Places I Will Not Go
The bride-to-be is looking through the third book. Could it really be that hard to choose flowers for a wedding? Tire-kicker, I think as she prattles on about how gardenias remind her of her grandmother and just must be in her bouquet. Having been recently divorced for the second time, her optimism just pisses me off.
Janice saves me by sticking her head out of the workroom. “You’ve got a phone call,” she says. “I’ll finish this up.”
Right away, I know something’s up. Janice never volunteers for anything. Since I’ve moved back, I’ve become the designated customer service representative. I cater to the young bridezillas, hand tissues to families making funeral arrangements, and deal with lovers who send carnations to their wives, but roses to their girlfriends. Janice doesn’t even go out to get the mail anymore if I’m here. I pass along the only other book the bride hasn’t seen and go to pick up the phone.
“This is Pam,” I say, habit guiding me as I step onto the wooden work platform at my station, pen hovering over the blank invoice. “How can I help you?”
“Ms. Dellinger, this is Katie, the nurse in Emergency at Marion Memorial. Your dad’s come in with some chest pain, and we think it’s best if you come in.”
My dad flushed his own meds more times than I can count over the years—the ones they said he needed for depression. That same “they” say depression and bipolar run in families, that there is an irrefutable genetic source for them, and I buy that completely.
I come from a long line of crazy.
I can’t say I blame him for the non-compliance. The first time I remember him abandoning the meds was when I was small, and the anti-depressants then were cruel. You give a depressed man in his early thirties a medicine that makes him impotent, and that’s supposed to cure his depression. Someone in the pharmaceutical company obviously wasn’t thinking ahead of the curve.
So we learned to live with it, schedule around it. Like I live with it now, only from the other side. It wasn’t always easy, and there were a lot of lies.
There was the one about him having a heart attack, when it was a suicide attempt that put him in the ICU. Our neighbor was a surgeon, and he and my mother thought it best if the chart didn’t tell the truth. We wouldn’t want anyone at the hospital to get the wrong idea, and all my dad needed was a rest. Even I didn’t know about this one until after my diagnosis, despite months spent after his stay trying to keep him calm so he wouldn’t have another heart attack and die.
There was the one about how he wasn’t coming home from the hospital in Greenville after that suicide attempt—that he chose to stay away from us. No mention of the divorce papers and the restraining order he was served on the day he was supposed to be released.
There was the lie we told him to get him to an intervention much later on, when his new wife couldn’t handle it anymore. The lie we told ourselves about how the medicines could make things better again. Mostly, there were lies of omission, and those are passed down, too.
I’ve never liked my dad’s mother. We didn’t share much common ground when I was younger, and we don’t share much now. She was an abstract artist; I was a word nerd, and the conversations she had with my artist sister were a foreign language to me. We didn’t spend much time with her—not like with my mom’s mom, who would hug and squeeze me to the point of pain as the glasses on the chain around her neck pressed into my chest. My dad’s mother never babysat for my overworked young parents, and I thought it was because I was too loud, too impolite, too much a child.
When my grandmother was young—she’ll be ninety this year—her mother suffered from depression too. Some days her husband’s lunch burned on the stove while she just sat at the kitchen table, not caring. My grandmother was one of the older daughters, so the tasks her mother was too overwhelmed to handle sometimes fell to her. More often than not, she took care of the younger children.
A spring breeze blows past the swing where Charles is playing. Grandmama is supposed to be watching him, but the daffodils are so pretty. One of the other children screams her name, Myrt, and she sees Charles, fallen from the swing, not moving. Never moving again.
Later, she will name her youngest son Charles and have electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) and a hospital stay of her own. These are the reasons she didn’t play with me—the reasons I thought I wasn’t good enough.
The first time I hear my grandmother’s story, I dream it for months. In every dream, I take her place; I pick the flowers; I watch Charlie fall. But that’s only where my dream starts. It rolls like our old family eight-millimeter movies past that point, and I live in the life that comes after—that space where her mother leaves things unsaid. There are no I love yous, no happy birthdays, no I’m proud of yous. The girl whose place I take is pushed to the edge of the family photo. This is the first dream.
The second one is harder still. I take her place again, and I am tired. Weary in that way I really am when I am myself and weighed down by the commonalities. The people in the group expect me to talk; the doctor expects me to talk; even I expect myself to talk, but I don’t. My family doesn’t talk, and I don’t know how to open myself to these strangers, as kind as they may be. But I have new medicine, and I’ve listened, and I think I might be able to go home and handle things again. Handle the husband, the children, the looks at church, the looks from friends, the phone call from my in-laws every morning at precisely seven o’clock to make sure I sound sane.
But today they tell me I’ve been transferred. I move my things to Azalea in the late morning. The wards in the Edgewood clinic are all named after flowers, as if that changes what they really are. They give me a pill in my new room and the world gets still.
I have a good doctor, and I trust her choices for me—all except that last drug that paralyzed me but left me conscious on the floor of my bedroom. Some new therapy is coming, I have time to think, and I realize they’re strapping my arms and legs down. I flash back to the insulin therapy sessions and struggle feebly against the restraints—as much as the drug will allow. The orderlies pry open my mouth and put in a leather boot heel. It’s cold and it smells, and my eyes go wide while everyone moves into position with quiet nods. The only sound is the click of the switch, then the hum, and the rattle of the restraints as the current roars through me.
I wake up panting.
This is how my grandmother learned to play the game. We all learn, eventually. We are worn down and trained by our therapies, whatever they may be, to give the response that is appropriate—even if it isn’t true to ourselves. It saves pain in the short-term, at least.
But because ECT has a new group of followers who talk of the therapies kinder, gentler modifications while touting its benefits, and because I know the story from both sides, the most important list I have is the one of PLACES I WILL NOT GO FOR TREATMENT. These are the places near my home (updated periodically) that might try to use ECT to treat my depression. I keep a copy in my purse and another with my legal papers. Anyone who might be called on that day I finally snap knows it exists and is sworn to honor it.
Even though I haven’t been in the hospital for years, Dad’s easy to find. About ten years ago they moved the facility out to the highway that runs between our town and the next one over and made it one of those glass and metal monstrosities. But because it’s a small town, I see three people I know before I even make it into the ER patient rooms—a middle-aged woman who had been a Brownie and a Girl Scout with me is there with her child who has a broken arm, the father of my high school best friend is visiting someone who attends his church, and the woman who used to be the secretary of the junior high has moved on to be an admissions clerk. She buzzes me right back.
“Hell of a way to get me to come see you” seems like a good opener as I push my way through the curtain. “Telling them not to call me, that was just to make sure I came?”
At least I get a flash of a smile out of him. I can tell from the way his jaw looks that he’s clenching his teeth against the pain. He’s hooked to an EKG machine that’s spitting the seconds of his life onto a two-inch paper strip.
“Looks like it’s your heart, huh?”
“I guess,” he manages.
There’s a lot more that we don’t say. Some of it’s about my mom, who died five years ago in another hospital after an aneurism burst. He cried at the funeral and still does when we talk about her, or when we get drunk together. We don’t talk about the times since that first hospital stay he’s tried to kill himself. We don’t talk about the time he came to see me in the hospital after I tried it myself. We don’t talk about the first time, either. He doesn’t know that I finally know it wasn’t a heart attack, like they all decided to tell me it was. That my older sister told me the truth as we packed my mother’s things away after the funeral.
He’s the one who appears small now, trapped in the ridiculous hospital gown, surrounded by machines and fluttering nurses. The doctor, who looks half my age and is from some Eastern country, finally decides he can have some morphine and nitro. I tell him I’ll be back in the morning as they move him up to a room in ICU. I pat his hand as I’m leaving, and he stops me.
“I’m sorry,” he says.
“It’s okay, really,” I say. “I don’t mind.”
I make the best of it.
Pamela Dellinger is an English instructor in South Carolina. She has published in Flashquake, Brevity, and the innovative novel project, The Silent History. She lives in her hometown of Marion, South Carolina, with three beautiful daughters, two rescued dogs, and a pocketful of lithium.