The day before Thanksgiving my 94 year old grandmother had cancer surgery. With my smart phone I took pictures of her face immediately following the surgery and texted them to my physician siblings, typing, “See what they did to G-ma.” The surgery was proclaimed successful by the surgeon, despite the fact they had accidentally switched patient files during pre-op. We brought G-ma home within two hours of the operation.
We delayed the Thanksgiving feast one day to allow G-ma a quiet day in-between to rest and recover. I’ll never forget standing next to her on Thanksgiving day in the bathroom as she looked into the mirror for the first time. Her light blue eyes watered. Her lips tightened. Her eyebrows lifted. And she let out a little, “humph.” The scar ran from her lower ear lobe all the way across her cheek up to underneath her eye. The zig zagging pattern was like the tributaries of the mighty Mississippi.
Sitting in her rocking chair, we laid a warm blanket over her lap and another softer blanket on the floor near her feet. That second blanket was for the baby. My brother Stuart’s baby girl was just five months old and she loved laying on the floor of G-ma’s family room and staring up at the ceiling fan. G-ma loved it, too. There was something healing about the baby and she was the most beautiful distraction to the cancer.
Our father couldn’t enjoy his youngest son’s baby like we could. He was dead; been dead for years. He never knew my baby either. Unlike G-ma, quietly rocking her chair by the baby, when our father visited my brother Steve’s new baby, Dad was super manic. He excitedly and rapidly went on and on about something critically important to him while sitting at the dining room table. The baby was cradled safely in my brother Steve’s arms.
The combination of Dad’s weight and his energetic storytelling combined to cause the wooden dining room chair to crumple beneath him. Not to let anything interfere with the truth he so desperately desired to impart, truth he sincerely believed could save the world, he continued blabbering on from his seat on the floor, legs of the chair sharply broken. The now crying baby was quickly tucked away into the nursery.
Unlike the cancer on my Grandmother’s face, the mental illness in my father’s brain wasn’t treated. Dad remained stubbornly and fiercely resistant to treatment for his chronic and severe mental illnesses his entire adult life, despite our years of pleading. We all suffered for it, like victims of a devastating natural disaster.
I never could accept his untreated mental illness. I came to accept him, but not his choice to allow the disease to take over his life. I will never know if it was actually the disease itself that made him incapable of consenting to treatment. The severe and chronic mental illness always seemed like a cancer, a cruel disease needing to be treated and cut out from our family.
In the glow of the twinkling Christmas tree lights, I think of Thanksgiving and G-ma’s rocking chair. I am grateful for the addition of this memory to accompany the image of my Dad’s broken dining room chair. The image of my father pressing his weight onto a broken chair while in a manic episode haunts me, while the image of my grandmother’s quiet and courageous recovery soothes me. And I wonder what it means to have both in the same family: wisdom that waits a day after surgery to look into a mirror (and even then only once) and a broken mind that seems to peer down a narrow and endless hallway of broken mirrors.
For the grandchildren born after my Dad’s death, there will only be the gentle and steady rhythm of the rocking chair. Yet the broken chair, a symbol of a brilliant mind broken by a severe and untreated mental illness, remains a shadow of possibility for all of us as a hereditary disease.
As my G-ma’s Thanksgiving together taught us, treatment threatens to leave a temporary scar and recovery can look unsightly. Yet, the slow healing that comes from fighting disease, rather than letting it consume you, makes a secure place for babies to lay, studying at the feet of enduring love.
Dedicated to the deep beauty of my maternal grandmother and how her long life teaches us how to live ours better.