The Window

Trips to visit Grandma were never "over the hills and through the woods" affairs for me. They were dark, scary affairs full of the kind of angst usually found only in the best horror movies.

Grandma was an inmate at the Weston State Psychiatric Hospital in Weston, WV. The hospital was built ages ago in the best tradition of medieval bedlam-all gray granite, soaring parapets, and heavy wooden doors. Even though it sat in the middle of a pleasant and green park-like acre, you always expected to see it backlit by dark skies full of thunder and lightning and foreboding clouds.

Today my memories of the place reside in a single vignette. I can't remember if it is the memory of a single visit or a composite made up of snippets from all of our visits and magnified through the lens of time. But each time I think of the place, this is what I see:

I enter a long and dark hallway. Mom is on one side of me and Dad is on the other. I can feel the damp warmth of their hands as they hold mine. We walk along the corridor as one, six legs moving in unison, our heels clicking loudly on the maroon and white checkered linoleum.

The place stinks of urine and vomit and sweat with heavy disinfectant overtones. Close by, and far away, I hear the other patients as they talk to whoever lives in their private hells. Some are speaking to unknown companions in a soft and soothing murmur. They repeat the same phrases over and over, a mantra that keeps them alive. Others laugh maniacally out loud. Their unseen companions are obviously the most hysterically funny people on Earth. Deep in the bowels of the ward I hear a scream and a woman's voice barking out long low grunts. Later I hear a single scream of, "Sarah!".

As we pass down the hallway I glance to the right and to the left. Every few feet we pass heavy steel doors with massive locking handles of stainless steel. Each door has a tiny wire-reinforced window up high and a small narrow slot lower down. An orderly wearing a rumpled white suit and black shoes is locking one of the doors with a key from a huge brass ring. There are at least a hundred keys there, one for each cell. Just like a jail.

Halfway down I look up and see a large window set in the cold, granite at the end of the corridor. It is very large and out of proportion to the confined hallway. It soars from near the floor all the way up to the high ceiling. If this were a church it would be filled with beautiful stained glass filtering light into delicate colors on the floor. Here it is nothing more than a light source, a holdover from the days when the place was new and there was no electricity.

The sun streams into the window and holds tiny particles of dust aloft in the warm, damp air. I wonder why the place is so dim with all the sunlight about. When I get closer to the window I see that most of the light is blocked out by persistent grime, the chicken wire embedded in the glass, and the rusty iron bars bolted to the outside.

Just next to the pool of light sits my Grandma. She rocks steadily in a chair, staring at the light and slowly grinding snuff against her lower lip. Every so often she lifts a small, discarded snuff can to her lips and spits a long string of brown liquid into it. The can has a blue and gold label that says "Top". It has a picture of a jaunty little yellow top playfully spinning against a blue background.

She looks up slowly from whatever she sees in the light on the floor. She seems suspended in a thick, viscous liquid, like honey. Her movements are painfully slow. She is wearing a light purple dress covered with tiny white flowers. It is exactly the kind of dress that women wear in movies about the Old West. Her face is chubby and pink and covered with a fine white down. Her hair, once long and luxuriant, is now wrapped into a huge, messy-white pile on her head. Here and there soft pink scalp shows through and I notice that there are far too many bobby pins holding it all together.

Synapses firing at the speed of a slow metronome, she looks at us. A faint glimmer of recognition begins in her cloudy eyes and spreads to the corners of her eyes. It crawls at an excruciating pace, one muscle at a time, to the corners of her mouth. She slowly bends her mouth into a broad smile, revealing her missing teeth and snuff stains.

She leans closer and kisses me on the cheek. As she pulls back, she gives me a pinch and murmurs, "Jackie." She smells of old sweat and snuff. I notice a dry tear just under her right eye. She doesn't take the time to wipe it away.

As Mom and Dad talk to her in hushed tones, I look away from the group. An old man with a huge hooked nose and very scratchy beard shuffles over and looks at me like I'm an alien. Mom and Dad are occupied with Grandma and don't take much notice of the old man or of me.

He slowly reaches down and touches the top of my head with a shriveled old claw. The hand is bent and leathery and has long, dirty fingernails. As he lovingly rubs my head a tear appears just under his right eye too.

Today I realized something about the place. It is a place where people come and sat in rocking chairs. They stare at the sun filtering in through the big window at the end of the hall. They sit and grow old and watch helplessly as their minds slowly abandoned them. When everything is gone, and they can no longer muster that faint and glacial glow of recognition, death sneaks up on them and takes them anonymously away.

I imagine that death doesn't use the front door. I think it goes out through the window and into the bright sunshine outside.

Truth Told by Omnipotent Poobah, Saturday, January 21, 2006

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