by Tim Gilmore, 4/2/2018
What’s it like in there? In his head? I ask him what he thinks about. He doesn’t say. I ask him if he remembers his dreams. He holds out an upturned palm, shakes his head dismissively, says, “Not too much.” I ask him if he thinks about the past, about his childhood. He never was sentimental, that’s for sure. His parents never showed affection, never laughed or talked much. The farm was everything.
I’m not sure why he thinks he’s going home today. It’s his second day here, after two nights, Cardiac Unit, second time in a month. Congestive Heart Failure, quick and slow. The doctor said, “We’ll see.” When pressed, he wouldn’t specify whether “we’ll see” today or some other day. He’s not much more a communicator than is my father.
I’d just started re-reading The Heart is a Lonely Hunter. Carson McCullers’s small Southern town always reminds me of where my father grew up. Then I got the news about his hospitalization. Carson grew up in Columbus, Georgia. My father lived there in his early 20s after growing up in Oglethorpe. That was 70 years ago. At the end of the first chapter of that first novel, Antanapoulos is sent to the state mental institution in Milledgeville. My father’s older brother spent a good deal of his life at that same institution. McCullers died when she was 50. When I was born, my father was 50. When my father was born, McCullers was seven years old. Reading her weird world feels like mining uncanny memories from before my own birth.
My father cracks jokes. His eyes are bright. He’s sharp. He offers big mischievous false-teeth smiles. He tells the tiny Asian Occupational Therapist who checks his pulse, “You just wanted to hold my hand.” Later he’s eating chicken and green beans and says something about when he gets old. I ask when that might be. He looks down at his food, looks back at me, and says, “Soon as I get done with this chicken.” His heart still runs his sense of humor, the sharp look in his faded eye, but it won’t drain his fluids. The price of my father’s weird wit is edema.
I ask him if he needs me to bring him anything at all. He doesn’t watch TV—“I don’t care about all that,” he says, waves his hand dismissively. Can I bring him something to read? Mostly he just sits here in the hospital bed—like a Buddha—awake and aware. What’s it like in there? I cannot fathom the question. Generally, I dislike nouns as verbs, but “fathom” makes for itself an exception. For most of his decades, comparing him to a Buddha would have offended him. He seems far less religious now, at 94, than he’s been all the 44 years of my life—no constant Bible reading, no forced handholding and prayer, but I’m not about to tell this 70-year Baptist fundamentalist that he seems less religious and more like a Buddha. What’s it like in there?
His window looks into a strange in-between space, a hidden gulf between this old brick unit and this even older building conjoined by air-conditioning ductwork, rusted ladders, and rooftop aluminum. Windows on two of the three floors across from my father’s room were long ago bricked-in. One large arch across the way was filled with bricks, then mostly buried in roofing metal that connected these old buildings in the late 1940s or the ’70s. Surely, sealed rooms wait like Bluebeard’s somewhere in this 528-bed hospital. Certainly, for the sake of convenience, between an oldest structure and newer old annex, some lost year enclosed a corridor. Just then, as certainly, Carson McCullers’ bare feet pitter-pat an old parquet floor an invisible hallway away.
The Catholic sisterhood called the Daughters of Charity of St. Vincent de Paul, founded in 1633, instituted this hospital in 1916, having served the wounded and sick in Jacksonville since the Spanish American War encampments in 1898, and moved from Springfield to St. Vincent’s new Riverside edifice in 1928. You could see them, walking the city, walking Riverside, in their elaborate starched habits that looked like ossified wings or horns flung out from their heads. The sisters wore these habits, the headdress of peasant women in France in the early 1600s, until adopting a less dramatic blue veil in 1964.
As I was born in this hospital in 1974, as my daughters were born in this hospital in 1998 and 2001, as my mother spent time in the beds of these buildings before dying at home in 1986, St. Vincent’s Hospital has served its time in my head most of my life as a waystation for the comings and goings of life in the world.
I recall walking through my childhood neighborhood with my parents at dusk, catching toads, placing them in a bag to release into my father’s garden. There were so many toads back then. I remember playing checkers with my father, Frisbee, football, basketball. My father and I were the only white people down at the neighborhood basketball courts. They thought I was his grandson. I loved his testing me on weekly spelling words at the dinner table. I loved quoting him Bible verses. When I saw that photo of him in his early ’20s on a bicycle, a pipe in his mouth, on a dock or a deck in, he said, maybe Panama City, Florida, where he once took “a nice young lady,” it shocked and reaffirmed me to see him a young man long before he was (defined and circumscribed as) my father.
I ask him if there’s anything I can bring him. “I don’t need anything,” he says. Last time he needed eye drops. I ask him if he needs eye drops. “Light bulbs?” he says. “Eye drops,” I say, louder. “Light bulbs?” he says. I ask him why he would need light bulbs in the hospital. “Hold on a minute,” he says. He leans his head toward his bony hands and reaches toward his ears—there’s as much hair in his ears as there is on his head—and takes out his hearing aids so he can hear better. That’s his explanation anyway. The hearing aids squeal and whistle strangely in his hands. He looks back at me, waiting. “Do you need any eye drops?” I say. “No,” he says. “I don’t need eye drops.” Then he leans his head back, closes his eyes, and naps.
Again Carson McCullers comes. Nothing could more be appropriate than that her ghost wander an old Southern hospital. Playfully. When I first read her, I felt I’d known her before I was born, maybe back when my father was young. I’d known that three a.m. was “the most stagnant hour in the day or night.” I’d lived her sentence: “The loneliness in him was so keen that it filled him with terror.” I recognized Jacksonville’s Asa Philip Randolph’s call for a March on Washington in Carson’s character Doctor Copeland’s. When her characters walked every street and alley in their Southern town, I recognized them walking with me in my own.
In The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, Jake Blount “walked until he reached the railroad tracks. On either side there were rows of dilapidated two-room houses. In the cramped back yards were rotten privies and lines of torn, smoky rags hung out to dry. For two miles there was not one sight of comfort or space or cleanliness. Even the earth itself seemed filthy and abandoned.”
Carson comes to me, grabs my hand, tall thin imp, creative-destructive pixie gamine, and runs tiptoe with me through this hospital’s halls that are really its years. It’s just the right time. She finishes The Heart is a Lonely Hunter when she’s just 21. At the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference in Vermont, when she’s 23, she’s already written Reflections in a Golden Eye and is feeling out The Member of the Wedding. Wallace Stegner will remember her already drinking straight gin all day, “awkward, angular,” and “a twilight figure, old beyond her years, bizarre, everything about her just a little crooked.” She pulls me through the halls and we run through Southern city streets in my father’s early years. I recognize everything here.
I believe in my father’s spirit, though what I understand to be spirit is not what he believes. To me, my father, whom I love dearly and would be doomed to love no matter what kind of father he might be, contains an internal fingerprint, though I don’t believe he contains a solid unchanging ghost that will leave his body weighing 21 grams less after its departure. I believe his spirit is something of the trajectory of his personality as it’s evolved through and across the world. It’s both psychological and historical. It’s the force of the mind sculpted in the vortices of a life carved into the landscape. Whoever my father might be, whom he might ever have been, and whatever the dispensations and disturbances that smudged and called forth his mind and heart across land and time, he called me forth into what manhood I accessed in the particular Southern landscape where I began to look about and wonder what was wrong with me, and what was right, what was wrong with my world, and what was beautiful and true.
Carson walks with me. I remember what a strange old woman my grandmother was. Alone in that little wooden house in Macon, Georgia, taking care of my schizophrenic nephew, or he was taking care of her. She seemed otherworldly to me, alien Buddha of the old dark-green sharecropper South. Carson, the butterfly tomboy, bends boyishly over my grandmother to kiss the seborrheic keratosis on my grandmother’s jawline. I remember being afraid of “the cornflake,” as I thought of it, but Carson fears not.
The halls of St. Vincent’s deliver to me strange messages. Time and again, I pass a door, and the sign on the door reads, “I AM the Patient Experience.” I don’t know what this door means. I don’t know what’s behind it. I don’t know who has the key. I’m not about to stand before it and ask.
Carson and I hold hands and trip forward on our toes. Around us the old brick walls hide behind newer plaster the way nine-pound-brick roads lie below asphalt. Carson I knew before I was born. Before she was born, she knew Terence, the ancient Roman playwright who wrote, “I am human. Nothing that is human is foreign to me.”
The brilliant idiotic drunken political radical Jake Blount in her first novel says, “I’m part nigger and wop and bohunk and chink, all of those.” Carson didn’t correct his Terence. “And I’m Dutch and Turkish and Japanese and American.” She let him say what he needed to say, without judgment. “I’m one who knows. I’m a stranger in a strange land.”
It’s time for my father to go home. (More than a decade ago, he told me it was okay when it was time for him to go.) No one has bought bouquets from the flower vending machine. My father, in the wheelchair, is tiny. He’s going home with oxygen tanks. His fat little yellow dog has missed him. He grins when I mention her. I still don’t know what it’s like in there. My father’s a legal alien, comes from another country, this one. I see his face beneath mine in the mirror and underneath my younger daughter’s. I identify my birth nation with my father, and since the two of them together have always voted me out, I too come from another country. This one.
Before his wheelchair, the nuns in their wide-winged headwear precede us into the distant decades. Behind him, Carson McCullers holds my hand. Though so much older than I am, she’s not yet had the two strokes that will paralyze her left side before the age of 30. All the mystery of the earth endures—the schizophrenia of my uncle and my nephew, the number unknown even to my father of my aunts and uncles who died in their infancies in the 19-teens, all the loves and loving sunk out of sight in the waterways and trees across the South.
The oaks and magnolias around the brick hospital walls bud new green and wall the old trees with new green walls. It’s hopeful and allergenic and congestive and makes me and my father sneeze. The sinus-drip down his old throat makes his voice more high-pitched than ever. When I was a little boy, I’d accompany my father on visits to church members hospitalized, and I remember they routinely hung a paper sign that read “He is Risen” over the crucifix on the wall. The Baptists were offended the people saving their lives were Catholic. They believed the “end times” were coming, that the Pope was the antichrist.
In 2014, the last five Daughters of Charity left the hospital they’d named for their patron saint. How many lives ended here, how many lives arrived? Is there a spreadsheet somewhere recording the balance? How many dreams of inheritance, how many bitter memories, how many intentional accidents were secret murders? How many deaths destroyed daughters’ faith? How many restored the faith of sons? How often here have widowers on deathbeds fallen in love? Haven’t twins been born here the moment their great-grandmother died?
After my mother’s death, she never visited me in dreams, and I felt the outward expanse of the universe infinitely accelerating, treasured the muck in the creek and the crying of owls in the trees, cherished the strange idea of Life and its crippled angelic cousin Creativity. Often I was lonely. Often loneliness kept me company. Only when my first daughter was born, in this same hospital, did I feel my mother’s presence nearby, but even now I tend toward believing what I felt was Emily. And she is sunshine.
How do I access the rooms in my father’s head? He saw a man dive to his death, suicide on ship, somewhere off Japan, World War Two. His older brother, schizophrenic, saw phantoms staring into the farmhouse windows and standing in the tops of pine trees, on the childhood Georgia farm. My father saw Jesus. My father sees his fat little yellow dog pining for him at home. I’m wheeling his oxygen out. I’m seeing my face underneath his tired own. I’m signing his discharge sheets, “patient or caretaker.” Do you finally become a man when your father recedes? When you sign for him the way you sign for your children? I’m driving him home. The springtime red maples either side of Interstate-10 pull us up the rope of the highway. New distances emerge as each distance nears. Though there’s but one direction, we both come and go.