Blood Work

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Morning Zen Guest Blog Post ~ Yona Harvey ~

I lock my office door, take a few deep breaths, and turn the pages of Brandi’s journal. It’s the fullest personal record of my sister’s life, the only one I found while cleaning and packing her Chicago condominium. I’d recognized it immediately by the Jacob Lawrence painting, The Library, reproduced on the front and back covers. I’d given Brandi the journal to celebrate her first birthday away at college. When I found it, our parents were packing up in other rooms, and I quickly shoved it into my purse. Brandi would not, I convinced myself, have wanted our parents reading her journal. Besides, what if she’d written something critical of them? They wouldn’t be able to handle it.

Mostly the journal is an account of Brandi’s first year on campus at The Ohio State University, filled with predictable gripes about classes, dorm mates, and new love interests. Her journal also reveals, though, bouts of depression, stress, insecurity, and suicidal thoughts, as well as her visits to a campus therapist. The 1994–1995 academic year was a challenging period for my sister. It was her first time away from home, and she was baffled by the social life, contradictions, and new ideas that many college students face. Not long after Thanksgiving 1995, she writes:

Good Things

I believe Langston Hughes when he writes that “poems, like prayers, possess power,” and I read what Brandi writes as a poem. Brandi’s poem has a title, line breaks, and an affirming catalog of “good things” that ends with the name of a teenaged boy, L.E., who once captured Brandi’s imagination. Maybe because I’m a poet and an older sister wanting peace of mind, I can’t help but read Brandi’s work this way. I want to believe that Brandi’s catalog of good things pulled her back from isolation. And I’m relieved to know that, for one year at least, Brandi found some comfort in writing and recording her thoughts, and that she sought help for her depression and difficulties. What she writes is part poem, part affirmation, part girl talk, and part secret. And, like Brandi, the poem keeps certain information to itself. Who, for instance, was D.J.? The name doesn’t ring the slightest bell.

Her sloppy handwriting and cryptic, graffiti-like tags—“college life,” “snap,” “fuck da bullshit”—make me feel connected to Brandi once more, binding us together again as two sisters who gossiped and vented in my high school bedroom with the door shut. But the journal also makes me wonder why Brandi never told me about feeling depressed. She was my most trusted friend, the maid of honor at my wedding, my closest living ancestor. Did she feel ashamed of her depression or the inner workings of her brain? Did my parents and I pressure Brandi with too many expectations? If I hadn’t become distracted by the demands of marriage and mothering, would Brandi have called me for help sooner—long before she found herself running from an ER examination room to peer over the ledge of a hospital garage roof?

“Sometimes I think I’m slow,” she writes on one page of her journal, as if people were born hip and charming, as if the young women and men around her were pulling things off better. She didn’t hide what she didn’t know; she was incapable of such posturing. What she didn’t know, though, sometimes embarrassed her.

Reading the journal, I search for the one clue that will erase all mystery, the sentence that says, “On this day, at this time, such and such happened and put me over the edge.” I look for any hint that predicts how Brandi might have felt during the last week of her life. And when I can’t find helpful clues from that period, I hunt further back, trying to locate some revealing thing about the way my sister and I grew up, how we lived, who we befriended, what we ate—anything that might help me to understand Brandi’s anguish. I can never dissect Brandi’s brain, examine her body, or take blood samples. And Brandi’s journal is a fragmented record, with time gaps. Her entire adulthood is missing. Brandi was thirty years old when she died—far from the freshman college student who wrote these pages. Perhaps my clinging to these pages makes no sense. But as the sound of Brandi’s voice, her scent, and the tightness of her hugs fade, these tactile pages remain. Years past Brandi’s death, I’m relying primarily on memory; but turning the pages, I commit to the difficult work of unearthing the mysteries of my sister, my kin, my blood.

***

It’s early April 2007 in Cincinnati, Ohio, a few days after Easter. It’s the season of children’s recitations of Bible verses, family dinners with glazed hams and green beans with potatoes, ritual prayers by the faithful for the sick and shut-in. Sinners who’ve drifted return home to Zion for the pastor’s retelling of Christ’s resurrection, that quintessential Christian sermon. My mother, recently retired as a secretary from Proctor & Gamble, has become an ordained Pentecostal minister. And though she doesn’t yet know it, this week will mark the beginning of the insomnia that will plague her for the next several years.

“I’m stressed out,” Brandi will often say before growing silent, starting to weep, or falling to the living room floor of our parents’ condominium to pound the carpet with her fists. When my parents and I ask, “What’s wrong?” this is always her sole explanation. When she isn’t crying or curled in a heap, she wanders from room to room with a distant look on her face. She breaks her silences with what appear to be newly surfaced memories, rattling off time-warped sentences like a broken doll with a worn and tangled string on her back. “You need to learn to love yourself,” she says, grabbing and shaking the bedpost in our parents’ room. “You need to learn to love yourself,” she repeats, mimicking, it seems, someone else’s harsh criticism. Or, perhaps, her own?

Her shiny black hair is wound in two-strand twists, slightly frayed at the ends. She’s dressed in a T-shirt and sweatpants; anyone might mistake her for a college undergraduate. With the exception of her hair, which she changes frequently, Brandi looks the same as when our mother saw her last: she has the clear, amber skin of a person who doesn’t drink, smoke, or eat much junk food. Before walking away, she stops, turns, and faces our mother.

“Did he put his hands on you?”

Her question bears a startling mystery and soundness. Did who put his hands on her? Brandi resumes her meandering without waiting for an answer.

Our mother follows Brandi from room to room; and after several hours, she calls me. “She won’t calm down,” she says, shortly after midnight, whispering into the phone so Brandi won’t overhear. “She doesn’t want to be alone, and she doesn’t want me to run any water.”

***

“Chicago is not my home,” Brandi says, correcting the ER nurse who reviews her insurance and contact information. This morning, our mother gave Brandi a bath and brushed her hair, just as she’d done when Brandi was little. Brandi hasn’t slept much, but she is calm and waits quietly for her assigned doctor. In her medical records, we will later see, the nurse describes Brandi’s voice as despondent and “flat,” noting that the patient says she is “stressed.” He directs Brandi and our parents to the seating area.

The Christ Hospital is where our parents met as teenagers, earning their first real-world paychecks by delivering food trays to patients. Granny, my father’s mother, retired from food service here and lives a few blocks away. The hospital rests in the heart of Mount Auburn, a neglected, predominantly black neighborhood that was once the home of William Howard Taft. In recent years, white city residents searching for cheap property near the University of Cincinnati have ventured as far as Granny’s street, the first signs of inevitable gentrification.

After a few hours, the nurse calls Brandi’s name and takes her to the examination room, our parents following softly behind.

“If you don’t want to be here,” the nurse says, handing Brandi a paper, “you can complete this form and be released.” Brandi writes her name, then hesitates. She crumples the paper.

The doctor will introduce himself and seem, my parents will say, slightly bothered by what he assesses as Brandi’s lack of cooperation. Does the doctor have any experience with mentally ill patients? Do the doctor’s questions about physical ailments reflect his inattention to Brandi’s mental health? Does the doctor find it strange that my parents have accompanied their thirty-year-old daughter to the ER? Does the white doctor have prejudices about the black population of Mount Auburn? If so, to what degree are these prejudices at work? Does the doctor believe mentally ill patients have a certain physical appearance? That they speak a certain way? Behave a certain way? Should attending ER physicians have a list of questions that address mental health care? These are some of the questions I’ll formulate during the next several months. These are the questions I’ve asked again and again and again. And each day without Brandi I answer: yes, yes, yes.

Here’s what will be undisputed: The doctor’s phone will ring. He’ll take the call and leave the room.

After a while, Brandi will fidget; she’ll ask if the doctor will be back soon.

And then, the action that will puzzle and haunt everyone forever: Brandi will run. She will run like an Olympic medal is within her grasp, like her legs are made of bionic parts, like the Hellhounds are on her trail. A knees-up, pumped-up bolt.

The thirty-something doctor with wire-rimmed glasses and thinning blonde hair will return to my mother to ask if our family has any history of mental health issues. His question will be too late.

***

Brandi is throwing a housewarming party at her condo on Chicago’s South Side; my mother, father, grandmother, and I arrive a day early to spend more time with her. Though my sister bought her condo over a year ago, her rooms have few accessories and no paintings or pictures on the still-white walls. Her furniture consists of a small kitchen table, a modest sofa, a few chairs. Our footsteps echo as we walk along the hardwood floors.

Brandi’s condo is the exact opposite of my home in Pittsburgh, where I trip over toys, cram books and magazines into corners, and greet another person in every room. My attention bounces precipitously among my husband, Terrance; my three-year-old son; my seven-year-old daughter; an unfinished poetry manuscript; and an intense graduate program in library and information science. Brandi and I share the nasty habit of doing too much at once. So I feel relieved to be simply a sister and daughter again, however briefly. I suspect Brandi feels this relief, too. Her friend who was supposed to help with party planning cancels at the last minute, and Brandi instantly puts my mother and me to work. We land at Target, searching for napkins, paper plates, and air mattresses, and despite the upcoming party tomorrow, we easily fall back into our familiar, carefree disregard for time.

“What do you think about these pants?” I ask Brandi.

She turns up her nose. “I don’t buy clothes at Target.”

“Forget you,” I say, fake-elbowing her. “Married mothers of two on a budget shop at Target.” I can hardly stop smiling. I’m proud of Brandi, all grown up and living what I perceive to be a “cool, single life” in the big city, a funds manager at Northern Trust Bank who has modeled in hair shows for neighborhood salons. She has new friends from her church and job, some of whom will attend the party. A few co-workers have been trying to fix Brandi up with “the new guy” from the UK, but she’s not interested. He, too, will be at the party, and I’m eager to size him up.

Back home, I’m swimming to stay afloat and maintain an independent identity, which seems to multiply with each commitment, childbirth, and family move. Maybe this is why I can’t see Brandi’s loneliness. I often long to be alone, taking for granted the built-in support around me—my son’s fingers curled around my hair, my daughter’s framed artwork, Terrance’s affections—human touches. I do not imagine how strange it might be for Brandi to hear only the echo of her own footsteps and, perhaps, the murmur of television voices at the end of the day.

***

I’m speeding south on Interstate 71, passing the city limits of Columbus, Ohio, the last segment of the drive to Cincinnati from my house in Pittsburgh. I feel the air leave the car, the swift pressure of a tight squeeze around my arms and chest, and then the ghost thump of drums. Why can’t I breathe? Joan Osborne slips through the stereo speakers with her blues brand of Bob Dylan’s “Man in the Long Black Coat”: “she’s gone, she’s gone.” Only a moment ago, at the side of the road, I played a voicemail message from Aunt Nellie, my mother’s sister.

“Come to Christ Hospital,” she said. “Get here as soon as you can.”

She didn’t answer when I called back. Why was she calling me when she knew I was already on my way to meet Brandi and my parents? And why am I even listening to this music? At the last minute, I grabbed the CD from an old box of forgotten discs, not wanting to waste time, having no memory of this song or its lyrics. Did I tune out Brandi in a similar way? Hearing only what I wanted? Hearing only what felt neat and good?

I was up most of the night, the result of my mother calling every two hours or so in a panic about Brandi, whose behavior has become increasingly erratic this past week.

“I’m afraid of who’s waiting there,” I told Terrance a few hours ago, placing my toothbrush on the bathroom counter. He stood behind me, wearing his glasses, his six-foot-six, former-college-basketball-player body barely fitting the mirror’s frame.

“It’s gonna be fine,” he said, rubbing my shoulders. “And it’s not about you; it’s about your family. They need you.” But he wasn’t familiar with the Brandi of late, the inconsolable one. He hadn’t heard Brandi’s voice, high-pitched and euphoric one minute, flat and emotionless the next. He knew Brandi as he last saw her: five foot eight and bubbly, Halle Berry haircut, blasting Fantasia songs on her laptop, modeling the winter coat our parents gave her for Christmas, a complete ham sandwich as she mocked the catwalk swag of a high-profile, high-fashion diva.

“OK, love you, bye,” she’d said on the phone, yesterday afternoon, like an automaton asking a customer to hold for the next available agent. It would be the last time I’d hear her speak.

***

No one will catch Brandi. Not the medical staff, not the baffled onlookers, not the team of security personnel, and not my father, for whom Brandi breaks stride for just a second, near an exit that leads to the parking garage roof. “You said they would help me,” she shouts, before turning and running away.

What is the language of anguish? What did Brandi mean when she confessed she felt “slow”? What happened to Brandi during the time when she wasn’t writing, in the years between college graduation and her work for a major banking company? What happens when a woman struggles to find words for the strangeness of her mind? When Brandi told our parents, her co-workers, the emergency room personnel, and me that she was “stressed,” so much depended upon what each of us could hear.

“She jumped on that ledge so fast,” my father will tell me days before the funeral, “like Superwoman. Before she went over, her coat brushed my hand.”

* * * * *

Yona Harvey is the author of one of the essays in the book Writing Away the Stigma.

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