This multiple-part series is from a longer work-in-progress I’ve begun that recounts my experiences in Recapture Canyon in southeast Utah. Woven throughout the longer narrative are my ideas about language’s part in evolution, culture, and relationship–including what language reveals about and how it affects the ways we treat with people who live with what I call “brain variables”–conditions of the brain that require those of us with “normal” brains to make an extra efforts to travel beyond ourselves in order to encounter and stand with the people that live with them. As with some of my longer series, this may not be an easy read. It certainly hasn’t been an easy write. I respectfully request that readers not download this piece. If you are in need of any language or information in this series, please email me at pk dot wizadmin at gmail dot com to request a copy.
On Thanksgiving Eve, Sky, our family dog, died of conditions related to old age. If she’d reached her birthday at December’s end, she’d have turned fourteen years old. Up to four or five weeks before her death, Sky still raced my fourteen-year-old daughter around the yard, loping creakily on arthritic hips. Running must have hurt but when she threw herself into the competition her blue eyes sparked and her mouth curled back along her muzzle into a wide, tongue-lolling grin. During those runs she felt herself part of a pack and like a good Siberian husky jockeyed to take lead position. She’d become deaf over the last year; to draw her attention we shouted her name and clapped our hands. She turned and looked but seemed unsure that she’d really heard anything. I suspect that in the last few weeks she’d started going blind.
Once the cold weather set in she declined rapidly. She couldn’t keep food down then stopped eating completely. We worried that she might have cancer but the local vet paid us a house call and found no evidence of an ailment of that sort. What was wrong with her, then? She’s the equivalent of ninety-four years old, he said, coming to the end of her life. During the last few weeks, when my daughter took Sky off her cable, the old dog kept up her routine of patrolling the west fence line at a tottering pace. My daughter followed her patiently, waiting when Sky dropped to the ground to rest then lifting the old dog to her feet so that she could complete a duty she still felt intent on performing.
Sky had never been an ideal family pet. She posed danger to neighbors’ cats and other animals. When she was a puppy, she attacked our next-door neighbor’s manx kitten. If my neighbor hadn’t struck her with a shovel he had in hand Sky would have killed that kitten, even though she was a pup herself. Sky and that cat waged war throughout the seven or so years they lived next door to each other. The cat came into the yard to invade her space and to torment her. Twice, Sky caught him in the yard when she was running loose, nearly killing him a second time and then a third. One day I heard commotion and stepped outside to find she’d treed the cat, who was panting heavily and looked to be going into shock. His wild-eyed, gape-mouthed expression suggested that she might have done him harm but he lived to taunt her another day. She did catch and execute a feral cat that had unwisely taken up residence in our yard. A little over a year ago, after we’d left Utah Valley for the rural life in southeast Utah, I returned from a trip to discover that she’d hurt herself, perhaps while trying to jump on top of her outdoor shelter. She could barely walk so I told the kids to leave her off her cable. She liked this arrangement and took to the shade of a juniper tree growing in our backyard. I didn’t think she could get very far and let my attention lapse. Two hours later I discovered her a block up the street, exiting a neighbor’s orchard with a freshly killed black cat clamped in her mouth. I’m not a big fan of cats, but Sky’s drive to kill them appalled and repulsed me. Our own two cats lived in the yard knowing she’d put an end to them if ever she caught them.
Still, she kept watch over the house and policed our acre-and-a-half on the edge of the desert, letting us know when something was amiss. In the spring, we moved her house near the garden to deter rabbits. But we could never trust her to remain in the yard or not kill other creatures. In our agricultural neighborhood, where chickens, cats, lambs and goat kids abound, this meant that she had to stay on her cable unless one of us was outside with her to keep an eye on her every minute.
When we saw the end coming, we released her from the cable–this time, for good, because she was no longer a threat. I threw a heavy, pink baby afghan over the old dog. We brought her inside the garage to keep watch over her. For the next two days, I looked in on her as often as I could. Her breathing became increasingly rough, wheezing, and irregular. Each of us took turns checking on her, but she still managed to slip away between spot-checks. We intended to be with her at the very end, but on one of my checks I discovered that she’d died. I alerted my husband. He hurried into the basement to examine her and declared that yes, she’d gone. My son and I wrapped her in a sheet. He lifted her–the old dog had weighed over seventy pounds months earlier but much of that that evaporated over the course of her dying–and moved her onto a plywood board outdoors. Then he and I set to work cleaning up the basement where she’d died. It was a solemn duty. The atmosphere of the house altered at her departure. I don’t know quite how to put it, but immediately upon our discovery of her death some kind of space opened. It was as if part of our identity as a family had sheared off. At one point, my husband sat down beside me. “There is one fewer of us,” he said. “Can you feel that?” “Yes. Yes I can,” I said. “It’s surprising.”
The next day was Thanksgiving, but none of us felt like celebrating. Before everyone else awoke I headed for Crossfire Canyon (Recapture), my mind a knot containing several strings of snarled thought. Sky’s decline and death was only the most recently added strand. Since July, my husband Mark had been waging a battle against mental illness that was, at least in part, the result of his highly expressive personality’s reaction to various medications he’d been prescribed since his hemorrhagic stroke in 2010. The significant brain injuries he suffered from the big stroke itself and subsequent brain surgery and his wild reactions to medications converged, each probably contributing to his haywire behavior. The stroke has lingering effects, but increasingly, I think his introduction to common medications is the prime trigger for his really precipitous personality changes. Before his first, daily-basis dance with prescription meds, he was pretty much himself as I have known him over two decades. Since the addition of several chemical compounds to his system, it has become increasingly evident that he has developed some flavor of rapid-cycling, bi-polar or bi-polar-like disposition, .
An MRI for the 2010 stroke revealed that he had an underlying, probably genetic mutation called cerebral cavernous malformations. CCMs are malformed, often thin-walled blood vessels in the brain that are given to rupturing or seeping. Many folks who have CCMs have one, a couple–maybe half a dozen present in their brains. Mark has somewhere between one and two hundred. Not only had they laid him bare to the impossible-to-miss event but also they had previously caused twenty or more smaller, “asymptomatic” strokes. Last July, his mental disarray reached “King Lear” proportions. On the one-year anniversary of the 2010 stroke, I found myself parking the car along a less populated street while my husband shouted at me and out the car window, cursing and challenging God. His speech so closely resembled the Act III, Scene II storm-whipped ravings of the Shakespearian king that I began orienting myself by that paradigm:
Lear. Blow, winds, and crack your cheeks! rage! blow!
You cataracts and hurricanoes, spout
Till you have drench’d our steeples, drown’d the cocks!
You sulphurous and thought-executing fires,
Vaunt-couriers to oak-cleaving thunderbolts,
Singe my white head! And thou, all-shaking thunder,
Strike flat the thick rotundity o’ the world!
Crack nature’s moulds, all germens spill at once
That make ingrateful man!
Yes–it was that bad. Moments before I pulled the car to a stop, as he had been driving at me with his words, listing all the ways I had thwarted his plans over the years, he asked if I was listening. “Yes,” I said, quietly. “You think I’ve betrayed you.” “You all have!” he thundered, meaning not only me but also the kids and perhaps scores of other shadowy folk inhabiting the court of his high-minded irrationality. How sharper than a serpent’s tooth.
Following this paroxysm, he became withdrawn, though highly agitated. He couldn’t sleep. The next day, as I sat at my computer working, he rose from a failed nap and approached me, the look in his eyes disturbing enough to prompt me to prepare for another outburst. But he didn’t rant. “Do you think I’m … unintelligent?” he asked. His tone was sharp and very cold. “I think you’re brilliant,” I said, keeping it simple. It was the truth. His eyes reflected nothing but a glitter of disdainful doubt. “Did you ever even like me?” he asked. “I love you,” I said. “I always have.” He didn’t respond except to turn away and head down into the basement to his “man cave”.
I sat staring at the computer screen, shocked and frightened. Obviously, something had gone very wrong and it wasn’t getting better. Before these two episodes, in the wake of his first prescription and then his stroke which brought another round of prescriptions, he’d experienced a few personality shifts that were short-lived, in part because I called attention to them and he, trusting me, experimented on himself to figure out which medications were the culprits. Once he had isolated the offending drug, he quit it and shortly returned to equilibrium. But this was different. This time, I was the focus of his paranoia. This meant that my ability to help him had weakened. Not having any close-in experience with the psychological condition that’s perhaps unwisely labeled mental illness, I had no idea what had toppled him from his throne of rationality except that perhaps he was having a late-blooming adverse reaction to one or more of the medications he’d been prescribed since the 2010 stroke. This was not my husband who had just asked such starkly accusatory questions–it was someone as far opposite of my husband as I’d known him during twenty-one years of marriage as R. L. Stevenson’s Mr. Hyde was of Dr. Jekyll. I didn’t know what to do to help this man.
I sat mentally examining his words, turning them over and over, considering what they might signify. Behind me on my bookshelf sat my personal journals, which, up to about eight years ago, I kept faithfully. Contained therein is a record of our marriage from its beginning, and, I thought, language that might have the potency to reach him–if any words could. I decided to go after him. To prepare for what I knew would be a long ordeal, I took a deep drink of water, used the bathroom, and changed my nineteen-year-old, special needs daughter’s diaper. I told my son, “Something’s wrong with Dad. I’m going down to talk to him. I want you to stay alert. If I tell you to call 911, I want you to do it immediately. Don’t pay attention to what he says–listen to me.” I stood at the head of the stairs to the basement, hesitant. “I’ve never faced a dragon like this,” I said to my son. “I don’t know what’s going to happen.” Then I went down the stairs, mentally loosening up any imaginings I had about what could happen, limbering my own mental state.
To read part two, go here.
(Edited 1/13/2012 at noon to correct spelling, etc. errors and cut down the intro.)
(Photo found and added 1/13/2012 at 12:25.)