By: Theresa Doolittle
*Please note: Some names have been changed in order to protect the privacy of the individuals whom this essay concerns.
- All prayers said and unsaid
When Chris took scissors to their necks, it hurt the most.
Of the news articles that have been forwarded to me, sparsely written and posted three hours ago, his hurt the most—it hurt more than both overdoses; it hurt more than all six suicides. I’m not sure how many times I re-read Chris’s article, but I know that I read it in the elevator, I read it on the sidewalk, and I read it in the living room. I read it until I had leached every single detail how, and I was left to wonder why: why did he hurt them; why am I hurting.
Two possible reasons:
- in elementary school, we rode Bus Four together.
- in high school, in a yellow room with clouds on the ceiling, we prayed together.
In the days following the attack, the story sunk deep into my chest. It snaked around my organs and leaked from my fingertips. It clung to me like a wet cotton t-shirt, standing on a mountain during a rainstorm. We knew this: when hiking, do not wear cotton, they say. Cotton kills, they say.
A talent: containing the story; containing the hurt. She’s so stoic, Celeste says, stroking blonde hair at the pediatrician because I did not cry as the needle unloaded into my skin; because I did not know that crying was an option.
An exception: Chris’s story. In the midst of an arduous calm, a gentle reminder slinks forward from the rear of my skull: remember the hurt. Remember Bus Four, remember the praying. The silvery stream of facts widens into a river, and then it’s too late, and the floodgates are open. The story drowns me. It lurches up my throat in bitter waves during simple conversations; it laps against my teeth in crowded bars. I press my lips together until they turn white, and swallow the river whole.
Chris from Bus Four! I want to yell from underneath the flashing lights. Chris killed his father!
Who did Rose’s dementia hurt more: Rose or Celeste; mother or daughter; patient or caretaker?
It should be noted that Rose’s dementia did not hurt her very much at all. What hurt were the falls, the fender-benders, and, I’m sure, the leaving home. Dementia is not a disease; it is a condition. It is nonfatal, which is to say that it won’t kill you. Instead, dementia sits by your side, day in and day out. It holds your hand in front of the fireplace, gripping so tightly that it leaves bruises and brown spots on bony knuckles; it throws an arm around your shoulders, adding downward weight whenever you encounter a staircase; it tells you stories, wild and wonderful, that continue for days and offer no indication of their beginning or their end. Do they end? Does this end?
No, dementia won’t kill you. Perhaps it will make you wish that you were dead, but it will offer no aid in accelerating the process. I know this because Rose is 89 and she can’t remember a damn thing, but she’s breathing. Day in, and day out.
I don’t think that Rose knows. I don’t think that she has a clinical understanding of what’s happening to her mind—not like Celeste does. They were both in the room, the mother and the daughter, while the doctor spoke—but were they, really?
Celeste posted sticky notes around Rose’s studio apartment that we decorated with her blue delftware and yellow depression glass. The notes hold facts: the month, the year, the town she lives in, church at ten AM. The notes define things: the phone says PHONE, the remote says REMOTE, the photo of me says THERESA. We tried to stick to the facts with Rose, but soon found that facts don’t stick. Dreams do, though. Dreams stick. Dreams spill into daylight thoughts, pushing reality farther and farther away.
Dementia is nonfatal. It will not kill Rose. Something else will—we know this. We don’t say this, but we know this. We know this like we know that something will, someday, kill us all—perhaps the same something; perhaps a someone. This, we don’t know.
Is violence a disease, or a condition? And who does it hurt the most? Since Chris, I’ve wondered this.
- From Latin, demens, dement—‘out of one’s mind.’
Chris said that the demons made him do it, and I believe him. I can’t imagine what else to blame. Was Chris, then, crazy? You’d never guess that from his prayers. Is to have dementia to be demented? You’d never call your grandmother demented—though, for a time, we did call Rose crazy.
But that was before we knew what to call the dementia; back when it was easier to call Rose crazy than to find another word to embody the fog that crept upon her, steadily. She was crazy for keeping the mail in the microwave; for storing the cereal in the refrigerator; for telling long, rambling stories which began, but then failed to offer any indication that they would ever end.
To me; to my childhood friends who had endured meeting her; to those who heard my stories of her summertime visits from Indiana, she was: Crazy Grandma Rose.
Crazy was chosen because there was no better word for Rose in my third grade vocabulary. Crazy seemed to sufficiently embody the strange behaviors, the one-sided conversations, the mumbling, the puttering, the declarations that she had walked to Scotland, just the other day!
Scotland, says Rose, is beautiful.
But now, Rose is in our kitchen every Sunday. I watch her, counting the ways in which childhood has come back to stay: the way she complains, the way she smacks her lips, the way her food must not touch, the way Celeste strokes her hair.
And now, I know that Rose isn’t crazy—she’s just old. She’s old, she’s confused; the confusion makes her insincere; the insincerity pushes us away. It’s been easiest to distance myself from her, the old woman hunched over the kitchen table. Osteoporosis has pushed her neck into her spine, offering her a permanent view of the floor. When Rose does muster the strength to raise her head, I find it hard to meet her eyes.
To have dementia, to have demons: each an inconsistent reality that separates the mind from the world, even as the body moves about it. The dementia and the demons grab the body and pull it blindly along, paying no mind to flailing limbs, or the weapons they might hold.
- Cut along the dotted line
When I think of scissors, I think of Finland. Fiskars probably made your scissors; its headquarters is in Helsinki. In 1982, Celeste was a Fulbright Scholar in Helsinki. While there, she wrote letters home to her parents, Jim and Rose, in Bloomington, Indiana. We found these letters the summer after we extracted Rose from that huge, ugly, Indiana house where she had been living alone for 22 years.
At some point between 1993 and 2015, that house turned against Rose. Like a wooden dollhouse gone rotten, we removed its roof, reached in, and plucked her out. Rose and the house had devolved deep into an inverted parasitic relationship, in which Rose was the host, and the parasite was the house. Its hugeness, its ugliness, and its staircases had leached Rose of her independence: the precise quality that a house should foster. When Jim died, Rose was wrongly quarantined within the walls of 2158 S. Washington Drive. Her quarantine—her isolation, her family who rarely came to visit—would be the source of her craziness; her condition; her dementia.
After we extracted Rose, we extracted her memories. We found these tucked into corners of the house: within the piano and the Japanese tea chest; under linoleum tiles and shag carpet. Memory doesn’t dissolve; it is simply stored in other places. When the brain becomes too worried with the basic tasks of staying alive, day in and day out, the extraneous information is discarded into blue delftware and yellow depression glass.
Rose kept a pair of metal scissors hanging on a ribbon above the phone. The handles were rounded, and the blades far too long for ten-year-old hands to control. I don’t remember what I needed to cut, but I remember that I tried to use those scissors, and was not able to.
In the United Kingdom, you have to be 18 to buy knives. I was asked to show identification when purchasing a paring knife at the Sainsbury’s in South Kensington. I’ve heard that this regulation also applies to buying scissors, but I didn’t try; I didn’t need scissors. I just wanted to cut up an apple.
When I picture scissors, I see the red plastic ones given to kindergarteners with handles small enough for five-year-old fingers. These “safety scissors” have metal blades with rounded points, and can barely cut through paper—let alone flesh.
- Ashes, ashes
Places where you could be hurt: at the pediatrician, on the highway, in the hands of a lover; while drinking, while dancing, while learning, while running, while praying.
While trying, arduously, to get some sleep.
I was 16 when the bombs exploded at the finish line of the Boston Marathon. Four days later—when they hunted Dzhokhar Tsarnaev—I was still 16 but I felt much, much older. I knew that something was wrong because Dad was still in the kitchen when I got out of bed. He was eating cereal, and had The Boston Globe propped open against the Costco-sized box. The news was playing on the radio, but I wasn’t listening—not yet. My father told me, between bites of Cornflakes, that the city was on a lockdown, and that his office, in Cambridge, was closed. I went back to bed, and quantified my danger. Cambridge is across the river from Boylston St., where the bombs went off. Cambridge is six miles from Watertown, where the search was focused, and where Tsarnaev would later be found hiding in a boat still wrapped for the winter. Watertown is 18 miles from Acton, where I lay in a twin-sized bed and listened to WGBH on a purple clock radio. At around two in the afternoon, I moved to the living room, taking the clock radio with me. I sat on the brown leather couch—scuffed and scarred from years of feet and paws—and peered out of the window, into the mid-April grayness. Tsarnaev, it seemed, could come strolling down Ethan Allen Drive at any moment. What was stopping him? He had set off bombs at a marathon because nothing had stopped him.
A lifetime of violence, quantified: I was two during Columbine; four during 9/11; 15 during Newtown; 16 during Boston; 18 during Paris; 19 during Orlando; 20 during Manchester and Las Vegas; 21 during Parkland, and Pittsburgh, and Thousand Oaks. And Chris.
Remember for a moment, silently. Remember the tragedies: coddle the similarities; leave space for the dissonance. Remember waking up to blood. Remember the mornings, all in monochrome. Wonder where madness begins; wonder where madness ends and violence begins. Take their guns, their bombs, their scissors, and ask them to wield pens, instead. Ask them to bleed out their violence in ink; suggest that they draw themselves shields.
- Neither here nor there
It’s important to know what hurt you most, so that you have a yardstick by which to measure all the things that have not hurt you yet. So that, when the time comes, you can gather your shards in a red wagon, and pass them off to a lover, a daughter, a friend. So that you can turn them into art; so that you can turn them into ink.
Think through this logically. Measure your shards. Put them in order.
We assess pain on a scale of one to ten—one being no pain and ten being the worst pain possible—but isn’t it all relative? Suppose that my three is your nine, because I am stoic; because I have a talent for containing hurt to certain areas of my body: fingertips, ribs. Or suppose that my ten is your two, because though I am in shards, you have been glued back together too many times already.
At some point between 1996 and now, my hometown turned against me. It could have been in 2013, when bombs destroyed bodies at an event meant to celebrate them. Or perhaps it was in 2015, when Crazy Grandma Rose sat down at my kitchen table—this time to stay. Maybe it was all six suicides, collectively—each one fracturing the once-flawless glass that guarded my childhood. I don’t know the first time, but I do know that the final straw—the final shard—was Chris, who, in October of 2018, took scissors to their necks.
I don’t know why we constantly try to quantify human pain.
In an act of retaliation against my hometown, I left it. I moved to Pittsburgh. And suddenly, all I knew about my hometown—a place I had once known viscerally—was that which was considered news, that which was tragic, that which was violent, that which was meant to serve as a mirror, held at arm’s length and spattered with blood.
It was a gray morning in Pittsburgh when 11 people were killed while praying. It took me a long time to synthesize the information— to break it down into parcels that were small enough to swallow whole; parcels that did not lurch back up my throat. I didn’t understand why people were shot while their heads were bowed in prayer, and I didn’t understand why this was not the first instance of my not understanding. What I knew—what was becoming increasingly obvious to me as I watched the breaking news—was that somehow, by some cruel hand, the hurt had followed me here.
I also knew that the number 11—like the scissors—would never again mean nothing. In high school, my jersey number was 11. Celeste said that 11 was a nice number; she said that it was visually pleasing. Now, its ones are shards that draw blood when worn on my chest.
On October 5th, Celeste called to ask if I had heard about Chris. I said yes. She asked me what I knew, and I told her: that we rode Bus Four, that his mom drove a red minivan, and that, under clouds, we prayed together.
On October 27th, Celeste called to ask if I was okay. I said yes, but my brain objected, ten.
Ten. Ten. Ten. Eleven.