Sunday, September 2, 2007

This Story - The Ghost Of Me

Several years ago, parts of an earlier me, the child me, were coming back around, clinging onto me and demanding attention... Demanding, I suppose, the attention they didn't get in my childhood. For those who like the term 'wounded child'- well, it was she who was with me, haunting me, pressuring me to speak for her, and to listen to her.

And so I began, with surprising difficulty, to write down some memories from the darkest times of my childhood, hoping to exorcise this wounded child from my psyche. Hoping she would forgive me for not traveling back in time and rescuing her from her pain. Ahhh, but then there is that old time travel paradox- if I had gone back to soothe this child that was me, then who would I be now? What would I have changed, if my burden had somehow been made lighter back then? I don't know the answer, but I offer up the memories I recorded in response to the demands of that former child, that ghost of me, in honor of what she survived.


Death Enters (and makes itself at home)…

Looking back, this story seems to have begun in January 1967, when I was eleven years old. Valerie, my mother’s nurse, picked me up from school, along with my older sister, Wylie. I climbed into the front seat of the station wagon, and Wylie got in the back. Valerie did not pull away from the curb right away, but sat still, looking forward through the windshield.

After a little while, she softly said: “Your Mum’s passed on”. Valerie was from England, and while I knew that ‘Mum’ meant our mother, I didn’t understand what she was telling us. I said: “What?”, and she explained that our mother was dead. Then she drove us home. I cried, but Wylie did not. A few years later Wylie ‘found’ Jesus, and then became a nun. But on the day Mom died, I think she was very much alone.

We went home, to a home that was broken. Mom had been sick for some time- I don’t know how long, because I don’t remember very well what happened before she died. She had Lou Gehrig’s disease, ALS. Her mind stayed clear, imprisoned in a body that grew progressively, relentlessly, more weak and dysfunctional.

To me, she was very frightening at the end. She couldn't talk anymore, could only make groaning noises, and her walk had become a monster’s stagger. I remember once we were both in the front hall, and the clip that held shut her feeding tube popped open, and the liquid stuff they fed her began pouring out onto the floor, spreading out in a brown puddle across the black and white floor tiles. She moaned, and tried to stop it, but her hands didn't work well enough. So I, child horrified, reached out and grabbed the slimy tube, and held it closed, as I screamed for someone to come help.

And how much more horrible must it all have seemed to my little sister, Temple, who was six when Mom died? Temple was the beloved, and spoiled, baby of the family, and Mom craved her affection.

When Temple came home from school each day, Mom would want a hug from her. Temple would stand in the doorway of the room and ask where her present was. If there was no present, Temple would turn away and leave the room. This makes Temple sound like quite the little bitch, but her childhood world also was falling apart then. And it never came back together for her, either. She became a drug addict and alcoholic and finally killed herself in 1990, when she was 33. She died in a bathtub of blood, with a bottle of vodka nearby.

After Mom’s death, Dad gave me a choice. It didn't seem like any choice at all to me. He said our house was being sold. Temple was being sent to live with relatives. I could either go live with him, in an apartment in New York City, or go to a boarding school in upstate New York. I had a pure terror of cities, and couldn't imagine surviving in one, so I had to choose the boarding school.

(The names of the school, and the people there, have been changed for privacy.)

The Cold (enters my heart)…

No Comfort School, in the Adirondack Mountains, was deep in winter when I arrived. It seemed cold, and dark, and hostile. I was in the sixth grade, and the school went from fourth to eighth grade. At that time there were just over 80 students.

And snow, there was lots and lots of snow. I remember having a bloody nose, and going outside and bleeding onto the snow, screaming red on pure white. I buried my blood deep in a snow bank, and dug it up now and then during that first winter there, to find it still bright frozen red. For some reason that gave me great pleasure.

But not much else pleased me during that long winter. I was a fat child, and painfully shy. My first roommate, Annie, was the adopted daughter of a famous actor. At night I thought of my mother, and cried myself to sleep, and this annoyed Annie. She complained about it, and I was moved into a different room, with Bess, a younger, unpopular girl. She had some kind of skin disease, and did not have such a rich daddy.

Before long I stopped crying. Instead of feeling heartbroken, homesick, and scared, I began feeling a rage building up in my core, surrounded by an icy numbness. I had become like the frozen blood. I pushed other children out of my way as I walked down the halls, and before long they moved away from me in fear. I enjoyed the feeling of power that gave me. I needed a target for all the anger I was feeling. The children weren't really worthy opponents, and for the most part I recognized that they were merely other victims- kids who’d been exiled from their wealthy homes because they no longer matched the décor, or because they had grown past the cute and cuddly age. So I set my sights higher, onto the cruel and controlling adults. They, the authority figures, became my sworn enemies. And I, at age eleven, entered into the war zone with a cold determination.

At the top of my hate list was Marr. She was the headmistress of the school. She was, even now, in my memory, a VERY creepy woman. She had a large head, curly gray hair, and false teeth which made an irritating clacking noise. She seemed to take special pleasure in making predictions of the bad end I was heading for.

I’ve always been a loner, preferring the company of cats and books to that of other humans. One day Marr found me in the school library, comfortably curled up, reading a book about a psychotic teenager. She took the book away from me and studied it for a while. Then she returned it, and told me, rather smugly, I thought, that if I kept staying by myself, reading, instead of being outside playing with the other children, I was going to wind up schizophrenic, just like the girl the story. But that was OK with me, at least it was more appealing than playing with the other children, or doing anything Marr wanted me to do.

I remember another time when Marr had called me into her office. There had been many of these little chats. Mostly I would refuse to speak, and just stare at her with silent hatred. This time Marr began to talk about strength of character, and emotional strength. She explained to me that some children were strong in a good way, but that I was strong in a bad way, a very bad way. I was pleased. It is always good to hear your enemy admit you are a powerful adversary.

One day, after I’d been at the school for about three months, I was told Marr was in my room, waiting to talk to me. I went to my room and found her sitting on my bed. She patted the bed, and told me to sit down. I remained standing. She told me that my father was dead. I broke down sobbing with grief, before I remembered myself and regained control. I was furious with Marr. She, my enemy, had violated me by bringing me such intimate and devastating news.

One friend I made that first year at the school was another sixth grader named Kitt. She was an exceptionally beautiful little black girl, with lovely long hair waving down to her waist. She was a sweet and kind child, with none of the darkness and anger that I was so filled with. One day in the spring she was out in the woods riding in the pony cart. A dog suddenly darted out from the trees, barking. The pony, scared, leapt forward, swerving, and the cart it was pulling tipped, and Kitt tumbled out. The leg of her pants got caught in the cart’s wheel, and she was dragged along down the trail.

When they got the cart stopped, Kitt was unconscious. She died later that day in the hospital. I remember a week later, when we were having a memorial service for her, a small group of us students who especially loved her had gathered together, crying. When Kitt’s mother saw us, she came over to us and comforted us. Kitt’s little sister was with her, and she looked exactly like Kitt, only smaller. Her mother told us that Kitt would not want us to be sad, but rather would want us all to remember the happy times we’d had with her. I remember being very impressed that this woman was able to comfort us, in the midst of her own great pain. I thought of it a lot afterwards.

Another time, early in my second year at No Comfort, when I was in the seventh grade, I was told that my older brother, Richard, was on the phone for me. He had never phoned me before. I got on the phone and said: "Who's dead?". It was my grandfather. He had shot himself. His wife, my grandmother, had died a little while earlier, and he didn't want to go on living without her. My cousin Jerry, who had Hodgkin's Disease, had also shot himself, just before my mom died. So suicide, especially by gunshot, has become something of a tradition in my family.

And, by this time I had gotten the message, learned the lesson, that if you love someone they are quite likely to die. So, it was better all around not to love anyone. Thirty years later, when my lover said she was dying of cancer, it made perfect sense to me.

Chickens (and chicken shit)…

No Comfort School was ahead of the times in the area of nutrition. They said: ‘A healthy mind needs a healthy body’. They served us all organic food, no refined flour or sugar, and much of the meat was raised on the school property.

We had our regular daily chores to do, and there were also certain special chores that happened once in a while. One of these was the dreaded and disgusting Chicken Plucking Day. This was when the chickens were killed, beheaded, de-gutted, and plucked. Even now, thirty-seven years later, I can remember the smell of it.

And I remember the time one spring when I tried to ditch Chicken Plucking Day. I had hidden in a bathroom, but I was found by one of the male teachers. He told me I had to get out there, NOW. I replied that I’d go as soon as I put on my shoes. He said no, I had to go NOW, without shoes. So, fighting the urge to vomit, I went and stood barefoot in the blood and feathers, plucking chickens.

Another time, I was hanging out in a hallway on a Saturday afternoon, doing nothing in particular, with a red haired girl named Sally. A teacher saw us, and advised us to find something worthwhile to do with ourselves. A little later, the teacher saw us again, still doing nothing. He said that since we hadn’t found anything to do, he would find something for us. Then he ordered us to go up to the barn and shovel out the chicken coop. The chicken shit was thick and stinky. There was a LOT of it. Sally was so discouraged by the sight, and smell, of it all, that she collapsed in sobs right onto the enormous compost pile. But I was beyond that sort of release by then. I was hardened. I was a half grown puppy, bearing her teeth and growling with fear and mistrust at the world around me.

© 2007 All Rights Reserved.

6 comments:

lisa q. said...

very touching post jaya! my heart goes out to that little girl and is proud of the woman she has become! :P

Dorothy said...

That is a very touching story. I cannot see how you made it through such tragedy and survived.

Jaya said...

Lisa, Dorothy, thank-you for your comments.

I think we all have our own struggles to overcome... and we all manage in our own way. Life moves on, and we move with it, either frozen up in pain or evolving past the pain. I am pleased that I eventually moved beyond the frozen stage, but it took some time.

Anna said...

jaya, I cried inside...speachless. anna :)

Rich said...

You've told me much of this before, but holy shit, I'm really jealous of you. Not because of your experiences, of course, but because you're such a talented writer.

Jaya said...

Awww, thanks, Anna, your
compassion is appreciated.

And Rich (sticking my tongue
out at you, my friend), thanks!
Although, you have nothing to
be jealous of, as you're an
excellent writer yourself.
I wonder why you still don't
have a blog, so others can
appreciate your skills and
your warped sense of humor...