BY JEFF BURT
This may be Hanley’s last year to be vital, and not a vital statistic. She’s my granddaughter, my responsibility for the next year, and has mental illness. In the popular press, in jokes, we say everyone has a mental disease, a psychiatric illness. However, most of us get along, mildly joyous, resilient and lightly depressed. Hanley does not.
I am latest in the round robin of caretakers, nurturers, therapists, rehabilitators, and loved ones to try rescuing her from herself, from addictions, from addicted friends, and from self-harm. I have taken her to my unworked ranch, mostly some wide thistle fields, sagging fences, a few weathered wood buildings, and a home of three rooms and too many windows, about one-quarter mile inland from the coast. I have no intent to rehabilitate her.
My ranch is not the idyllic set that some naturalists might think can restore Hanley without medical and mental intervention. It’s harsh, almost unyielding. Nature does not give here. It takes. The nearest town is ten miles, the nearest city forty. The land runs long. My stride runs short. My kids call me a slow walker. I tell them it’s patience.
Hanley’s seventeen, enslaved to either psychotropic drugs that stabilize, or wilder, addictive cocktails of drugs that both elate and sedate her. She paints in graphics on a computer, and in tattoos on herself. On her prescribed meds, she is stable, the health staff says, if stable means letting those who love her find rest, because she is stable only in that she is inert. She is unquestionably safer, and I am thankful for that. But on her meds, she lacks effort, talent, curiosity, and the stunning images that venture from her fingertips no longer rise to the page or the monitor.
Meds. Witch-dunking. Wife-beating. Laudanum. Electric shock. Lobotomy. I wonder if as a society we’ve just found a cleverer way to sever the soul from a woman’s body, whether by self-addiction or court-ordered meds. And it spreads--the doctor has prescribed me Valium for the anxiety of living with Hanley, something to reset my clock, make me placid, incapable of sensation for an hour or two. I don’t take them.
When I was growing up, Highway 23 separated the town from the fields of farms and one green grassy strip that led to a creek. It separated regimen and school logic from wandering and teacher-less exploration, and it separated our house from our neighbors across the street, the Flynns. My mother said the highway was as much an influence as any person, not so much a wall as a guidepost, marking things civilized or untamed, and I knew she meant Mrs. Flynn as well.
When I was 12, traipsing a field with Billy Flynn, his mother took a mudpuppy from the creek, flipped it up the bank, and laughed as it wriggled back to the water. She grabbed it and the sequence repeated, until she had done it so many times the mudpuppy gave up both sliding back to the creek and trying to get away in the water. Billy and I had grown tired of it long before the mudpuppy had.
She was neither obsessive nor compulsive to two twelve-year old boys, lacking the seriousness of her activity. She laughed to herself, muttered how mudpuppies were early forms of humans, tickled the amphibian, stroked it, let it crawl on the widening of her blue-and-white striped dress that made her look like she was at the beach in Massachusetts and not a field in Wisconsin, but after each intermission she’d return to the task not with diligence but wonder. For a friend’s mother, she was curious and fun. For a mother, she was the ball and chain of madness.
Madness—that’s what they called it, not mentally ill, or bipolar, or the older term possessed, which had been reserved for witches, and witches didn’t exist any longer except in history books and Halloween tales. Psychiatrists had treated Mrs. Flynn, institutionalized her several times for up to six weeks. She had returned being not Mrs. Flynn, of somber demeanor, brown hair curled and fluffed. But after a few weeks at her home, discarding her medication, Mrs. Flynn would return, hair pin straight, drawn almost one-third of the way across her face such that her left eye was partially concealed, bringing a nearly perpetual and dramatic flipping of her head from side to side to see. Joyful. Carefree. Artistic. Mad.
She hummed. She hummed incessantly. Sometimes you could tell it was a song. Sometimes you could tell it wasn’t a song, just notes. Sometimes it wasn’t even notes, just a long croaking sound, low in her throat, like a bullfrog that got stuck singing. She knew I was fascinated by it. She took my fingers to the side of her throat, pressed them in, and began to hum.
“Can you feel music?” she asked. “Like an accordion or a squeezebox or a bagpipe?”
Then she took the mudpuppy and squeezed it so hard I thought its guts would pop out. It wheezed.
She placed my fingers on the mudpuppy’s throat. “Can you feel the music? It’s there, always waiting to come out. Every living thing has that hum. Even this grass,” she said, grabbing a long blade and stroking it. “Can you hear it?” she said, holding the blade to my ear with my pinkie finger against it as she rubbed. “It’s a song, a song of this weed growing by the creek.”
I fell in love with her right then, but the kind of love that stands about a block away, admires, and doesn’t get too close.
I fell out of love with her right after, as she kept her tight grip on the mudpuppy and in a minute, it died.
What mother kills an animal? An amphibian, the early form of human life?
“It’s already laid its eggs, you know. Its life is over except to breed in the fall and lay eggs again in June, and it’s already done that a time or two.” She carefully slipped the mudpuppy back into the creek water.
I looked at the red gills to see if the water might revive them, but they stayed closed, not a flip nor a feather of a breath. The back fin did not move. After a few seconds, the creek water took the body downstream. Hanley strikes me when the mood strikes her, a single strike from her need to strike out against something, anything. She hits hard, not like a tap on a tuning fork sets off a tone, but like a hammer strikes a tuning harp setting off a loud piercing tone that brings an instant pain for minutes until it settles into numbness, deafness. I am a convenient target. I am the only target. Not often, she will make repeated hits, not as hard as a fist from a man, but like a small rock being pounded into soft earth, creating a thimble-like impression first, then a larger impression, then, from repeated strikes, the shape of a deepened cup. The bruises might last a month.
I can tell her mood by her eye sockets. When she is sad, her sockets droop and look like someone had smeared charcoal just under the eyeballs like a cheap makeup for a play. This is when she is stable, approachable, barely able to wander through a day, sluggish, without appetite for food, conversation, or anything requiring duration. When Hanley is happy, her cheeks shine and rise almost like a wave to cover dark rocks. This is when I am most wary, knowing she’s ditched her meds and strays like a tire broken free from a vehicle rolling down a highway until it veers and crashes into something or just runs out of energy. She knows how to hide the pills that supply more energy, and the tire rolls on, careening, diverting, breaking things. I want to be her straitjacket, to hug her with enough force that my love will somehow absorb those violent ripples of vitality and calm her. But hugs don’t work, and there is a part of me that likes to see her energized, bright, aware. That’s why Hanley and I live on this property on the edge of nowhere. Every day she heals. Every day she breaks. So, do I.
I have asked Hanley to sketch things she sees outside, not the freewheeling collages she snips together on the computer. She has a fine, delineating touch, knows how line and shadow, how shape can be lost in the subtle play of a crease or a fold, in darkness. I thought the product might be the lazy bobcat on the rock in the middle of the idle field, or the wild boar patrolling on the edge of the French broom, but it’s the three coyotes that flee almost sideways, heads turned back, when she approaches.
She never draws the whole animal—a close-up of the ear, down to an impressive and intimate whorl at the center, as if in looking you will be drawn into a maelstrom of sounds a coyote hears. A paw with ragged pads. Often just eyes, repeatedly the same, stunned, not transfixed, dreamy but not hopeful. Glazed, as if the coyote had been running hard from something and arrived at a point of no return.
After I comment, she asks me coyly if art is truly a self-reflection.
No, I tell her, you determine the art. You create it.
What if it creates you, she says.
It can’t. It comes from your eyes, your memory, your imagination. Your hands draw the line. That’s what art is—a boundary here, a boundary there, I tell her, soft-spoken, matter-of-fact, and a bit stern.
When I look at the glazed eyes of the coyote on paper, I know I don’t believe my own words.
Mrs. Flynn painted. My mother said her paintings were somewhere between Picasso and Norman Rockwell, simple pictures of home life all cut up like a collage, a little snatch of a comfortable chair with a partial view of window with a side of Billy’s face all in about six square inches. An “all-at-once” painting, my mother said, meaning that at a specific instance of time Mrs. Flynn had captured what each thing looked like in a specific time of day. That would have been an elegant description except all of her paintings turned out that way.
I watched her in Foote’s horse corral set up, go through an elaborate, almost ritualistic selection of brushes, and then paint the same pictures of a chair, a window, and Billy’s face in the same spot on the canvas. Perhaps a horse might enter a square or an oval later. She had entered two paintings in a fair, won second prize for both, and was described as domestic and unsettling. On the award, Mrs. Flynn had crossed out the word domestic.
Often, she would set up her easel and canvas near the creek and paint nothing, end up in hilarious laughter playing with wild grains like they were dance partners or placing blades of grass between her thumbs and making noise. She rolled in the grasses and sometimes the dirt, and once, in the mud after a summer deluge, but that brought about a hospitalization for a few days, a “watch,” as my Dad put it, to make her stable. As much as Mrs. Flynn hated her paintings to be called domestic, my mother hated the word stable.
They shocked her, my mother said, put these electrodes on the side of her head and gave her some volts and amps, she said, burn marks right at the temples. Poor woman, she comes out another person for a few days. Steady, they say. Numb, I call it. All of her vim and vigor lost.
Her craziness, too, I said.
Poor Billy, my mom would say, a whispered two-word summation of exasperation, sorrow, and mothering. Poor Joe, the most reluctant father and insurance broker, the two yoked into a single description at all times. Won’t so much as say hello. Serious all the time. He’s doing all the homework with Billy, all the laundry, all the housecleaning, and sometimes the cooking as well, she would say often, like a mantra.
You know, my mother would start, facing the kitchen sink and looking out the window, the position she took when she had something significant to say but didn’t want to look at you when she said it, she’s drawn on Billy, painted on her son. Once Joe came home and found the boy’s back all covered with little pictures and figures, not evil, just elaborate. She’d been doing it all day. A living painting, she called it. They shocked her good after that one, missed two weeks at home, was stable for quite a while after that. Shuffled around in her bathrobe, couldn’t hold the easel with a canvas and left them in the yard, would swing open their garage door in the early morning and look at the bats attached to the backside of the door, waiting for the sun to come and send them somewhere else. A bit of torment in that. It gave her glee, which was nice to see on her face instead of that bland nothingness of an expression, her cheeks dragged down to the bottom of her jaw.
She is only a broken dish away from despair, a dark morning, a hailstorm that ruins the daffodils. She’s the mother that plays hide and seek and never seeks, a bad book that steals an afternoon.
It was after the last long jolt Mrs. Flynn became the Queen of Clean. Everything had to sparkle. That woman scrubbed, wearing those long yellow gloves and those black rubber boots, smiling the whole time. That is dementia right there. Billy was happy. Joe was happy. She cooked, then. That made them all happy, but she’d start cleaning the dishes before they were done eating. Madness, trying to make someone into someone they’re not. Shocking to wake and find out you are not who you are. Yet we all want predictability. We’d have no community without it. No marriage. No friendships.
Benjamin Lett owned the farm next door to the Flynns and allowed Mrs. Flynn to let herself into the corral to paint. Whether on accident or on purpose, one day Mrs. Flynn forgot to close the corral gate, and was seen gathering the three-quarter horses in the pasture. Once she removed their bridles. They had wandered off into Buller’s farm, two finally caught by skilled Tejanos that were repairing Buller’s balking tractor. One died hit by a truck. Loco, they said, quickly gathering the same conclusion Billy and I had. After that, Lett didn’t allow Mrs. Flynn into the corral, hanging a big round lock as large as a dinner plate on the corral gate.
That winter after a blizzard, Billy’s German shepherd came to us early in the morning with blood all over his mouth. I was on a week of vacation from seventh grade out on Gray’s farm, a vacation for my mother from my constant talking-back. Billy was on a three-month stay with the Grays while his mother recovered.
We had chores to do, so I buckled my boots and grabbed the axe with both hands because the gloves were stiff, and my fingers were hiding in my palms. I broke the ice in the watering tank, watched a heifer shit a steaming green and rubbed my hands over it. Thanked God for a patch of color on death’s white sheet.
Billy came soon after smelling of maple syrup that he’d gulped straight from the bottle without a pancake underneath. We checked on the chickens, turned down the lights which had been on to provide whatever warmth they could give the hens, and stayed a few minutes in the warm hatchery pretending we were chicks by flapping our jackets to seal the warm air in. Pigs in the shed jousted for position in a polite way as the feed and slop poured from buckets and petting them quickly gave friction its chance to convert the mass of a pig’s back to the radiated heat our hands could know.
The German Shepherd shied from the screen when the cold air moved in, frigid mass pouring low through the backdoor. The Arctic front had squeezed the moist air flown up from the Gulf into a crystalline wax over the earth, a blinding white, each flat panel of earth like a skating rink, then kicked out the Gulf air with a swift boot and followed not with a freeze but what the local meteorologist liked to call a polar bear, the temperature that meant your nostrils stuck together during a long breath, your skin inverted, kneecaps felt like aluminum saucers, and the only way to walk was on all fours occasionally putting one mitt over your nose to keep it warm. Machines ached. Bolts would not turn even with cussing. Wood separated, shrunken beyond what a summer’s expansion could hold, retreating from the battle as if to regroup.
The barn smelled of fear and the look in the cows’ eyes bleary and wide explained how whip-crack cold night had been evil though heaters raged like kilns. Near the house, we found an owl dead on a bank, its ribcage shattered and torn like a fuselage after a crash landing, its wings spread and head bent in quiet humility, presumed a fox by the prints in the snow. Billy tried to pluck a few feathers, but it was too cold for feathers, too cold for breakfast, just too cold. We made instant hot chocolate and toast and sat by the floor vent smiling each time the furnace came on.
After we’d warmed, Billy got the tractor fired up, belching black smoke, and we rode with the dog pressed between us making tracks in the snow for the cows to follow, then broke a pallet in the yard by running over it a few times. Billy let the tractor idle for a few minutes, plotting what to do next, then followed the tracks we could pick out that followed a fence line near the Flynn’s home, down a hill, up a hill, then down again. The German Shepherd stood, alert, then jumping down while we were moving and putting its butt lower and hightailing it for a stand of withered cattails standing by a pond. The tail wagged like the flags of a signalman to a pilot.
It was the body of a horse, not a horse any longer, but a carcass, as if all identity had risen with the last breath into the sky and dissipated like warm breath from your mouth into the freezing air going from vapor to nothing. The torso lay almost like a rug on the floor on top of the snow.
Hanley and I are painting the house. While I watch her, decades after that winter, I think of Mrs. Flynn, not in the orderly lines Hanley makes with the brush, but in the dip of the brush and the exaggerated twirl she makes to eliminate the dripping. When she daubs, she has a curious twist at the end, an artistic flare to my blunt and furious poke. She goes slowly but has style.
Four men made the decision to lobotomize Mrs. Flynn. The psychiatrist lived until he was 91, full and vigorous and in full faculty until he pitched forward from a massive coronary, collapsed, and died. The county officer lived until 85, suffering only in his last year with declining physical abilities, still able to fish, drive, and mow his lawn. Joe Flynn passed away struck by lightning at age 78, standing in a rowboat in June during a thunderstorm casting a lure to unsnag his line. My father remains alive, memories intact, lilt to his stories, and his body, though worn, able.
The decision to operate ultimately came from Mrs. Flynn’s mother, exhausted by her daughter’s instability. She said she had never rested. Joe Flynn and Billy had expressed the same exhaustion. It was as if the decision was made not for Mrs. Flynn, but for those who loved her. After the lobotomy, she had become steady, reliable, no longer remarkable, but in a workable stupor. She never painted again. She never journeyed the backfields to the creek. What her lips did when greeting I would not call a smile.
Mrs. Flynn lived like a ghost, no longer a bully to her son, no longer a poor caretaker of her other three children, and no longer full of wanderlust. She had lost consciousness, psyche, and her individuation. Her body continued to live. Her soul disappeared on the operating table.
That is the same fear I have for Hanley on the psychotropic pills. She no longer writhes, but she no longer flourishes. She is safe, I can relax, but wonder has died.
Memories narrow as one grows older, lopping off the highs and lows like an arborist shaping a tree until a round not quite perfected shape remains that says “tree.” Yet all my life I have thought about Billy, how much of his mother’s joys and depression he missed the rest of his life, how it seemed to make a ceiling and a floor for his own emotions, a sense of grandeur and sadness he was not allowed to find. He became, of all things, an accountant.
I think of Mrs. Flynn, the snarls in her neurons zapped into linearity or burned too intensely like the titanium filament in a bulb into discontinuity and the light goes out. She shuffled in darkness the rest of her life, and a part of Billy and I, shuffle yet.