Sunday, March 27, 2011
Sample Sunday: A Cure for Suicidal Thoughts
Mom and I waited in what the hospital called a “family room” – one hundred square feet furnished in nineteenth-century funeral home. I was pretty sure I’d sat on the same sofa at my Grandmother Gordon’s wake. The walls had walnut-stained paneling, and there were no windows. Apparently, they didn’t want to remind the patients that the world was passing them by.
A nurse led a stooped woman hiding behind stringy hair into the room and helped her into a chair. I knew this was my sister, but it seemed impossible.
“Heidi?” my mom asked.
She raised her head but wouldn’t look at either of us.
“What’s wrong with her?” Mom asked the nurse.
“This is within the normal range of results following the procedure.”
“Have you spoken with her doctor yet, Mrs. Gordon?”
My mother shook her head.
“I’ll arrange for you to see him following your visit,” she said, quickly leaving the room.
My mother leaned forward and grabbed my sister’s hands in her own, palms up. The scars from her attempted suicide stood out on her wrists like pink inchworms. “Heidi?” she asked again. “Honey, look at me.”
My sister’s eyes slid past my mom to the gilded lamp in the corner of the room and then back to the door, never focusing on any single point.
“They must have her on some kind of sedatives or something,” I said, more to calm myself than her.
“You’re probably right,” she agreed. “Heidi, I’m sorry I haven’t been to see you, baby. I haven’t been well.”
My sister didn’t pull away, but she didn’t grasp my mother’s hands either. She seemed indifferent to Mom’s touch.
“Tim joined the service. He and John are both off at war now.” Mom hadn’t acknowledged that John was MIA since she’d come out of her stupor, and I hadn’t pushed her on that point. “Julie moved to San Francisco. We’ll probably hear her on the radio someday soon.” She persisted in believing that Julie was not a pothead, but a folk singer. “Do you have a radio, honey? Are you allowed to have one?” She waited for an answer; when there was none, she pushed on: “Can you believe that Ava has already graduated from high school? Time passes so fast, doesn’t it, Heidi?”
We might as well have been visiting an empty box – there was nothing inside of her anymore. I suffered through another fifteen minutes of my mother’s ever-more-desperate attempts to wring some response out of her. Finally, the nurse returned.
“Mrs. Gordon? Dr. Chesterton has time to see you for a few moments. Come on, Heidi. It’s time to go back to your room.” The nurse prodded her gently on the back and my sister stood up. The nurse stood behind her with a hand on each shoulder and guided her from the room ahead of us. We followed as if she were the shepherd. When we reached an intersection in the hallway, the nurse said, “Turn left here. Dr. Chesterton’s office is the third one on the right side of the hall.”
My mom went around the nurse and hugged my sister tightly, saying, “I’ll be back soon, honey. Just hang on a little longer. We’ll figure this out.” I’d only seen one zombie movie in my life, but my sister was doing a better impression of one than the actors had done in that film.
I followed Mom down the hall to the doctor’s office. A short, balding man with a long, sharp nose invited us in. He shook my mother’s hand and smiled at me apologetically.
“Your daughter suffered from acute depression and unmanageable moods, as I’m sure you are aware,” he said as soon as we’d sat down.
“She was depressed,” my mother agreed.
“I’m sure you’re aware that she continued to attempt to inflict bodily harm to herself after her arrival here?”
“No,” Mom said. “I wasn’t aware of that.”
“I was under the impression that your husband had kept you informed about Heidi’s condition.”
“I’ve been…unwell. My husband has been sheltering me from certain uncomfortable truths.”
His brow creased. “Then perhaps you should have this conversation with him.”
“Unfortunately, the end of our marriage was one of the things he didn’t want to mention to me,” my mother said, arching an ironic eyebrow.
“I see. Well, then…because of your daughter’s ongoing mental distress and our inability to control her moods with medication, your husband authorized a lobotomy to be performed on Heidi.”
I had read One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest; I knew immediately that nothing could be done to return Heidi to normal. What had been done was permanent – we should be glad she was even alive. I felt tears well up in my eyes as I started mourning for the sister I had lost.
My mother, though, had never even known that such things were done. “What does that mean? You removed something from her? What?”
“Her brain, Mom,” I said as the first tears fell. “They removed her brain.”
My mom’s jaw dropped open and her eyes grew wide. “That’s barbaric!”
“Now, now, Mrs. Gordon. It’s not like that. This operation helped your daughter. Can’t you see that? She’s no longer distressed, she no longer wants to hurt herself—”
“You’re a monster!” Mom exclaimed. “A Dr. Mengele! Frankenstein! How could you do such a thing?”
“She’s much better off, Mrs. Gordon.”
“She’s not even alive anymore!”
“In cases such as your daughter’s—”
“People should stay the hell away from places like this! Ava, take me home.”