Summer vacation was interrupted by sad news. Uncle Mitch had been found dead in his recliner, a bag of peanuts on his lap, the empty shells strewn about the floor. Mitch rarely missed a day of work, so the neighbor had noticed his Ford Galaxy 500 sitting idle and had checked on him, only to find his dead body.
I had been staying over at Monica’s, but because of the tragedy, we were expected back at the Sandyhook house. When we arrived, the upstairs sat glum and vacant. We went down to Star’s apartment, and the same morose quiet seemed to be emanating from her front door.
“Where is everybody?” Monica asked as we entered.
The smell of cabbage wafted from the kitchen, and it took us a moment to notice that Aunt Alice was sitting in the beige rocker-recliner, still as death. We both started upon realizing she was there.
“Oh! You frightened me,” I blurted. The familiar yet weathered Mediterranean face was not a consoling one.
“Sit—both of you,” she said abruptly, the lines in her crepe-like skin deepening with disapproval. “Sit down and think about Mitchie.” There was a bite in her voice that disguised any sadness about her nephew that I thought might lie underneath.
“We’re going outside, Aunt Al,” we disagreed in unison, making a move for the door.
“Sit down!” the words erupted from Alice’s lips like a burst of lava from a volcano, and it was in that moment I realized I had never really seen her smile. Yes, I had beheld a semblance when she posed for photos, a prim uprising of the corners of her mouth, but I had never observed her serious face painted with an authentic grin and could not imagine an unabashed guffaw emanating from the depth of her belly.
With that, I sunk into a straight-backed chair across from her, Monica following suit. Aunt Al’s forcefulness had weakened our knees.
“Monica,” I began, thinking I could break the heavy silence with some chatter, but Alice interrupted, her magnified, bespectacled eyes enlarged further by the fervor of her message.
“No talking! Be quiet and think about Mitch. We sit.”
All day? I wondered and glanced sidelong at Monica who had a bewildered expression on her face. Didn’t she know that teenagers couldn’t sit still very long? But we knew not to provoke her. She had lived in Bridgeport for most of her life, the town Daddy had once called “the armpit of the nation.” Her neighborhood was rough, and Alice lived alone after her husband had passed away, but she refused to move and adapted her routines to accommodate the increasing crime in the area. She didn’t drive and was in the habit of walking to the corner market every week with cash for groceries hidden in her shoe.
“I’ve got mugger’s money in my pocketbook, but my grocery money is in my shoe” she once told me, gesturing toward her orthopedic lace-up with her cane. “I just carry a few dollars in my pocketbook. I get mugged once in a while, you know, and what is it you never do when you’re mugged?” she asked, suddenly turning to me, expecting an answer.
I shook my head, unsure.
“You never show them that you’re scared,” she answered her own question and bobbed her head up and down as she spoke as if to hammer that bit of wisdom into my memory.
“I face them and open my bag,” she continued, “and they take the money and leave me alone. They never think to search my shoes.” She let out a rare, chortling noise that sounded like satisfaction.
Alice was frail but formidable—a cane-wielding, streetwise senior. We knew better than to mess with her, so we sat, heavy air sheening our faces with sweat and the weight of Alice’s grief resting upon our shoulders. I didn’t want to sit and think about death. I didn’t even like to go to hospitals, into sick rooms where death rubbed at my ankles, but I sat obediently and, as instructed, let thoughts of Mitch stream in.
Only last year, while waiting at the doctor’s office, I had come across an old issue of the New Yorker. The cover had caught my attention; it was a cartoon picture of a yellow school bus. I leafed through it, thinking of the Sunday paper and looking for comics. There were political cartoons, which I had trouble understanding, and poems, which I liked. There were advertisements for Maker’s Mark Whisky and Irish country hats, and there were articles written in small print. I thumbed through, looking for something I might like to read, and spotted the words “Electro-convulsive shock.” Surprised, I looked closer. The article was called “As Empty as Eve.” It was about a woman named Nancy Parker who had suffered from depression after some disfiguring orthodontic work. She had finally agreed to her doctor’s persistent suggestion that she spend some time at a psychiatric hospital for a brief respite—a rest cure. However, without her consent, the physicians at the facility gave her electric shock therapy, the same treatment that Uncle Mitch once had. The woman in the story lost a large piece of herself from ECT. She said, “There weren’t just gaps in my memory. There were oceans and oceans of blankness” (96).
I read the story in fascination, literally sitting on the edge of my seat, paging through the woman’s explication. For the first time, I had an explanation about what Uncle Mitch had been through. The article said that the idea for electric shock therapy came from doctors’ desire to restore mental patients to health. It was thought they could be shocked into rationality. Primitive forms of the treatment originated with using prank-like scare tactics—throwing patients into a lake or surreptitiously shooting a gun off behind them. Eventually, after many trials, what was considered an evolved form of treatment emerged—administering electric shockwaves to the brain. I was fascinated by the article’s description:
“Electroconvulsive therapy is usually given in the morning, and the patient is prepared for it as if for surgery: he is allowed no breakfast, and false teeth, if any, are removed. He is positioned comfortably in bed on his back, and given an intravenous injection of a muscle-relaxant drug and a complementing injection of a hypnotic to maintain normal respiration. An electrode is then placed on each temple, and an alternating current of (usually) eighty or ninety volts is passed between the electrodes for a fraction of a fraction of a second. In that stupendous instant, the brain is so raced that the mind cannot function, and it is from this eerie quietus that the beneficial results of the treatment appear to spring….The states of mind of most patients emerging from the post-convulsion sleep are similar. There is a harrowing sense of confusion, and then a full awakening in the midnight dark of total amnesia. The patient has no idea who he is or where he is or what has happened to him. He is often also weak, unsteady, and dizzy. Nausea, sometimes with vomiting, and headache are not uncommon. Some sense of identity soon and spontaneously returns, and from the attending doctors and nurses the patient learns his whereabouts and the nature of his situation. At that point, reorientation slows, and the deepest amnesia remains. The distant past—the past of childhood and adolescence—is the first to gradually reappear. The middle past is more difficult to recover, and the immediate past—the weeks or months just preceding treatment—is almost always irretrievable” (90, 92).
I was astounded. Mitch, quiet Mitch, always there but keeping to himself. What had he lost? What had it been like for him? I closed my eyes, blocking out the heat and the presence of others in the room. Cascading before me were images of my uncle, flashes of his life, some real and some how I imagined they could have been.
Yearbook photos of him appeared on the screen of my closed lids–Mitch playing high school basketball, his senior picture, snapshots of him dressed in his army uniform. He was in World War II, the Philippines, cooking in the kitchen, humming, finding comfort in the songs his mother had sung to him when he was a child, while his boisterous, hungry comrades in the mess hall waited to be fed.
There he was again, kneeling under leafless palm trees, green fronds lying on the ground as lifeless as his friends who lay dying around him.
And again, home from the war, with memories he could not shake off, flying behind him like the tail of a kite. Yet, home offered no solace, its walls ringing with the newfound absence of his mother–gone, dead in her thirties.
Intertwined with his mourning–Mitch becoming aware of a difference in himself—like a switch had been thrown, a glaring brightness in his mind that burned the backs of his eyes even when he tried to sleep. An altered self remained within, someone he could not recognize, a man with a nervousness that would not be tamped down even with long draws from cigarette after cigarette. He had imagined that leaving the island would allow him to shed his agitated self as easily as he had shed his worn uniform. He had hoped, when he got home, he would find his former self waiting, that the intangible, powerful experience of his pre-war life would act as elixir to revive him and make everything normal. But with reluctant clarity, he realized that his new self was him—a motherless war veteran, forever changed by the things he had seen and the deaths of those he cared about.
And, there, my mind saw him again, going to Fairfield Hills, a bent figure walking small inside that vast institution, wanting help but scared of the electrodes attached, like redback spiders to his skin and the doctor’s detached voice droning in his ears. The electricity went through him with such certainty, he swore he could see it inside of him, traveling through the corridors of his mind like a jagged path of lightning joining with his own insufferable light, pushing it back into the dark space of unconsciousness.
Afterward, with no concept of time, in antiseptic rooms he sat, waking up, feeling like he had been hit by a truck, his muscles sore, his nerves achy, but feeling strangely full of energy. Soon, he lost count of how many times it happened, but the shocks no longer scared him, Instead, he was fearful of something else he couldn’t quite put his finger on, something that had to do with the jumbled quality of his memories and thoughts, splayed out like a turned-over box of snapshots—vivid and motionless and impossible to arrange.
My disturbing reverie was interrupted by Aunt Star’s entrance, and I was glad to leave it. Sitting still caused me to think too much, I thought, and thinking could be painful.
“We’re holding the funeral this weekend, so you’ll be able to go,” Star said, knowing my return flight to California was imminent.
I nodded, Star and Alice started talking, and Monica and I escaped outside.
That Saturday, we carpooled to the funeral home, an unobtrusive building situated on a busy side street. Inside, the receiving room was pungent with the scent of flowers and the mingled colognes of attendees. Against the back wall, a modest stage stood empty except for one, tall microphone standing center. Rows of metal, folding chairs faced front.
People maneuvered through the space, visiting, consoling, hugging, speaking in low tones, making the room sound like a roar of whispers. I thought about what a shame it was that some of the only times people came together was after someone’s death, when you had to push the excitement of seeing acquaintances down out of respect for the solemnity of the occasion. People I hadn’t seen for years converged, moving toward me, commenting on how much I had grown. Others lined up, waiting their turn to view Mitch’s body.
Mitch lay, conspicuously, in an open casket in the front of the room. When I reached him, I stared. He looked like he was sleeping, but instead of having mussed up hair, it was neatly combed back. His eyebrows were even groomed. I touched his cold skin. I wouldn’t have been brave enough to do so, but Monica’s dad, Gary, who made jokes out of everything, was in line before me. He patted Mitch on the cheek, talking to him like he was alive.
“Heya, Mitch. Wake up, will ya?”Gary said and laughed.
I felt surprised by his impertinence. For me, it wasn’t a joke. This was the first time I had stared death in the face, and it was a face that looked so much like Daddy’s. Mitch’s suit was grey with pinstripes, and the silk fabric of the coffin ruffled up around him like angel’s wings. I had never seen him in a suit except in my parent’s wedding photos. With one finger, I touched his cheek gently. It was cold and waxen, and the feel of it made me realize that this wasn’t Mitch at all, that his body was a mere shell, the physical remains of who he once was, his warmth, his spirit flown somewhere else.
Daddy hadn’t had an open casket; he had been cremated, his ashes put into a box that was buried on Grandma Penelope’s grave—a ceremony that had been performed without me. As usual, the grownups had been trying to protect me, but what they didn’t realize was their omission took away my sense of closure. I never saw the finality of his existence, like I was witnessing with Mitch, but here was finality staring me hard in the face, impossible to ignore, with all its dizzying connections swirling around me—the all-encompassing notions of what past and present, existence and non-existence might signify.
I sat, sandwiched between cousins in the second row, as the pastor spoke about life and death. His words weren’t just about Mitch. They were universal words meant to comfort anyone who had ever lost someone dear. Raw, unexpected emotion began to swell in my throat, and I tried to push its surprising magnitude down by swallowing gulps of the air that seemed to be thickening around me. My desperate attempt to keep the surge of feeling from rising within me was futile, and the air I had sucked in came up and out in a hiccupping sob. I sat, senses inundated, feeling lightheaded amidst the fragrance of flower arrangements, perfumed relatives, and the faint smell of formaldehyde. I had loved Uncle Mitch, but I didn’t cry for him. Instead, for the first time since the day of his passing three years before, I cried for my father, about the unfairness and bitter pain of death and the terrible knowledge that I had to live the rest of my life without him.