Monday, August 16, 2010


(Mammatus clouds, photograph by Carsten Peter)

In early April 1981 I got a phone call at work from Daddy telling me that Mama had just had a stress test by the cardiology specialist in Dallas they'd gone to that morning, and he had recommended immediate open-heart surgery. She was being prepped and could not come to the phone. The surgery would take several hours -- she had five arteries almost entirely blocked.

I went home and began frantically packing. My roommate was there, Renee, with whom I had only that week become lovers. I was desperately in love with her and didn't want to be separated from her. But neither of us could afford her plane fare.

In the prior year, I had come out to my family as an incest and abuse survivor at the hands of my older brother Craig. It was still completely raw. Further, Daddy had said Craig was driving to Dallas from San Antonio and would be there when I arrived. I was terrified about the meeting.

At the gate, I was the last to board, clinging to Renee. The gate attendant, a woman, seemed very moved by our embraces. I cried "I don't know how I'll be able to sleep without you."

"Here" said Renee, pulling off her flannel shirt and then the T-shirt underneath, leaving her bare-chested in the middle of SFO. "Take my T-shirt and put it on your pillow, it smells like me. I'll be here when you get back." I walked backwards onto the plane, clutching her smell talisman, as she stood there half-naked making the "I love you" sign at me.

Mama was in surgery at that point, and I might never see her alive again.

In Dallas, my heart plummeted when I saw waiting for me at that gate not Daddy but my little brother Bill. Bill and I had not yet made our peace with one another, and he was frequently caustic about anything to do with my life. He was massive, furious, a heavy smoker and usually high.

He said when he'd left the hospital, Mama was still in surgery, no word. We didn't have much else to say to each other. Once in his pickup, he put on loud headbanger music and lit a cigarette. I opened my window which didn't help enough. He was driving way too fast, grinding gears and riding people's asses, flipping them off if he didn't like how they looked or drove. I stuffed Renee's shirt into my pack to keep it from the cigarette smoke and closed my eyes.

I opened them again when Bill said gruffly "Craig is there."

"Daddy said he was coming."

"I told him to stay away from you."

I turned to look at Bill. "What?"

He didn't meet my gaze. His face was stony. "I told him to not even try to talk to you, or else he'd have me to deal with. I'm taller than him now, you know, I can take him and he knows it. He won't bother you again."

I was gobsmacked. In that instant, everything shifted. I remembered how Bill had stood, a toddler, pounding at the locked door behind which Craig was telling me to suck him off or else he'd bring Bill into the room too and I'd have to watch what he did to Bill. Craig took my "cooperation" as proof that I really wanted what he did to me. On a deep gut level, Bill knew what I'd done for him all the years until Craig finally left the house. His guilt about it was part of the gulf between us. In one move, he'd now paid me back and become the protector against our family monster.

Finally I said "Thank you." He grunted in reply.

There was a small waiting room off the ICU and that's where we found Daddy. He eas agitated, said Mama had done okay in the surgery but they couldn't get her to wake up. Without acknowledging Bill or asking me anything, he grabbed my hand and began pulling me into a semi-lit room with a circle of beds and machines in the center. Nurses tried to stop him but he pushed past them, saying "This is my daughter, she just flew in from California, she has to see Jo."

Mama looked terrible, flaccid, pale, her hair dirty. Daddy touched her hand and said "Honey, Maggie is here. Please wake up, it's Maggie." He put my hand on Mama's, which felt icy. I took it between my palms to warm it and began talking to her. I wanted to tell her about Renee, about being in love in a new way, but I couldn't. Still, in less than a minute her eyelids flickered open and she tried to focus on me. Her lips were dry and she could only whisper "Maggie? You're here?"

Daddy yelled "Yes!" and then almost jeered at the approaching nurse "I knew it would work." I was separated from Mama by medical personnel then, moving in to care for her. Daddy had already left the room, to trumpet his success in the waiting room. I followed slowly, drained.

Craig was sitting on a couch. He looked old and terrified, and I realized in that instant how pathetic he had always been. My fear of him evaporated. Also in the room was Daddy's brother, Vern, and his oldest and youngest sons, Barney and Fay Thomas. Six Barnett men and me. I said hello to everyone, even Craig, and he said hello back without looking at me. I winked at Bill and got a grin from him.

That was a major turning point in my life. Of course, I didn't sail through it perfectly. I slipped away to a phone down the hall whenever I could to call Renee and draw sustenance from her, and I was heroic in helping my mother start her new, good-heart existence. But once I got home, I shut down and couldn't let Renee touch me sexually. I refused to face my terror, and instead played dreadful mind games on her, eventually going off for a weekend of fucking with a woman I picked up at a poetry reading. Renee waited on me six months and then left forever.

But I did keep working on the damage. Bill and I regained our connection and the intimacy we had had as small children. Mama had three more good years before she died, and there was nothing left unsaid between us when she did die. And I apologized to Renee, though I don't believe she heard it, really.

Last night I dreamed I was camping on a wild, stunningly beautiful coast with my father, brothers, that uncle and those two cousins. A storm was coming in and I knew it would send waves over our flimsy tents. I tried to tell them reasonably that we had to move, but they wouldn't listen. Finally I yelled at them that we were leaving and began throwing gear into the van.

I drove us to a kind of rough hostel with an open air kitchen. We had enough food for one meal. I decided I would make a feast and then leave forever. It was up to them to eat or survive after that. I started pinto beans to soak, cooked rice, began cutting up a chicken. I was starting on the panzanella when I woke up.

Below is a poem I wrote about that surgical aftermath.


After the bypass, when Mama finally
came out of ICU and went into
a private room, every time
she moved, she winced
The veins they'd used to replumb her chest
came from unholy mining of her thighs
Her chest itself was Frankensteinian
Pried open like a mussel, then
wired back shut with stainless steel
She wanted to see. She wanted to know
what had been done to her. I helped her
sit up, folded back the sheets, looked
at her legs first. No wonder it hurts
My brothers stood up and went to the window
Talked stiffly to each other as if we were not there
She said "You'll have to untie this gown
in the back," and at that my father
walked out the door
We traced the red faultline with
my hand over her fingers, warm flesh
laced by cold metal
She sighed, and lay back down
I covered her up as she slept

© Maggie Jochild, 11 May 2006, 8:50 p.m.

1 comment:

Acilius said...

Hugs to you, Maggie. You're a champion.