The Descent

Today is Thanksgiving, though you wouldn’t guess it from the sterile walls and empty smells. Visiting hours here are from 1:00-2:00 PM every day. Toy Story 3 murmurs in the background as my family and I approach the main desk.

To enter the visiting area, there are certain guidelines one must follow: no purses, no wallets, no food, no beverages, no cell phones, and, it goes without saying, no weapons. Present your ID to the front desk if you are older than 16. I hadn’t thought I would need my wallet.

“Well, then I guess I’m 15,” I tell my sister, who is 25, four years my senior. We share the curse of youth, both of us being short and skinny and perpetually mistaken for freshmen of some variety.

All the employees are young women. One of them leads us down a white hallway lined with quaint photographs—unremarkable houses and nature scenes from the surrounding area. The residents aren’t permitted to leave their rooms, so perhaps the pictures are meant to preserve the sanity of the workers.

“Is this a medical hospital?” my mom asks.

“No, this is a behavioral hospital,” the woman says. The phrase “psychiatric ward” is thrown between my family members in private, but I never hear the word “asylum.” Certainly, it has fallen out of favor and is deemed politically incorrect, the fate of many words in this generation.

She is waiting for us when we arrive in the visiting room.

“You need to take me home with you.” She is confident and assertive, but her voice has a shaky undertone. A football game whistles and cheers above us. The lack of old person musk surprises me; I can’t forget that uncomfortably unidentifiable smell that permeated the halls of Nationwide when I used to roll around an arts and crafts cart. I had hoped it was the hospital food.

A woman who reminds me of Cruella de Vil—with her shock white hair and plush fur coat—stares at us for a long moment. Or perhaps I had been looking at her first. She dons a red and white Visitor’s sticker, just like us.

My aunt again:

“Take me back with you today. Please do.” Not a plea, a command.

“You have to stay here so you can get help,” my mom says gently.

“They’re not helping me here. They don’t do anything.” Her eyes are still and unblinking.

“What medications are you taking?”

“You need to take me with you.”

I memorize the details: toes shrouded in fuzzy leopard print slippers, legs swathed in black slacks, a maroon shirt overlain with a matching cardigan. Fingers pulled close to the chest and cupped upward, holding precious invisible mementos; glossy oval-shaped nails shaking. Platinum blonde hair curled into a desperate and unconvincing comb over.

The most distracting thing is that fat, slimy worm of a tongue that ventures out of her mouth every few seconds.

“Here, John, talk to your sister for a while,” my mom says to my dad before walking to the front counter to request my aunt’s list of current medications.

“Hiewfhojnljkscd,” an old woman in a red sweatshirt says cheerily, zooming into my sister’s personal bubble and fondling the scarf around her neck. My sister simply smiles, laughs a little, and agrees. This is her “customer service” face, the one I’ve witnessed during her waitress shifts and that I assume she uses with her own therapy patients.

“Well, uh, how was the Thanksgiving food here?” my dad asks his sister.

“Fine,” she spits, “You need to take me home with you. Take me back with you today.”

“I’m sorry. We can’t right now. You’ll be out of here soon.” Is he sad? He must be sad. I’m not sure.

My mom comes back and asks more questions in an attempt at polite conversation.

“Do you need any clothing?”


“Did Susan bring you a curler?”


“Does anything hurt?”

“My heart.”

“How so? Do—“

“Figuratively.” Her tone is flat and we are silent.

“Take me back with you now. I want to live with you guys.”

“I know, honey. I know you do.”

My thoughts are Trivial Pursuit. During my brief fascination with palm reading, I learned that fingernail shapes are believed to signify personality types; people with oval-shaped fingernails love beauty and order, but if someone undoes what they have organized, they easily grow upset. The unblinking stare of young babies is creepier than Aunt Helene’s blank expression. Babies blink less than twice a minute on average, whereas adults squeeze in 10-15 blinks per minute. What is dry mouth a symptom of? Shouldn’t I have learned that in class?

As we walk through the parking lot, I ask my sister what the old woman in red had said to her.

“It was just gibberish,” she replies. I see Cruella de Vil sitting in the car next to our van. Our eyes meet.

“That woman keeps staring at us,” I whisper.

“She needs to mind her own damn business,” my sister says as we hop into our seats.

“Maybe she’s more worried about us judging her. I thought the woman in the sweatshirt was her mother or something.”

“No, she was hanging around everybody. That woman is just judging us.”

I glance out the window, but Cruella is gone.

The landscape blurs while I enjoy the comforting feel of plastic ear buds and the Vitamin String Quartet. My parents’ laundry list discussion of medications and disorders and exasperations rises above the whine of violins. Mom is the driver and dad is the passenger. She reaches over to hold his hand, smooths her thumb across his knuckles so naturally. What would’ve happened if Helene still had someone to hold her hand?

This is my aunt’s story: She once lived with her (second) husband Rick in Georgia and they littered their house with teddy bears of all shapes and sizes, juxtaposed with miniature models of sports cars. Many years ago, Rick left her for a younger version he found while on a romantic cruise; the new pair is still married today. We often speak bitterly of Uncle Rick during Thanksgiving when the family gossip travels, but I only remember how he bought me gummy worms during my grandfather’s funeral and let me ride in the front seat of his cherry red convertible.

In most cases, ordinarily coherent and cordial loved ones become strangers, but I’m not sure if Helene has ever been well. An alcoholic father, an abortion at 17, an abusive and short-lived first marriage. This Thanksgiving, my Aunt Susan explained how the descent truly began. Back when the two were married, my Uncle Rick would finish Helene’s teaching paperwork for her since she had never learned to type (or so the story goes; a Distinguished Teaching Award for 40 years of guiding special needs children sits on her shelf and I don’t know what to think).

She sobbed when Rick left the house without her and leeched away every ounce of energy he had.
After the divorce, the calls started—to my mom, my dad, my Aunt Susan. Aunt Helene would detain them as a captive audience for hours, spreading guilt and threatening suicide. Thank God for caller ID.

Now, her apartment has been sold, her furniture and knick-knacks auctioned off, and her sharp little white BMW sits in someone else’s garage. She used to look like a classy pin-up girl, hourglass figure and all, but now…

“She’s death warmed over,” my mom says. “She talks like a broken record.” She’s as pale as a ghost; her fate is worse than death; she is dead to me. Her funeral would evoke a collective sigh of relief. Shoulders would relax in the absence of their burdens.

Perhaps I am supposed to feel more sympathy. Most of us would like to believe that our personalities—our identities—are more than simply the sum of our chromosomes. But Phineas Gage took an iron rod to the brain and lost himself. Mental malfunctions can be mended by pills—soft ones, hard ones, small ones, large ones, blue ones, red ones. Insanity may not leave room for choices.

“’Take me home with you!’” My mom mocks Helene’s solemnity from the front seat and cackles at her own joke, her laugh morphing into a creaky hiccup.

“Isn’t that right?” she asks her spectators. My dad cracks a goofy smile.

I don’t want to play. I feel nothing for Helene, but tomorrow or the next day or the next, the already wrinkled faces I know will wither into skeletal hospital figures and their minds will be robbed of choices and this story will become their stories.

And I wonder if my mom realizes that no one is laughing with her.

Photography Credit: Jason Rice

Diane Callahan received her Bachelor of Arts in Honors English and psychology with minors in creative writing and professional writing. Her work has been published in Ohio State’s Mosaic Magazine, and she has received a number of university awards for her essays.