine, make love. Eleven times in one night. He must love me. My fears are ridiculous.
I’m on the nursery floor. My friend comes and clothes me. She herds me into the dining room and lights my first cigarette. The drag in sears my throat, silences shock screams, a searing pain, the come sobs. All is silent as smoke leaves my chest, weaves above my body.
Tobacco wires me, drives me around enough bends that I retain my name, for awhile. Laced with coffee and tobacco after alcohol and marijuana and loving, there’s a fleeting normal. I say, “Goodbye. Thanks for the hospitality.” I don’t know I’m saying goodbye to my children. I think we’re taking them with us, that I hallucinated the phone call to D. C. I am fuzzily escorted to the car, driven over the GW Bridge to the hospital. I am committed.
Stomping around on marble floors, a lot of male doctors honey me. Mumbo jumbo of schizophrenia. Rambling discussions: loss of contact with reality; verb salad; talks to walls; thought disorder; cannot tell real from imagined; severe emotional lability; inappropriate social interaction; tips her head, snarls at doors, windows. May be a danger to herself or others.
Fuck that shit. Me Jane. Me Doctor. These towering rooms with four-story ceilings make everyone small. This is their reality. You are insignificant. You are zero. I am zero. I am tired. I have lost. I am lost.
The elevator expels us to the whorehouse. I was right all along. Sold. A posh, Upper East Side brothel. I whisper to my keeper-husband. “Please don’t leave me. I’m so afraid. I’d rather go with you.” I pull his sleeve, notice the severe tremor in my hand, but he shakes his head sadly, slaps my purse against my abdomen. His tone holds a host of emotions, tenderness, regret, love, longing, guilt, embarrassment, love, power, “You’ll have a much more interesting time than I will.”
The elevator slams him away. I reach inside the purse to get a handkerchief and my fingers brush Abbey’s plush rabbit. “Oh, no, Win,” I wail, facing the inset mirrors of the elevator doors that fragment my face and body. I’m in a metaphor fun-house.
A nurse, all starched and correct, sidles beside me. “Can I help, Johanna? Do you need something?” Her voice is sugar, Daddy’s. I shake my head no, even though I’m not so far gone that I don’t realize I need plenty. This is the beginning of my escape, but of course I don’t know that. I’m all innocence. My behavior is sheer instinct. I close the purse, smile at her, “I’m fine. A doctor you know, familiar with hospitals. I’m good.”
Ghosts slide along the corridors, I can fly with them if I choose. I meet the late-night admitting doctor. Uber-pregnant. I commiserate with her, “I know how tired you are. I remember third trimester. But it’ll all be worth it. Babies are wonderful. They’re such a treasure. Ohmygod, where are mine?”
She looks scared. Did the appearance of me frighten her? Does she know insanity’s contagious?
She slams her chart shut. The interview is over. But she never asked a single question. I did something to offend. Uh-oh.
Did I ask her how she knew I was insane and didn’t have a brain tumor? Was I stupid enough to challenge her? Or did I only think those questions? Can she read my mind? Of course she can, if I can fly. Dumbass.
But how does she know, how sure is she of my diagnosis? No one performed a physical, no one took x-rays of my head. No tests were done downstairs, not even a routine blood draw. I still remember doctoring. She grabs my shoulder and half-pushes, half-shoves me to the examining room.
“No more questions. Be good.”
I sit on the crinkly paper on the table. “Please don’t use the tongue depressor, I can stick my tongue way out. You won’t need it, you can see easily.” I stretch my mouth wide, wider, pinch my eyes shut. “See?”
She places one swollen, damp palm on my forehead, pulls her other hand from behind her back and plunges the stick down my throat. Bitch.
And two things happen. A merciless skull-splitting pain circles my head, blinds me momentarily. It squeezes so tightly my brains will pop like an over-ripe pimple. It’s the worst pain ever. It isn’t mine. Not my mind. I don’t mind, Mommy; I’m being born.
Simultaneously, there’s an inelegant tortured scream of the greatest agony roiling down the hall. It goes on and on and on and on. Nurses and aides flock to the examining room to see who’s being murdered. Is the doctor in labor? They huddle around her. She looks pitiful, confused. The shrieking continues.
An orderly grabs my arm and walks me to a room, what will be my room. The victim’s still screaming. Surely someone else has taken up the cry. No one can hold his or her breath that long. The orderly presses down on my shoulders, like Daddy did, like Winston does sometimes to control my mouth, my speed. He pushes hard and I’m seated on the bed. My knees must have caved. The scream is over.
There were months and months in the prestigious nuthouse, so horror-filled they felt like molasses years, away from my children, committed. This was an era, 1972, when permanent incarceration for the insane was legal, practiced, and I was threatened with it. Eventually I earned a release. I was not close to normal, but I got out, heavily drugged, and wrestled the disease off and on for years. The drugs did nothing for the hallucinations, nothing to correct the way my mind worked, but they slowed body functions to those of an octogenarian. I got off them as soon as I could. And I’ve been lucky, extremely lucky, never re-hospitalized. I raised my children solo for fifteen years, worked full time in medicine, and treasure them every un-drugged day.