Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Geographic Tongue

I am home for the holidays and we are once again hanging out in the Emergency Room, my dad resting comfortably on the white bed.  My mom and sister and I sit on chairs by the curtain, picking our nails, sending texts, wondering if Dad will be staying overnight this time, or longer.  The doctor in charge that day comes in and runs my dad through a series of tests, all in good humor.  We dislike this doctor because he has tried to bring Jesus to Dad a few times before, and all he has done is bring my father to tears.  I distrust him, but he’s the doctor.

“Can I get ya to stick your tongue out, Jim?” the doctor says.

My father complies.  He’s had a mild stroke and has been listing to the left in all regards.  Sure enough, his tongue comes out on the left.

My mom interjects, “Jim has geographic tongue.  He’s had it all his life.” 

I look at my mother, once again wondering what language she speaks.  “What’s ‘geographic tongue’?” I ask.

“He’s always had hills and valleys and rivulets on his tongue,” she says. “Normal tongues are smooth.  It’s a harmless condition.”

So my father sticks his geographic tongue out and it lists to the left, and this is more evidence that he’s had a stroke on the right side.  A mild stroke.

In not two minutes’ time, my sister comes back in from smoking a cigarette and lets us know that a corpse has just been wheeled out, and Dr. Jesus bounces back in with one last word of cheer for my dad: “Jim!  Ya know what the great thing is about bein’ your age versus bein’ my age?”

Dr. Jesus is probably 58.  My dad is 79.

“No, Dave, why don’t you tell me?”

Dr. Freeman looks like the Michelin Man compared to my dad, at the moment.  “Jim!  You’re gonna see the Glory Land a lot sooner than I do!”  Dr. Freeman is all smiles.

My dad sets his jaw against whatever Dr. Freeman is selling this time.  There is nowhere for my dad to go, not a lot of fight in him today.  “Personally, Dave, I’d rather see you than the Glory Land anytime soon,” my dad says.

Finally, it’s time to take my dad home.  He’s passed inspection this time.  Just more rehab, with maybe a closer watch.  My sister and I are the last ones to walk out of the E.R. past the nurses’ station; Dr. Freeman is sitting behind it, shouting out his happy goodnights.  There’s a little rage swirling between my brain and my heart: Don’t you talk to my father about the Glory Land.  Don’t you sell Jesus to my father.

We take Dad home, get him inside the house, resting in his chair.  At supper time, does he want soup?  No.  Does he want an apple tartlet?  No.  Does he want soup?  Okay, maybe a cup.  Maybe some ice cream with his tartlet.

I don’t know how my mom is dealing with it, but I know how I am.  The last time I was home, I stole a few of my mom’s washcloths.  She likes the cheap ones that are thin and rough; they give a better wash.  I agree.  This year, I steal a pair of my dad’s black socks.  It’s fifteen below zero and I am cold anyway.  Seems legitimate, or at least defensible.

The day of my departure—before Christmas this time, that’s just how my schedule panned out—I run around my parents’ house, gathering my gifts, my electronic devices, any other little things I can steal that won’t be missed.  Who knows what might happen by the time I make it back.  I stop by my dad’s chair for a visit.  He’s waiting for his bath lady.  Bath days are good days.

“Kathryn, are you going to be here for Christmas?” my dad asks.

“No,” I say. “I’m going back to Arizona today.”

“That’s shitty,” my dad says, but he’s still in good humor.

“Different strokes for different folks,” I say, repeating the phrase I’ve been using since he had one and we’ve been trying to reassure him that his is not serious.

He grimaces at me.  All this darkness from his children.

“Dad,” I say. “Stick out your tongue.”

He looks at me like the slave-driver I am, gives up, and sticks his tongue out.  It lists to the left and is covered in yellow.  Those are not daisies.

“Thanks Dad,” I say.

I know the bath lady is coming and after that, my dad is scheduled for a non-emergency ambulance ride back to the hospital, where he’ll be reevaluated because he can’t really walk anymore.  I run to my mom and tell her to put one more thing on the list of Dad’s new symptoms: infected geographic tongue.

My dad is hungry and would eat another cup of tomato-basil soup if he could make it to the table.  His chair is electronic and boosts him up to almost a standing position, from where he can grab his walker and make it into the kitchen.  My mom is doing her hair for the rest of the day; the non-emergency ambulance will be here soon.  I help my dad get situated with his walker, halfway between standing and falling back into the chair, and I use the words I’ve learned in his therapy to prompt him: “Big! March!”

My dad’s feet stay planted, his whole body trembling.  We are both willing those feet to move towards the table.  I repeat “Big!” and “March!” for the fifteen minutes it takes us to make it fifteen feet.  My father is tired from his stint in the emergency room, tired from lack of good sleep, tired from knowing that in another half hour, he’ll be leaving his house in a non-emergency ambulance.

“I don’t think I can make it,” he whispers.

My arms are already around him; I have the rib cage and arm-pit area covered.  My eyes have been on his feet and all obstacles.  There is no way this man is going down on my shift.  I remember a lesson that one of my nurse-sisters told me just a couple days before about smaller people ensuring the safety of larger people who are falling: “Wedge your knee between their legs and begin to kneel down on the other one.  Use your arms to guide them to the floor; slide them down your leg.  It always works—it’s like ballet, almost.”

I am doing ballet with my dad in the hallway.  I call for my mother, and she comes to help.


I still have to get ready for my flight.  I leave my dad eating tomato-basil soup at the kitchen table.  I hear noise from downstairs and I know it’s the non-emergency paramedics packing my dad up for the hospital again, then probably the Care Center again for rehab.  I run up the stairs and there my dad is, zipped into an insulated sleeping bag on a mobile stretcher, just his face showing.

“Dad, you look like you’re in a cocoon,” I say. “Maybe you’ll come out like a butterfly.”

One of the paramedics says, “Or a moth.”  Obviously, he knows my dad better than I do.  He’s seen my dad more than I have.

I stand there teetering between Minnesota and Arizona.  “Can I give him a kiss?” I ask the paramedics.  My dad is so bundled up; only his face will show between the house and the ambulance for ten seconds.

“Of course,” they say.

I walk up to my dad and kissy-kiss him on the cheek and nose.

“See you in May.”

Sunday, December 8, 2013


As if my life wasn’t hectic enough already trying to win speech contests and learn how to juggle for the school play, one of my older siblings or maybe even my mom left the TV station on Sybil one day.  It was like everybody I knew and loved disappeared for an entire afternoon so PBS could show me, personally, on this oddly quiet Saturday when I was twelve, what schizophrenia was all about.

Then somebody brought the book home, the detailed history of Sybil herself.  I picked it up, much as I did Roots and The Thornbirds around the same time.  I was attached to every word of those books; they were like movies in my mind, though I had yet to see a real movie, since Blue Lagoon wasn’t out yet.

I got the ickies reading Sybil; now I can say that the movie was tame compared to the book.  I would go so far as to say that reading this book impaired my ability to make faces for at least a year; that is, I was straight-faced for a long time after I read Sybil.  Anything weird that happened to me or around me, I just glanced at and nodded.  I learned to acknowledge, but not react.

It's been forever since I’ve seen the full Sybil movie, and I never returned to the book after my first reading.  Together, they whammied me in such a way that almost all the characters and personalities from both would live in me forever.  I hear Sybil pounding in the book, and I match that up with Sally Field building cupboards in the movie.  I precisely imagine how all the personalities emerged at the end in the park, some hesitantly, but in the movie, I see Sally Field meeting her friends.
One without the other—the movie without the book—would not have been the same. 


The phone rings and it’s my sister.  This one and I are cut from the same cloth.  Our spirits are the same, just playing out in different scenarios. “Are you comin’ home for Christmas?” she says.

“Of course,” I say. “I’ve been on Mom and Dad’s calendar for a month.”

“Oh,” she retreats.  I know the face she’s making because I make it myself all the time, the “Well, thank God I can relax about that” face.

“You gonna be nice to everybody?” she asks.  Actually, she doesn’t ask this.  I am asking myself.  It would seem like an easy question with only one response.  It was a very large piece of fabric that our parents cut us from.


Probably the most forgiving words of my life came from my father when I was home on break from school many years ago, maybe 1994.  I was still unsure of myself around the house my parents were living in; it was the only one that they had ever bought without us.  It took a long time for me to find my footsteps around there.

One Sunday morning I was hesitatingly creating Monster Omelets by chopping up everything in the kitchen that could go into an omelet, surreptitiously tossing out the moldy and bad food in my parents’ fridge at the same time, hoping not to get nailed for wasting.  There came a moment when I wanted to use paper towels to mop up the water that had leaked from the vegetables, but my dad was watching me do all of this, and I wasn’t sure what the paper towel rules were.

He must have seen the question on my face because he leaned back, picking his teeth with a toothpick, and nodded.“We use a lot of paper towels in this house.”

He could have told me he’d be alive for the next hundred years, that’s how relieved I was.

Sunday, December 1, 2013


I was the baby for a long time in my family, for ten years in fact before my oldest sister got married and had a baby of her own.  It had been hard enough to see her marry the big-lipped white guy…there she was going…but it was harder when they would bring the new baby to our house…there she was gone.  I was no longer the special girl who would get the first attention.  There were two people in my way now.

This first baby, I was probably a little unfair with.  I had been usurped and disrupted, but I was in love with this big-headed thing for some reason too.  I had sat next to it when it was still in my sister’s belly all summer, getting my sister iced tea and watching her knit.  I still really didn’t understand why she was living in an apartment so far away from our house, but I felt proud to be sitting next to her in the sun on the couch, watching TV in the daytime.  It seemed like important work.

And then they started bringing the real baby to our house.  There was a crib in my room—I had seen it being built—the same room I used to share with my sister.  This was not a fair exchange.  I never said it, but I remember thinking, So, you’re going to put the baby in my room.  You’re putting the baby in my room.

That was fine.  I don’t think the baby lasted very long in my room, though.  I don’t know where she went after that, probably closer to her parents downstairs on the blow-up.  These weekend visits would set me off in a way.  The closer this new family was around us, the less sense it made for me to keep writing notes to God and burning them in the wood stove.  There were no fairies in the sky.

More serious times had set in.

That house had a winding staircase in it that had seen many a drama play out.  I would lie on the couch, in my eights and nines and tens, and watch my parents chase the older kids up and down those stairs.  Sometimes I would be scared, and sometimes I’d be sick; sometimes I would hear it coming, and sometimes it would be a surprise.  One time I really was sick, but my mom was working, so my dad was in charge of me.  He gave me a glass of cold ginger ale fresh from the store and I promptly threw up just outside my parents’ bedroom.  I waved it off and said I needed to lie down right now, so I did, on my parents’ bed.  It was one of the best rests I’ve ever had.

One day I walked down that staircase from my room, having studied nursing for three hours on my bed with my sister’s nursing books, always stored in the closet.  I came around the end of the stairs and there was the baby again: this time the family couch had been dismantled and she was sleeping in all her big-headedness where a cushion had been removed.  The cushion was pressed up against the couch, held in place by a coffee table, the baby all safe and secure in the crevice of the couch.  She looked pretty comfortable in there.

I came off the stairs, took about four steps towards the baby, took in her serene sleeping face and her chubby little legs, then I reached in and pinched her.  I took her big grubby thigh and squeezed it together between my thumb and index finger.  She was a slow crier; apparently, this hadn’t been done to her before.  She woke up slowly, all negative, then she scrunched up her face and started crying.  Waa, waa, waa.

I walked away with a tiny bit of guilt, calling out as usual in our house then, “The baby’s crying.”  I had no idea why.


Another thing they told me about babies was that they had a “soft spot” on their heads.  Apparently this was because their skulls hadn’t grown shut yet, so you had to wait before the final finishing touches took place.  You always had to be careful of the soft spot.  “Don’t bump her head,” I would hear.  “That’s why she wears a bonnet!”

I would look at my tow-headed niece with the big blue eyes, always kicking her fat little thighs, and I couldn’t wait to get my thumb on her soft spot.  When I did—hers was about the size of a quarter—I started tracing the edges every second I got.  They were really smooth, not jagged. 

I never poked my finger in there because I knew that was her brain, but I liked tracing the edges of it, gently on her bald head, knowing how easy it would be to hurt her.