The Shakes...(Originally appeared in the Arkansas Review)
I woke in my underwear in my brother’s arms with dark sky above me. We passed through the front door of our house and down the step and out to his car. He tossed me in the backseat, turned to my father, who followed behind, and spoke,
"You happy now?" my brother said. "You drunk bastard, are you satisfied?"
My father mumbled something I couldn't make out.
They got in and my brother slammed the car into reverse. I slid like a sack of flour against the side of the car, sending a sudden pain through my daze. I realized that I couldn’t move, not even to hold my head from lolling around, obeying only gravity.
"You don't care about nothing but yourself," my brother said and jerked into a curve.
Bang! My head said to the side of the car.
"Sucking on that bottle like you want to die or something. Well go ahead, but don't bring us with you."
Bang! My brother turned another curve.
I strained as hard as I could to flex the muscles in my neck and hold my head still.
"So you like being sorry and good for nothing?" My brother said.
Bang, but much softer now as I started re-assuming control. I felt like I was trying to wake up a sleeping limb, but it was my whole body. I concentrated, tuning out the argument and the confusion, and when my brother turned the next curve, I was able to hold my head still enough so that it only banged a little, hardly hurting at all. By the next curve, I could hold it still. I focused my attention on other parts of my body, and was able to flop myself away from the side of the car.
My brother turned violently, then turned again and slammed the car into park. He jumped out and threw his seat forward. I managed to sit up as he reached for me.
"I can walk," I said, though I didn't know if this was true.
"Come on," he said.
I extended a shaky leg out onto gravelly asphalt. My brother pulled me to my feet. I had to lean against the car to stand.
"Come on," he said again. "If you can walk, walk. If not, I'll carry you."
"I can walk, but I don't have any clothes on," I said.
I looked around. We were in the parking lot of the Cross County Hospital. It was dark and still cold, though it was spring. The parking lot was mostly empty. My father had gone ahead and was just entering the emergency room.
"What are we doing here?" I asked.
"You were shaking," my brother said.
"I'm okay now," I said.
"Let's go," he said.
"I need clothes. I can't go in there like this."
He took a step toward me. "You're going in there right now, whether I have to carry you or not."
My brother was well over six feet tall and broad as a lumberjack. He was a farmer's son, used to long hours of hard, physical work, and he was standing in front of me with his eyes so wide they were bugging out, agitated and dancing in place.
"What happened?" I asked.
"We're going. I'll tell you after," he said, reaching for me.
I pushed his hand off and stepped into the parking lot. There were rocks and pebbles, probably other things that I couldn't see jabbing the soft soles of my feet.
"You gonna make it?" my brother said.
"Yeah," I said, hobbling along.
A nurse came out with a wheelchair, followed by Dad, who still hadn’t spoken. The nurse stood in front of the emergency room doors, holding the wheelchair, and watched me limp. As each sharp rock stabbed into the soles of my feet, I hated her. When we got to the ramp leading up to the doors, she pushed the chair towards me. I walked past, ignoring her.
"He don't need a wheelchair, he needs a doctor," my brother said.
They took me to a little room and laid me on a table. I tried to ask a nurse if I could have something to wear, and my brother said, "Later." The nurse disappeared and came back with a paper gown.
The inside of the hospital was warmer. There was a preponderance of green and a smell of hot glue. All that cold air outside had given me a powerful need to urinate. A doctor came in and shone a light in my eyes, checked my blood pressure and reflexes. My brother and my father were close, but I couldn't see or hear them. Finally, the doctor let me go to the bathroom.
When I came out, the doctor was talking.
"What happened?" I asked him.
"It was probably a grand mal seizure," he said. The name sounded like a sports term. Or maybe like I'd won something.
"What do you remember?" he asked.
I'd spent the day pretty normally, working in the rice fields with Dad and Mike, my brother. Later in the evening, I'd pulled coffee weeds with a weed puller that resembled a miniature scythe. It was hard work, and I’d gotten very hot and dehydrated doing it. I didn't remember eating supper. I'd gone to bed pretty early and woken to this.
The doctor whose name I never learned gave me some pills. "Take one as soon as you get home," he said. My father was to make an appointment at St. Jude's hospital in Memphis in the morning. With that, they released me.
It was only during the drive home that I was able to drag a little bit of info from my brother and father about what had happened, which I still didn't remember, and only over the course of the next few days did I get the full story.
My father had gotten up to use the bathroom some time after midnight. On the way back, he heard a noise and came into my room to find me writhing on the bed. He said that I was vomiting, but I was on my back.
"Nothing was coming out," he said. "You were choking."
He went to the bathroom, grabbed a towel and used it to clear out my mouth so I could breathe.
"Like Jimmy Hendrix," I would say, later.
“Damn,” my brother would say, shaking his head and laughing.
My father woke my brother to drive, and they argued the whole way to the hospital.
"We’d had a real blowout earlier that night," my brother told me. "You were lucky to miss it."
They’d argued over my father's drinking. My brother had thrown Dad out of his room and they'd nearly gotten physical. It wasn’t particularly new; arguing was the fuel that kept my family going in those days.
That night when we got back from the hospital, my brother insisted I take the pills the doctor had given me.
"I'm really sick," I said. My stomach felt raw and sore as though I'd drunk molten metal.
"If I have to stand here and watch, you're going to take them," my brother said. I went into the bathroom and poured a cup of water.
"Maybe if you ate something it'd go down better. Didn't the doctor say not to take it on an empty stomach?"
"I'll eat something in a minute," I said. I forced the pills down and drank the water. My brother stood in the doorway watching me.
"Should get some sleep," he said, finally. "Try to, anyway."
I nodded and he left. I stood in front of the mirror until the heaves started and vomited the pills back up. Then I went to bed. Shortly after I lay down, my father came in and sat beside me. I fell asleep with the warmth of his presence, silent beside me.
The next day we went to Memphis for tests. Never before, that I could remember, had my father taken me to a hospital. He didn’t actually believe in hospitals. When we had headaches, he told us to drink water.
“It’s just sugar,” he said about Aspirin.
He held a working-class distrust of doctors, hospitals, banks, and organized education. He chalked most ailments up to laziness, including my mother's, at least until it became obvious from her deterioration that she was seriously ill, and if he had not actually witnessed the seizure, I doubt that he would have believed it happened. But here he was, taking me to the hospital every week, more than that, he was driving to Memphis to do it.
At the hospital, I underwent a series of tests, including a CAT scan, an EEG test, and I had to come back for blood-work every week. I felt much better that day, though still tired. During the EEG test, they took me to a room and glued little electrodes to my head. The nurse told me to lie down and close my eyes. I immediately fell asleep. She woke me when I started snoring. The CAT scan felt as though I were being loaded into a large oven while X-rays baked me.
I was diagnosed with childhood epilepsy. The doctor showed us an MRI of my brain. He pointed out certain areas that represented lesions.
"How'd he get those?" my brother would ask, later.
"His head swole up," my father would say.
"You always had a big head," my brother said.
"Been thinking too much," my father said.
The doctor said I should grow out of it by the time I was fifteen or so. He gave me pills to take every day and told me to come back if I had any more seizures. It was a lot like going to the school nurse to get out of class.
I researched epilepsy in the county library. I imagined myself walking down the street, falling down, and shaking, while everyone around me stared. Or maybe it would happen while I took a test in class. I wasn't so much scared as intrigued, and I wasn't sure how this condition would affect me. The epilepsy was a random factor that had been introduced into my life for no discernable reason. I expected to have seizures all the time. I read that epilepsy sufferers often noticed hints of impending seizures; certain smells, odd feelings. Because no one seemed to understand it, all sorts of things were thought to trigger seizures. Flashing lights, stress, drug use. I imagined that I was smelling things, seeing things. I warned my family members of impending seizures. "I smell modeling glue," I would say. And everyone would look worried. When school started, I went to the guidance councilor and tried to get out of PE because of my condition.
"Exertion and stress can lead to seizures," I told her.
"Thanks for telling us," she said and sent me back to the gym.
The events of those days, my near death and the interminable visits to the doctors, sparked something in my father. Before this, he had pretty much ignored my existence, and the existence of my sister and brother. After I had the seizure, though, he swooped down on my life like a hungry dog on a bone. He began dragging me all over the state trying to make a man of me. He devised fishing trips, though he raised catfish himself, and we spent many a miserable afternoon sullenly casting lines, our hooks undisturbed in the water of various rivers and lakes. He took me to deer camp a few times, with no luck, though at one outing I entertained myself by pouring spurts of gasoline from a spare gas can onto the campfire, to the delight of our fellow hunters, who were mostly drunk. There were often more bodies than beds, and late one night one of my father's friends crawled into bed with me, throwing his arm over me and muttering something I couldn't make out. I spent the night in a chair. In the morning, the man had wet the bed. Everyone overslept and my father and I spent the morning hunting squirrels instead of deer, of which we shot not one.
He didn't take me out to work with him as much, and when he did, he didn't make me do very much of the work. Mostly, he wanted me to sit in the truck until he got back from walking the levees looking for breaks.
My father's sudden attentions weren't only reserved for me. He bought my mother a walker, and he began hiring a string of nurses to care for her as she became bedridden. The first one, a thirty-something black woman named Tomecka, was the sweetest. She stayed for several months and became almost like one of the family until the day my mother had a violent fit and attacked her, clawed her arms while Tomecka tried to bathe her. Tomecka came into my bedroom and asked if I could help her quiet my mother.
"No," I said. "But I'll try."
Mom was inconsolable, and finally Tomecka gave up and left. We never saw her again.
After Tomecka, Mom's dementia became uncontrollable, and none of the nurses stayed for more than a month; most lasted a day or less, and we didn't bother to learn their names. Soon, my father had exhausted all of the home health care workers available in three counties, and my sister and I tried to take over.
I had taken to arguing with my brother about what I would want done to me if I had Huntington's disease, my mother's illness.
"I would shoot myself," I said with the obstinate assuredness of a teenager.
"Don't come near me," he'd say. "If I get sick, you stay the hell away from me. I want to live."
"That's not life," I said. "You'd be dead; you just wouldn't know it yet."
When my mother developed a bruise on her backside from being bedridden, my father decided to put her in a nursing home before it became a bedsore. The doctor who examined her was emphatic. He made it clear that if we didn't either find a professional nurse or caregiver to take care of her, or voluntarily put her into a home, he'd press charges and the state would take over.
Dad rode with Mom in the ambulance to the nursing home; then he walked back to his truck and drove home. He didn't drink anymore that day, or the next, and for the next two days after that, he laid on the couch in the living room, shaking and grinding his teeth; he sweated the alcohol out of his system. He rose pale, weak and sober, took a long shower and went back to work.
A few days after that, he fired my brother. There was no row, just a quiet conversation I wasn’t a part of. The next morning, my brother was up and out early looking for factory work. I found my father in the kitchen, as I did every morning, hangover, rain, or shine, reading a novel.
“Heard about Burr,” I said. “Burr” was my brother’s nickname.
My father spoke without lowering his book. “No future on the farm for either of you,” he said. “You ought to do more with your life than I did.”
“But that’s all we’ve ever done.” I thought back to a lifetime of seven-day workweeks, half-days worked on Christmas.
“Mike’ll get something. You’re young yet. Maybe you can go to college. Me and Bobby are getting old. We’ll retire in a couple years. Ought to just let it die with us.” Bobby was my uncle. They’d founded the family farm when my father returned from military service after World War II over fifty years ago.
“Some eggs on the stove,” Dad added, without ever raising his eyes from his book.
I never had another seizure after that first one, and shortly after Mom went into the home I was able to stop taking my medication. I had grown out of the childhood epilepsy. Sometimes, though, I'd catch Dad on the way back from the bathroom, late at night, peeking into my bedroom. He rarely closed his bedroom door anymore.