Sunday, October 24, 2010


When I was younger, I was a detective searching for signs of a woman who'd disappeared, which was interesting, considering that the woman lived at my address. My mother hadn't disappeared in the conventional sense. Her face hadn't appeared on the back of a milk carton. This was before the days of Amber Alert, and she was too old for that sort of all-points bulletin anyway. She'd gone to the land of men, which meant that she was gone mentally to that place where women go when they are single mothers and miss the touch of a man. She'd gone to Randy Land, which was like CandyLand, only without the sweets.

He was a co-worker, a white polyester-clad worker bee like her at the local nursing home. I don't remember them dating. I don't remember courtship. I remember him moving in all at once, as if the date and the co-habitation occurred on the same day, and instead of bringing candy and chocolates, he seemed to come bearing a car load of belongings. His belongings intermixed with our own, and just as quickly, his need for her began its competition with a child's need for her mother. It seemed that every time I was hungry, he was more hungry. Every time, I had a story, he had a better story. When I was hurting from a skinned knee or some unseeable inner wound, she gave her attention to an unwounded man.

So I often found myself looking for her in the strangest places. When I knew she was downstairs, cuddled up on the couch with him, I searched the neighborhood. When they were at Smitty's Tavern, I looked for her in the apartment. I searched for her in her loopy handwritten notes. I searched for her in the refrigerator in the carton of eggs that became the fried egg sandwich dinners I'd become an expert making. I searched for her by picking up the phone and pretending that she was calling me to tell me she was coming home. I searched for her in her bedroom, which had been my wonderland and was now strictly off limits.

Historical documents refer to B.C. (before Christ), and my mind often went to the time period I dubbed B.R.--Before Randy. The Bedroom B.R.was a place to come running early in the morning. I'd climb into bed beside my mother and revel in all that was woman: silky nighties or bare skin--breasts I wondered at, in awe of dark aureoles and black bush. If she had been out the night before, she might still have the residue of night about her: mascara and eyeliner migrated below lashes, cheeks and lips semi-rouged, perfume whispering come hither half-heartedly. Before Randy, she wasn't adverse to me trying on clothes or standing before her dresser and scooping up handfuls of pearls and gold chains and baubles that reminded me of cartoons--pirates, wenches, chests full of treasure, and walking planks.

Sparkling more than any jewel was my mother's porcelain Elvis. When you turned the base, it plinked out "Love Me Tender." My mom loved Elvis, and when you are a little girl, you love what your mother loves. In coming years, I would not love Elvis. I would make fun of this puffy-haired, sparkly jumpsuited man. I would say he couldn't act. I would condemn him for his sneer and for his suggestive swiveling. I would laugh at the thought that anyone could worship a fat, sweaty side-burned Elvis whose scarf alone could bring a girl to her knees. In coming years, I wouldn't even be able to say for sure if I loved a mother who chose a man over me; I would not be sure if I could forgive her for being the reason I went, at the age of 7 to live with my grandmother.

But in those B.R. Days, when forgiveness wasn't a word yet invented, I begged my mom to tell me about the time she went to see him in concert. She told me they sold vials of his sweat. The thought of it made my nose scrunch. Still, I asked her questions I already knew the answers to: "Did YOU buy sweat?" and "Did YOU catch his scarf?" The answer was always no, but I liked to imagine it anyway: Elvis singing only to my mother. And he did, sort of, as long as we kept that figurine tightly wound. The notes would wrap us both in nostalgia, and she would sing. She knew all the words by heart. I wanted to hold Elvis in my hands and watch him twirl in perfect circles. I wanted to present him to her. I wanted her, for once, to have something she wanted and for what she wanted never to leave. She'd warn me to be careful. "Put it down," she'd say. "It's not a toy." Reverent, as if setting up some holy altar, I would set The King back on his throne.

But during one of those nights when I was investigating a missing person's report, I found myself where I was not supposed to be. After Randy, the room wasn't sacred anymore, anyway. The door was always closed now. On those mornings when I wanted to pad across the cold linoleum and crawl into my mom's bed, I couldn't now because he was there. I couldn't see them, but I could hear them. And it was a confusing sound. It was a needy sound, the type when pups still blind try to find their mother's milk. It almost sounded like pain, and there were many times when I wanted to fling open the door and clobber him, but even then, I think I knew that pain sounds sometimes like pleasure.

On one of the last nights I'd live beneath that roof and before anyone had a chance to call the three of us that terrible word--family--I twisted Elvis until he could twist no more. And he played and played and played. And I sang the song like I knew the words. My world was topsy-turvy, but Elvis would always be constant: perfect pompadour, his bee-stung bottom lip, the guitar literally glued to his hands. And then I could hear the sound of keys jangling in a lock, the sound of laughter, the sound of a man and a woman's voice outside the front door. I had to make it right. I had to make like everything was in its proper place. I was her good girl, so I was going to set the still-turning bisque crooner onto the dresser, but an edge caught. My hands weren't big enough.

The song fell to the floor and continued to play, though distorted among the wreckage. Solemn, I waited for them to find me. I waited for her to mete out my punishment. Surely, a spanking was in order. A grounding. Maybe she'd take away some toy I loved. She picked up the pieces--right guitar-playing hand in one of her hands and the rest in her other hand. She said something about super glue. She said something about tomorrow. She disappeared. She left me stinging with lack punishment. More stinging still: she hadn't even noticed the crime.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

What's Essential?

It's that which we take for granted. It's the things we don't notice or value until those things are taken from us. I think of this every Sunday when I make the hour-long trek to Orofino. For an hour, I have the privilege of listening to the radio station of my choice, or when the distance takes that away from me, I have the choice to listen to silence or to pop in a cassette tape (a CD is not a choice in my 1995 Toyota Corolla). I have the choice to sing along, badly. I have the choice to brood about whatever is worrying me. I have the choice to cast my worries out and away, somewhere along a bend in the road or out over the Clearwater--my worries as thin as the filament the fishermen cast from their boats or their solitary spots on the shore.
I think of what's essential when I see the railroad cars and the blackberry brambles and the crooked path the patients at State Hospital North built. I think what's essential is the ability to travel by car, rail, plane or boat when I choose to, with my only concerns being destination and for how long I'll be gone. I think what a blessing it is to be able to walk any path I choose, whether it's that rick-rack sidewalk or Warner Avenue with my dog or across America to raise awareness for a cause. Even those blackberry brambles are essential. Not a month ago, I parked my car and walked along the railroad track and picked those blackberries. They were big as the end of my thumb and sweet, and I had every right to stain my hands with their juices, to scratch my skin with their briars, and to feel their weight on my tongue. I was free to sit and eat them as naturally as the bear or the deer. I was free to gather them and take them home to bake later into a pie.
Contrast this with the tall Americano with one shot of raspberry flavoring that's sitting in my car's cup holder. That's what the patient requested. In the past, what's essential to her has been anything she can get from the outside. I've brought her these coffees before. The first time, I brought the coffee and later found out the second-degree burns on her hands were from her pouring hot coffee on herself--intentionally. I've always known that safety is essential, but I rarely think about keeping one safe from one's self, which obviously is vital too.
I've brought banana nut muffins. I've brought cheese quesadillas and bags of chocolate and more recently a box of graham crackers and a jar of vanilla frosting. Food is essential, but comfort food, moreso. It isn't about nutrients or the food pyramid. They are fattening and not the best fuel, but they are essential to the preservation of one girl and the life she used to know outside the hospital.
The State Hospital North, however, begs to differ on these items being essential. As of October 1, I can no longer bring some of these foods and drinks. They cannot be homemade. They cannot be something wrapped in foil or covered over in a plastic coffee cup lid. They must be manufactured, sealed. When I motion to the coffee I brought (not knowing the new rule) and tell her they'll be confiscating it, she says what she has said before when the take away something she finds essential: "That's bullshit." I distract her from what she's lost by asking her what she'd like next time. Nacho cheese Doritos are essential.
Generally, they place us in a room with 3 locked doors. The room contains the essentials: a table, two chairs, a phone (which the worker instructs me in front of the patient that I can use to call in case I need help), a garbage can, and a clock. The clock ticks, and the red second hand reminds me how essential it is that a person can direct her own use of time. I think that clock must be vast as the ocean for her. I feel a certain sense of guilt that I waste time doing nothing, and yet if I was in here and had nothing to do, I'd feel the difference between my own ability to do nothing with time versus not having the option to fill the time with activities.
Sanity is essential, though I've known my share of writers, artists, and musicians who would not accept sanity as a gift because insanity is a gift that keeps on giving, inspiration-wise. I've had my own bouts with trying to figure out what is real and what is not. I've crawled under the dark quilt of depression and found it simultaneously smothering and comforting. I've taken my share of antidepressants and visted my share of green-sweatered nodders, the ones who say nothing but take copious notes. But it's always been situational, explainable. My sadness could be pinned on the death of my grandmother or the loss of a job or a boyfriend who drove me hard until he wrecked me. Bad times passed, and that quilt got folded and put away. I have never, though, known the sort of darkness that doesn't go away. Keeping the darkness away is essential.
When I started the project, I was told that regular visits and the ability to do art was essential to the patient's mental health. It's something I take for granted. I can do it any time I want to. And I'm not limited on projects. Only my imagination limits what I can do. like In here, patients can paint on a shirt with puffy paint or tool a belt or sew, and if you don't enjoy those activities, well, you're out of luck. In the 3 hours we spend together, we glue, paint, and rip. We rip because I'm not allowed to bring scissors. If we paint, we need to use the cheapest paintbrushes possible, the type without a metal ring that holds the bristles in place. The metal ring is considered dangerous. And with all these restrictions on materials, I realize what is essential. I realize there's no need for fancy products or tools. In some ways, it's the ultimate "fuck you" to the long list of rules, because god damn it, we made something beautiful anyway. Making beauty out of the ordinary is essential.
During my most recent visit, I watched her write messages in the cards we made, watched as she ran her tongue across the envelope flap, sealed it, and handed it to me. She asked me to mail what she'd made, and I realized that the most essential thing is having someone to send that letter to. Mail it, blog it, say it on Facebook, say it into the phone or say it to the face closest to yours. We all need a recipient, that someone who hears what you're saying--right or wrong, crazy or sane, boring or infinitely interesting--and is so glad you're around to say it because you are essential, and the world wouldn't be the same if you weren't in it.