Alison Baker

Sometimes I forget my name. I use it so rarely, and I act as myself so rarely, that I have lost any sense that I am anyone at all. I’m not saying this to be morose or pitiful or to stir in you alarm that I’m despondent or on the verge of something. It’s just a statement. Just something I’ve noticed, and marvel at: I make a phone call, say, and when I hear myself give my name I marvel that I was able to remember it.

Claude knew his name as soon as he woke up. He didn’t know the president, but he was never much interested in politics anyway; he never believed it relevant to him. When asked about his dog he remembered good old Zipper, who died in 1993. He remembered his address and telephone number from the house we lived in when he was nine. He remembered me, his big sister, and he remembered his mother’s name—Mom—and his father’s—Dad. He remembered the names of several of the friends who later forsook him.

Then things get murky. It’s hard to tell what he’s forgotten and what he just can’t manage to do. Brush his teeth, for instance. Maybe he just refuses to remember to do it because it’s too hard for him. You remind him and he slaps his forehead and says Oh yeah! In a minute or two you say Claude, the teeth? Whap! Oh yeah. And he struggles up from whatever chair he’s in and shuffles to the bathroom, and sometimes he remembers to put toothpaste on the brush and sometimes he doesn’t, but either way he dutifully brushes his teeth for twenty or thirty minutes, or until you remind him to stop.

I do not blame—well, no, not true, I do blame the boys, the men, who have forsaken my brother. But I understand them fully. I myself would forsake him if he were someone else’s brother. How many people in the world will continue to give time and attention to a person who no longer has a concept of time and whose attention span was blown to smithereens in a distant desert town?

If Claude and I had grown old together we might have become better friends. My mother has told me that she and her sisters were not particular friends in childhood, and after high school they went their separate ways, but by the time death and disappointment and the diminution of hormones had made inroads into their lives in their fifties, they had become fast friends and confidantes. They clung together in the face of death.

There, look what I said. If we had grown old together. Here we both are, chugging through the years, which is called aging; yet something is happening to me that is not happening to him.

On the other hand, what has happened to him has very definitely happened to me.

Here’s what happened. I was home visiting my parents. The phone rang. I understand that if it’s not fatal they can let you know by phone. When it’s a fatality they have to come to the door. By twos, like Mormons.

The phone rang and my father answered it. I was sitting in the living room reading. I was reading Jhumpa Lahiri. She writes the sort of story that makes me nervous, because I know someone is going to do something wrong. Not murder, not a big unlikely thing, but a big foolish thing, something that I might do. The sort of thing I have done and could tell you about in detail, except that I prefer not to think of any of those things. I know what it’s like to do a big little terrible thing, but I turn out the light in that room of my brain when I happen to open the door.

But her writing is so beautiful, so easy, that I love to read it. If only nothing ever happened in her stories!

The phone rang. My father answered it. I am a nosy person, I was listening to him. Hello? he said. He was so pathetic, and I don’t like thinking of my father as pathetic. One’s father should be strong and smart. He answered the fucking phone! His voice was helpless!

I see, said my father. Yes. Yes. Yes, we’ll be here all day. Please let us know. Please—wait, who can I call? No, but. Yes. He motioned to me, wildly waving his hand, bring it, bring it, then pinched his fingers together and made a writing motion. I scrambled up from the sofa and ran into the kitchen for a pen and ran back. I had no paper. I wrote on the lampshade as my father repeated the numbers. A telephone number.

When he hung up he shouted, “Martha!”

We heard her faint voice.

“Martha!” he shouted again.

“In a minute,” she called.

He reached for the pen and put it in his shirt pocket.

The numbers are still on the lampshade. I turned them toward the wall. I don’t know if my parents know they’re there. I don’t know if they’d know what the numbers are. I know.

The toilet flushed and the bathroom door opened so that the flushing was louder and my mother came down the stairs.

Just as she got to the bottom my father said, “Martha, Claude’s been injured.”

She put a hand on the banister and said, “How badly?”

My father’s voice broke when he answered that one. “They don’t know,” he said. “He’s just going into surgery right now. In Germany. I think it’s bad.”

And if the golf cart doesn’t head out for lunch with the tea caddy, I’ll tell you the story of Daddy and the understatement.

One of these days I’m going to light out, but right now my major preoccupation is finding a decent hairdresser. There are not that many in this town, and of course only a few of them are acceptable to begin with. Say six or eight. Say I get my hair cut every six weeks: that’s eight times a year.

I walk in, I sit down in the chair, and the chosen hairdresser looks at my head, looks at my face in the mirror, and says, Now, what are we doing?

I describe what I want—a sort of bob, not square, not in layers, long in the back, and see this piece here? I don’t want that to stick up. She nods and has at it, snipping and snapping away in my mass of wiry hair. And when I get home I have a layered head in the shape of a square, chopped right off at the nape of my neck, with that chunk on the left side bulging out in the shape of Minnie Mouse’s ear.

Usually I go two or three times before I get fed up and switch. But of course eventually—there being so little choice—I have to start over again.

You probably want to know why Claude enlisted in the first place, what his high school career was like, how he interacted with his friends, all of that. Believe me, it’s irrelevant.

When you live this way, with someone suffering from a certain malady, you learn too much. You learn that there is no time in the day, no time in our lives, to ponder anything. It is one damned thing after another, detail piled upon detail, getting the man out of bed and getting food into him and waste out of him. Trying to make him feel worthwhile. Trying to make ourselves feel that what we are doing is worthwhile.

Claude doesn’t play real sports any more because he is lacking such a large piece of skull that—horrors!—his brain might get hurt. But every Friday night he and Denny play video games. I don’t like to admit that it makes me nervous when he plays them; he gets so excited and waves his arm and shouts and pounds on things and jumps around in his chair. His brain might get hurt.

The first time Denny came to the door I didn’t think we should let him in. I thought he’d come to gawk. He was the older brother of Claude’s former best friend Jeff, and Jeff, after coming once, had made himself scarce. He had a job, he had a girlfriend. He was a busy man.

To his credit, Denny didn’t make excuses for his brother, and in fact only mentioned his name once, when he first rang the bell. He said he was Jeff’s brother, Denny. Could he come in?

Now he comes by once a week and they sit in front of Claude’s flatscreen and blow each other up, ramming each other’s car off the road. Laughing and hooting, yelling. I know Claude has a good time at it. It’s about the only good time he has. If his brain were more intact he’d be waiting at his front door for hours before Denny arrives. As it is, though, and maybe this is some kind of blessing, he can’t keep track of the days of the week. Nothing has worked, crossing off squares on the wall calendar, having an electronic device beep at him, nothing. Hours and days mean nothing to him. So he is always pleasantly surprised when Denny shows up at the door with a pizza or buffalo wings from Pizza Hut that they zap in the wave and devour as they kill each other’s proxy over and over again.

I’d like to know why Denny comes. I try to put myself in the position he’s taken on: friend to a disabled person who has no short-term memory, can’t understand the humor in most situations, can’t be trusted to cross the street without either dropping his cane or falling to his knees or both, and who occasionally has a seizure which knocks him out of the box for a couple of days afterwards. And to top it off, can’t remember your name.

Maybe he’s in training for the priesthood, and this is a work of charity. Or maybe he’s going to go back to school to study psychology, or write about Posttraumatic Stress Syndrome and Traumatic Brain Injury in Iraq Vets. Maybe he’s a secret peacenik—my grandfather’s word!—and is collecting data to reveal at a hearing. Maybe he’s a pervert and likes being around people of limited mentation. Maybe he’s deeply ashamed of his brother’s abandonment of my brother and is trying to make it up. Maybe he’s in love with me and thinks the way to win my heart is by stuffing my brother’s stomach with buffalo wings.

Sometimes I am satisfied with my hair. It all depends on what it looks like when I get up in the morning. There are some mornings, when the humidity is high enough and I haven’t slept too long on one side, that it looks great! I feel like a hundred and two bucks! And my search becomes less frantic, less drastic, less a life-and-death situation. On those days I can dress in brighter colors, I dare to wear lipstick, I walk along with my head fairly high. It’s all in the hair.

I am one hundred percent sure that Claude, like the others in his vehicle, was concentrating one hundred percent on what he was doing. Inching through enemy territory in a Humvee, keeping all eyes and ears open for signs of explosive devices, for fast or surreptitious movements among the populace, for birds that didn’t fly, for dogs that didn’t bark in the night. I wonder, if he had stinted on the attention then, would less of it have been exposed to the blast? Would he have retained some of it somewhere deep inside, to be brought out now that he is home and safe and has other things—like his teeth, his video games, the crossing of streets—to pay that attention to?

Anyone just looking at my brother doesn’t have a clue that he is not a whole person. That a large part of his brain was slammed and mashed and chopped out so that now, no matter which way a thought goes in Claude’s brain, it comes to the edge of an abyss beyond which there is nothing. A black chasm. And his poor little thoughts have no internal resources, they can’t backtrack or jump over to another track. Thought after thought stops and dies at the edge of that abyss.

There was a time I could have asked Claude what it was like. Not just the explosion, but being there, in Iraq. We were not particularly close but we were used to each other, we could talk. Not about our deepest desires, not our yearnings, but we could describe pretty accurately and without embarrassment what had happened to us and, often, how we felt about it.

But probably just his being there would have taken that away. The things we could talk about in our teenage years were things that happened in our shared universe of youth and family and sports and jobs and the fucking little town where we lived. Heading out in armored vehicles to play dodge ’em with explosive devices was not within the realm of our shared experiences. I don’t think that even at his most articulate he could have described it to me. He probably liked some aspects of it, and I wouldn’t have been able to understand that. Adrenaline played a different role in his life than in mine.

If only he were pitiful, pitiable. You know, a pathetic, weak individual who lies abed gazing at flowers. It’s just really hard to feel affection for someone who acts like a crass 13-year-old boy with no depth. Who can’t do his share of the chores because he can’t understand how to do them. Or that he should do them. Or that there are chores in the world to be done.

It reflects on me, of course. I should be able to abide him because after all he is my brother and he has never done anything to hurt me. Except close his mind to me, ha ha!
If he were a vegetable.
If he were totally crippled.
If he had died.
Then I would be able to feel some affection for him.
Love is not love that alters when it alteration finds.

Yeah, well. Love cannot help but alter in some cases.

Now and then I try a new hairdresser. More often than not I love what she does for the first hour. I love it. Kicky, cute, easy; makes me feel 40 pounds lighter and a couple of cities more sophisticated. By the next morning it makes me look like I’m carrying a death’s head at the top of my neck. It will take another three years to get back to where I was yesterday at this time, a shaggy thick curtain of hair hanging heavy around my jaw. I thought it weighed me down so I wanted it shortened, but this cut reveals far too much of my body and of my soul.

I believe what I’ve said about Claude here doesn’t do his intellect justice. He does have aspirations. He would like to have a job.

He would like to be able to have a job.

He would benefit by having some concept of what a job is.

He was never going to be a nuclear physicist, but he wasn’t a stupid boy. He majored in biology. He could have done something in the health sciences. I like to think he might have become an EMT. Or an orderly, one of those calm, strong, understanding orderlies who intuit what their patients are suffering and know how to calm them and how to reach the silent unreachable ones.

Well, that went blooey in Iraq! This Claude snickers when he sees his mother crying. He can’t carry a stretcher because his grip is unreliable. He has a strong fist, but around a handle it’s liable to drift open as he concentrates on walking. Can’t have an orderly who can’t hold on to the patient’s gait belt. Whose grasp on the bedpan is questionable.

His givens are different now. We have learned to divide these things up not in a hierarchical way but solely on a timeline.

Birth through 23: basic good looks, good health, moderate athletic ability that will provide a pastime throughout life, a reasonable ability to maintain a loving relationship with a potential mate, headed for a career in the health care field.

23 to the present, and beyond: ability to walk with a cane, ability to maintain a semi-independent living situation with aides and supervision. Someday perhaps some kind of wage-earning job in a rote, assembly-line set-up.

I didn’t go up to Bethesda with them when they first went, I wasn’t there when they walked through the door of my brother’s room to find a bald man with a melon head and black eyes and plastic tubing running into orifices where no orifices were before. A lump of a man who gurgled. Who gurgled as he slept through the first three weeks they were with him. As they sat in terror beside his bed, not knowing who would be there when—if—his eyes opened.

They did open, and it was a disabled Claude.

Or, as we now prefer, a differently abled Claude. I appreciate the terminology at last, not in support of his dignity but as an attempt by his family to live in the present. We are all trying to Be Here Now.

Same with this awful, awful haircut! It doesn’t matter what my hair looked like when I was sixteen or what vision I carried of myself and my future in the past, this hair is what I now have! It will grow at its own rate, and I can have no control; I must make my way through this world beneath this head of hair. It is my given. Not me. But me now.

The worst thing? It blew away his sense of humor! He laughs, but it’s the wrong laugh. Sounds like a song, doesn’t it? He laughs, but it’s the wrong laugh. It’s not from humor but from something in his brain that wasn’t there before; or from a shadow of something that was there but is gone. The explosion whacked his brain but what it blew away was his soul.

I used to be funny myself. I used to find humor in just about everything. I wrote funny stories and pointed out amusing arrangements of words on signs. I caught the mistaken meanings people assign to words and the misspellings in the world around me. No longer, though. I am dulled and dimmed by what has happened to my brother. I am draped with survivor’s guilt, great heavy velveteen swathes of it. You know how, when you associate a certain piece of music with a certain event or place or time, you can never hear that music again without it getting in the way of your life? My brother is like that, like a piece of music. We may not have been close but I associate him with my whole life, including my aspirations. I was going to go far and do many things, and become a patent attorney or a cellist or run a half-way house for abused women.

Now I’m incapable of sustained attention to anything. I can hardly think one day ahead except to schedule some health care-related event. Sometimes I can do nothing but stare out the window at the poor damned birds dashing to the feeder to seize seeds in between snowflakes, which at the moment are falling hot and heavy—ha ha!—through the universe. Stare at the cars going by, whose drivers peer into my yard and at my window, maliciously hoping to spy on me. Stare at my walls, at framed photographs and little art prints that mean nothing to me any more, not even when I shake myself out of my stupor and consciously look at them, thinking of where they came from and why I have them there, of the dead people and animals portrayed in them, at the creatures who never lived yet achieved immortality by appearing to thresh some wheat or dance with a bearded man or howl at a moon that is rising orange behind a snow-laden fir.

To make up for my inability to concentrate, I’m trying to learn not to despair quite so much. It has involved the scaling down of any number of dreams and goals into which I won’t go right now. They’re too embarrassing. Let it suffice to say that I have adopted Popeye’s Theorem: I yam what I yam.

You’d think I would have figured this out some time ago. That it wouldn’t take the ruination of my brother’s brain to make me face myself.

I know I make this sound, I have made all of this sound, as if I am the one who suffers. In truth, I am way down the line in the suffering hierarchy. Claude would be first, if I could believe that he understands enough to suffer. He has lost his former life, including its future. That’s a biggy. But if he doesn’t know that—well, maybe it doesn’t hurt him.

Claude’s mother? Pow! Her heart is riddled with the fragments of her boy’s brain, her present life and her future all sucked into Taking Care of Claude. When she is awake, her mind is on him. When she’s asleep, god knows where her mind goes. She used to tell us her dreams; at the breakfast table as the sun streamed in the windows we laughed over coffee and coffeecake at the tableaux in which she had found herself the night before, and at the hilarious non sequitors issuing from the lips of long-dead relatives or distant celebrities.

No dreams now. No laughter from Claude or from me, though she tries gamely now and then to entertain us. Sorry, Mom, doesn’t work, back to your grief.

As for Dad, he’s earning as many bucks as he can before he’s too old. He goes out the door to the car in the morning and he works all day, and he comes home and sits with his son at the dinner table, surreptitiously reaching over now and then to push Claude’s plate away from the table edge or to put a piece of chicken back on the plate or to hand Claude a napkin to wipe his chin—Claude won’t stand being wiped but he obediently wipes when you hand him a napkin.

In fact we are lucky, luckyluckylucky! in many, many regards, in that way!

1. Claude wipes with no urging when you tell him to! Lips, chin, rear end, he follows the instruction when you hand him the tissue and indicate its destination.

2. He has lost his taste for alcohol! I understand that alcohol would render his anti-seizure medication ineffective, or enhance its effects, causing stupor or narcolepsy or irrational agitation. But when given a beer or something else by mistake, Claude grimaces and shoves it the hell away. For Claude, traumatic brain injury is as good as Antabuse!

3. Claude is not prone to violence! or even to anger, really. He’s just stupid, coarse, lethargic, and humorless now. He lurches, he doesn’t bathe without a reminder, he can’t bait his own hook, and he doesn’t hold up his end of a conversation. But, except in his video games, he isn’t violent!

He isn’t violent, and that’s a lucky thing for us!

Not too long ago, having run through my selected options, I went back to a hairdresser whose actual name is Cherish, a bright-faced and cheerfully loud woman. I told her what I wanted this time: a bit of shaping, softer around the face, not chopped away from my temples. She pondered my head, lifted and considered a couple of locks, and began snipping with abandon. She chattered away about her daughter who married the insurance salesman, and the other one, doing ever so well in college, and about the sundry things a hairdresser can go on about while she goes about her business, which is my head. At the end she stood back and presented me to myself and I put on my glasses and considered the cut, which was about what I expected and not what I’d hoped for.

As I stood at the counter writing a check she said, “How’s your brother doing?”

I was pleased that she remembered. “You have a good memory,” I said. “I guess he’s a little better than he was.”

“He’s alive,” she said, shaking her head and taking my money. “That’s a blessing.”

Lately we’ve had very cold winters, global warming notwithstanding. This winter, for instance, it snowed the week before Christmas, the deepest snow we’ve had in thirty years, and then the temperature dropped to zero, freezing the snow in place. This weather is bad for Claude, who has trouble getting around because his balance is shot and his vision is partial, and for us, who help Claude go places and sometimes have to pick him up if he falls or stop him from getting out of the car when there’s a pool of slush outside the door.

What these winters have been surprisingly good for is birding. This year’s Christmas Bird Count, though cold enough to freeze a proverbial off anything, was made infinitely easier by the snow. Birds show up like nobody’s business against a pure white background. Bundled up in my old down coat, which had hung forlornly in a bag in the attic for ten years but rose bravely to the task when called up, I stalked the fields and copses of my assigned area seeking out the little brown jobbers, and counted the herds of robins devouring the dried fruits on the wild cherry trees, and estimated the number of starlings on the communications tower at the gas company, and I would huddle with my back to the wind and take off a mitten and write down my sightings.

North American Robins 89
Eastern bluebirds 3
Red-bellied woodpecker 1
Dark-eyed Juncos 7
White-throated sparrows 5
Eastern Towhee 1
European Starlings 803

People used to shoot these birds in order to count them, to understand them, even just to see them clearly. Imagine that, imagine shooting them out of the skies by the thousands, birds falling around you like warm-blooded sleet, blanketing your field in feathers and gore, one by one their cries and calls and songs going silent. In the silence you step carefully among them, nudging one small body aside with the toe of your shoe, crushing another underfoot despite your care, kneeling down to pick up a White-throated Sparrow that still breathes, its eye open, a line of blood trickling from the corner of its bill. Gently you crush its neck between your thumb and finger until its eye dulls and its little head falls back against your bright soft mitten, and you drop it to the ground, among the other feathered dead, and rise to walk again.

In any life there are defining moments. Sometimes you recognize them when they happen, sometimes you don’t. Sometimes it’s an absolute starburst of light in your chest, a thrill that rushes from heart to spine to ribs to xyphoid process and lifts you right into heaven, or at least onto the gently waving limb of a mature elm in midsummer. Other times it slides like a knife into your small intestine, whose contents begin to seep into your peritoneal cavity, and your abdomen blooms heavy and hot with a kind of dull, angry, fatal despair.

Cherish has done my hair wrong, wrong, wrong again, chopped at it until it is a coarse haggard mess not beginning to approach the vision I had for myself. She has no clue. If I could I would pick up a gun and aim it at her stupid face and shoot. I would kneel down in the snow and push the cold heavy barrel into my temple, into that dent in my skull behind my right eye where the bone is so thin, another blessing! I lay it against that sorry useless pane of bone and in one fast instant fast I squeeze and with a sound like tsk! in blood and gobs of brain and laughing shards of sharp white bone I blow my endless thoughts away.

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