My grandfather has been sliding deeper into his own skull for about four years now. I remember the keen, glittering lines of tension strung around the family dinner table like lights around the Christmas tree as Ray Gilbert muttered yet another non sequitur. I remember how his face flushed red when we didn’t understand, how he talked louder, even less coherently, when we asked him to slow down and try again. I remember him throwing his chair to the floor and storming out of the dining room, repeating that same random phrase on which his mind had gotten so hung up. Tension, and anger, and frustration, and a sense of disconnect—this has been the general atmosphere of the holidays for me for awhile. Not anymore.
We went to see him today at the VA hospital, a little outside Murfreesboro, Tennessee. The receptionist chatted with my grandmother for a moment, a pleasant woman wearing a thick sweater embroidered with snowflakes, before she buzzed us into the main lobby. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest is gentle by comparison. Even the listless crazies drifting the psych ward seem to have a corporeality that the veterans don’t. A few of the higher-functioning wheeled themselves around the nurses’ station, and a desiccated woman draped in a pink blanket rolled up to me and grasped my hand in her claw, not unkindly, and began to speak about her husband’s sore feet. But on the whole they aren’t there, in a physical sense, they don’t seem to inhabit their own space: they lay stricken across the chairs in the TV room, some of them staring up at an episode of “Hogan’s Heroes” squawking tinnily in the ceiling corner, some staring elsewhere.
We found Ray in this room, one of the few paying attention to the TV (but only in the way that toddlers notice the bright colours and interesting sounds). His eyes lit up when he saw my grandmother, became uncertain when he saw my father and me. Something in the vein of recognition when his son spoke to him, and simply uncomprehending regard when I did. A nurse helped us take him back to his room so we could spend some time with him. I was following behind when a withered man looked up at me and said hello. I nodded and smiled, and he waved me to his side, where in a conspiratorial whisper he said he had a present for me, and gave me a ripped-open Christmas card. I asked if he was sure, he said yes, just take it, just take it. I wanted to read it, keep it, but decided in the end to return it to the nurses at their counter.
A green sticker next to Ray’s name on the door meant he was a “falling risk,” and he was tethered to his wheelchair by a clip-cord that would send out an alarm if he tried to hoist his body to its feet. A photo of his WWII company on the wall, and a picture-book on the windowsill (Rainforests of the World). A brief bleating of alarms from the corridor when someone attempted to stand up, followed by the nurses shushing and settling him back down.
The three of us sat around him in his little room, and though we occasionally talked mostly we just watched CNN on his TV. When he did speak, it was in a mixture of slurred nonsense and dreamy, detached memories. But he was lucid. He was somewhere inside that skull, he was making sense to himself, he simply couldn’t transmit it to us. The lights were on, and someone certainly was at home, but all the doors locked, all the windows barred. I wished I was back at that Christmas dinner years ago, the last one he attended. I wished he could get angry and storm off, and keep himself to his tortured thoughts in defiance of his illness, I wished he had enough of his physicality that he had some mode of expression available to him. Because now he, his consciousness, has no interface with reality, no means of being in the world, only of it, and the very fact that he is no longer enraged by his circumstances shows how truly shut in he has become. I long for the old feeling, the brittle boiling-over. I want him the way he was fifteen years ago, the strong, bright geologist who liked his bourbon a little too much. I want him to die. Anything but this.