Whisper It All
We are sitting at stools around the tiny kitchen counter, all of us small atop even smaller bar stools. Red digits on the alarm clock radio blink, 6:55pm. We are eating ice cream, me and my little brothers. Laughing, the humming and beeping sounds of the microwave, the white noise of the evening news, dishes being scrubbed and stacked, a cold spoon clinking in the foreground. I am doodling on a yellow note pad with bright red ballpoint pen; the smooth silky strokes it produces, the faint yet comforting smell of the ink. The room is warm and electric. When you flip the page there are thin raised lines, like cat scratches on an arm. I run my fingers over them.
And then there are waves... crashing. My dad yells down the stairs.
Metal forks hit the sink.
"Yes!?" my mom yells back.
"Come up here, please! Quick! I need your help." My dad has never sounded so desperate.
I assume he is splashing as he sometimes does, harmless enough but a sopping mess requiring extra hands and extra towels, of which we have plenty.
We are running up the stairs: me, my mom, my two younger brothers, a blur of brothers in their bright colored PJ pants. Thudding feet on hard wooden steps, we all turn at the landing, hands overlapping, the banister slipping from our fingertips.
I see my older brother.
My mom stops halfway down the hall. Stock-still, she stares.
"He's dead", she says.
The bathwater slaps against the tile floor, the dull sound of pale blue skin writhing on the surface of the murky water.
My mom has the tendency to cry over spilled milk, literal spilled milk, sticky on the shelves of the refrigerator. My brother spilling out of the bathtub, however, colorless and lifeless as a pool of milk, evokes only a quiet metronome:
"He's dead. He's dead."
I scream as though he is.
My dad yanks my brother from the bathtub, a misguided hairbrush wedged between his teeth and tongue, not knowing any better at the time. He grasps his arms to keep him from bashing his head on any corners. Grasping, his voice sounds full of bathwater. My mom calls an ambulance, not for the first time, but for a seizure, the first and the only. A side effect of a side effect, a drug to combat seizures. A side effect of an antipsychotic; this strikes me as psychotic.
I scream a blood-curdling scream. I stand there.
I stand there, and I scream.
This is the memory, the images that seize me. There is a before, but no after, except... he is not dead. His skin must fade from blue to white, but I cannot tell you when.
I am eleven.
Intricate mazes and elaborate structures, four foot buildings made of interlocking plastic tubes; an autistic child's abstract art that stretches from the bathroom to the bedroom, and all the way down the hall. Tinker Toys are a mass of bright yellow wheels, pink and green straws and various pieces that fit together to create swing-sets, wind-mills, et cetera. Kieri spends hours connecting the parts, no reference to instruction manuals. The toy sculptures look like playground equipment for beautiful insects or birds. As kids, we don't think much of them; they are toys. We weave through the structures casually, on our way to shower, brush our teeth. My mom however knows they are extraordinary; imaginative and significant. I find his creations both funny and sweet.
Like any kid with an obsession, you search for appendages to affix to it, e.g., magnets. Magnetic balls and rods in translucent rainbow colors. It is the early 2000's. These balls and rods will create smaller, more symmetrical structures, though they will not stretch from room to room.
He loves the magnets. He sits in his small bedroom in the attic, small enough to fit just a bed and a TV. You can't stand up inside this room. The floor beside the floor-bed is home to geometric floor-plans: magnetic squares and triangles and rectangles flat on the floor. Not as colorful or impressive as the Tinker Toys, but he builds in his room watching movies. He doesn't speak, but seems happy.
My family is eating at The Great Dane Pub, downtown. Burgers, beer, smoking or non-smoking. My dad will proudly tell you he has never smoked a cigarette, but there is only room for seven in the smoking section. Kieri is sick, a stomach bug it seems; I'm nervous though, as he has barely touched his food in weeks, and his skin is pale and clammy. Tonight seems especially bad; he won't touch his beloved French Fries.
At home that night, in my all blue bedroom, I hear him throwing up. I run up the carpeted steps to the attic. Staring into the toilet bowl, bobbing there, I see a bright orange wooden carrot.
"Oh my god", I say.
Oh my god.
See, I can connect things too. My youngest brother Atticus is six, and in his room he has a small tin can of wooden peas and carrots. Kieri must have swallowed them, thinking they were food, and this is why he's sick!
I tell my parents, like a boastful detective, and they leave the house at once.
My mom and dad are at the Emergency Room with Kieri. We stretch out on their queen-sized bed at home and watch reality shows. It's fun, as we cradle the phone and wait for answers.
"The X-ray lit up like a Christmas tree. He swallowed eighteen magnetic rods, Antigone. Thirty-six magnets total. The technicians swarmed around the screen with their jaws on the floor. They had never seen anything like it."
He lays there enveloped in the pale green hospital gown, twenty pounds lighter than two weeks prior. The magnets were connecting from intestine to intestine, creating holes, so parts of the intestine were removed entirely. My dad sleeps to the right of him in the hospital room, never leaving his side. One night, he abruptly awakens. Kieri sits up straight in bed, and dangling from his little wrist, he grips his nasogastric catheter. My dad immediately calls for the nurse, the tube hanging there limply, not unlike a Tinker Toy. He pulled it from his nostril like he pulled tubes from the sockets of blue and yellow plastic wheels.
I can see the intricate structures glowing inside him. I can see him lit up like a Christmas tree. I can see his luminescent skin, glowing in the dark.
The scar is thick, runs all the way down his stomach, like a route on a map, but ragged and protruding. When the stitches have been taken out, I touch his scar, so gently. I don't know who I worry it will hurt. Him? Or me?
Discharged from the hospital, they send us home with a plastic jar; in it, a single cloudy magnet, a blackened fragment of my brother's intestine. I open it once, drawn to this dark inner material, this thing with holes, and it smells like death.
He is fourteen years old. The doctors are shocked he lived through it.
We are downstairs. I am cocooned in the summer afternoon, convalescing after a long hot day at the public pool, in the nook of a brown leather armchair. We are scattered in the shadowy room, sleepily watching reruns on TV. There is an apple pie pancake in the microwave; a daily treat, followed by a bowl of Ramen.
Or maybe it's the Springtime. Maybe we come in with the groceries, bags and bags of crinkling white plastic. They are planted in the mud room, then transferred to the kitchen floor, eventually being swallowed by the large black fridge, my mom bent at the waist hoisting gallon after gallon of milk onto the counter.
My mom is a wide-eyed bird, platinum blonde hair growing like a Polish Chicken. She bobs her head around the corner.
"Can you come up here please", my dad sounds calm and cool, as usual, beckoning from the top of the staircase.
I don't remember the day or the season, Monday or Friday, Spring or Fall. But he does fall, my dad does, onto the sharp corner of a wooden desk, and he splits his head down the middle.
The Risperdal is for the violence. It started with a soft punch, sitting on the pavement at the bus stop, pulling grass from the sidewalk cracks, after a day of summer camp. We had picked him up in the afternoon, Skye and I, and it took us a while to get him home. Maybe he was impatient, or hot, or annoyed at our wise-cracks, but Kieri punched Skye in the arm. It was the first time, so the shock of it was funny. We laughed so hard we almost cried.
After that it happened often; water dumped on our heads out of Dixie cups, metal forks thrown on the floor if we were lucky. Then things escalated. My hair was pulled and left like a nest in the backseat of the minivan; we were kicked, punched, chased and shoved. My dad split his head down the middle.
Whisper it all, I could have sworn they had called it, discussing medication. Supposed to help with violence and aggression, said the doctors.
"Robin? Can you come up here, please?"
We find my dad lying on the hardwood floor, woven hands a cradle for his newly balding head. Dark blood pools around him in a halo.
"I hit my head. On the corner of the desk", my dad grunts in a staccato.
"Kier kicked me and I lost my balance. Does it look okay? Can someone check on Kier."
My mom says nothing; silently steps around his head en route to the bedroom. I do not even hear her footsteps, flip-flops smacking the hard-wood.
"MOM!" my oldest brother yells.
He thinks she is checking on the furniture. We are all on edge. I think so too, the eerie calm of both of them unsettling. My mom pulls the landline from its cradle.
My dad sits at the head of the table, a half-smirk, hands folded. We stand behind and look at all the staples, counting the rungs of a ladder that now descend his Parietal bone.
"Jeeesus", I grimace, looking closer.
My feet cause me pain. Depressed for months, my sore feet walk me, apprehensively, to the Podiatrist's office on Damen. Two weeks later I lay shivering beneath a swarm of faces with an IV in my wrist. At four foot eleven, the hospital gown skims my ankles. "Put your foot right here, Hun", the kind surgeon tells me. Someone then covers me with a heated white blanket. When I open my eyes my appendage is numb, wrapped and wrapped in a bandage.
The hard part for me is the waiting. Waiting for my foot to heal. Waiting for my brother to be okay. Waiting to hear bad news. We wait for his budget to be approved, so he can move into a care home. And I never thought it would come to this. I would not let it happen. We would always take care of Kieri. And if he couldn't live at home he would come and live with me. Always and forever. But my parents are older, 65 and 67, and Kieri is stronger, though we still help him with his birthday candles; all 31 of them.
I prop my foot up but it throbs.
I go home for Christmas and it's quite the ordeal. Thirty-five below zero, with windchill, it is an echo of the Polar Vortex years prior. I am a pair of foggy glasses floating on the Blue Line, the rest of me swallowed up in Nylon and Wool. I have a large bag of presents I can finally afford, and a small bag with just a sweater and a toothbrush. I take the train to O'hare and then the bus to Madison and then my mom's tiny car to the house.
“Can I say hi to Kieri?” I wish I did not have to ask.
Last summer is when the aggression returned. It comes in waves, crashing. “Bye Kier”, means I better leave, in Echolalia. “Stay”, means I can sit, and I do. I tell no one that he lightly shoves me; a warning sign, a ripple.
I was sad I couldn’t make it on summer vacation. I thought I would have gotten to see Kieri swim. But it turned out that no, I would not have, because that summer he did not swim.
“It’s not as bad as it used to be though, is it?”
I text my mom from work.
“Like hitting wise? ‘Cause I just worry ‘cause Dad is older and can’t really afford to be like, knocked around by Kieri like he used to be. I just worry about that.”
The living room is warm and electric, everything lit up by the Christmas tree in the corner. Atticus and I are laughing, eating. The TV is on but it buffers. Then I hear stomping. The whole house shakes. This time it is not the sizzling old radiator.
The Tardive Dyskinesia keeps him stuck in one place; a side effect of a side effect, a body that must keep moving; something akin to, yet the polar opposite, of drug-induced Parkinsonism. His feet tramp between the creaky floorboards, for minutes, sometimes hours. The same spot, in the same room, sweating, breathless.
I see his small pale body swimming. The stomping grows louder and louder.
“You are NOT going to do this. YOU ARE NOT. GOING. TO DO THIS!” I hear my dad’s gravelly cry whose meaning I have come to instantly distinguish.
“Yes I worry about him. I was saying to him earlier that it is a very scary thing to watch with him at this age. Not to worry you more but it is just a tough thing.”, my mom texts back.
Kieri is extremely ramped up, pure force. He is small, but strong, like my dad is. My dad is nearing seventy and limping. My dad falls flat on his back, shielding himself with a large white pillow, my brother shrieking as he pins him to the ground. It all happens in an instant. Once again my voice is useless. My small arms rush toward them but do nothing. I run my hands through my hair, something wedged deep in my throat. I try not to bite my own tongue. The image of him being thrown against the hardwood plays over and over in my head, on a loop. I am shocked his head is intact.
My dad and brother dance and sway; two magnets changing polarity. “When push comes to hug”, my dad calls this.
I stand there, as I do ten and twenty years prior, a child again, but not really. Then I fall to the floor in the kitchen in tears, questioning time entirely.
"This can't happen anymore!" I yell to my mom, who stands there, looking small and tired.
"I know," she says. "He is going to kill him."
Everyone looks so small, like they are floating on Oval Beach past the buoys. I am stranded there afraid of the water.
The closer they are the harder they are to recall, my memories seizing in murky water. They wash up white and frothing at the shore. “Shhh” the pictures whisper. Then they suck back into the glittering deep. All you see is a dark wet outline; who you used to be.
I hear Kieri’s soft yet heavy footsteps in the hallway. "Alright, Buddy", means my dad has drained the tub, brushed his teeth, patted him dry with powder. My bedroom door creaks open slightly and I see his sweet face peeking through the crack, clean shaven face and wet hair combed back in a ducktail. “Hey, Buddy!” I invite him in. “Hey, Buddy”, he echoes, shyly approaching me at my desk. He looks around curiously before pointing a finger at my iPhone 1, the black faux-alligator phone case. “I want dis one”, he says, meaning my music. I laugh before I happily oblige. I plug in his headphones as he stares at the little black brick, green eyes hungry and longing. “What song do you want to listen to, Kieri Pie?” I show him the pictures of the different albums. “Addigator”, he says, so gently. Alligator, not referring to the phone case, but Alligator by Tegan And Sara, his favorite song at the moment.
I hand him his ear buds and he slips one in each ear, then walks away satisfied as the song leaks out behind him.
Yesterday was my birthday, the fifth of July. The evening was cool but mosquitoes aplenty, bickering over my thighs and arms. Every year I swat at clouds of bugs and sparks of fire, festively encroaching on my special day. Today I long to lay in the sun, swathed in a fine white blanket of sand. I take a warm and empty bus too early for most. The sunlight streaks the deep blue seats. I want to hear the water at my ankles, a good thirty feet from getting wet, up in the dunes with the beach grass, which I will twiddle in my fingers like a dream.
The Risperdal took a piece of him we will never get back. He doesn’t ask for music very often. Weaning him off it, we were told it would be something akin to Heroin withdrawal. He sat in a closet of a room, anything larger too stimulating. His skin looked wet and white and his eyes were glazed and begging. His hair grew long and his body thinner. It killed me but I couldn’t stop looking. There were two modes, both terrible: violent, or worse, catatonic. The Risperdal took a piece of me I will never get back; left something darkened with holes, that whispers.
The beach is empty save for the necessary man and dog and Seagulls, dispersed amidst the trash, heads shining like those tiny white shells that slip, so subtly, through your fingers.
I lay down.
I breathe as does the sediment, cold waves coursing through me. The rocks and I are rocked to a place that is close but not quite sleep.
My feet are hot and bare and dry, nerves tingling in my toes before they float above me. I close my eyes and see nothing...
but smooth, red lines.
A dream I had, that really happened:
Run around on me, sooner die without, run around on me, di-ie without
Over you, over you, over youuu
He charges ahead to the song, eyes wide with pure excitement, pacing the length of the dining room table. He dances in this fervent manner until his body drips with sweat. He turns on his heel in the opposite direction, legs pounding the floor with every step, my small black phone in the palm of his hand. The glass centerpiece tinkles as the table shakes. My heart in its vase clinks against it. I laugh so hard I almost cry, as I stand there-
Antigone Gamble is an artist living in Chicago, Il. She spends her time reading, drawing and writing or hanging with her two beautiful circus kitties, Matilda and Stella. She is drawn to the imperfect beauty of every day life and stories of perseverance.
Write something about yourself. No need to be fancy, just an overview.