The Storm Between Us


 Hazel Kight Witham, Nonfiction

 

I travel to Galveston to know my grandmother. I drive along the southeastern jaw of Texas, passing through towns named Cheek and Winnie until I veer onto the road that will take me to the Gulf. I stare out the window at the green land under a gray morning until the horizon disappears and I steer into the past.

My grandmother died six years before I was born. She never knew it, but she left me her old-fashioned name —Hazel —and an old-fashioned rose-cut diamond that became my engagement ring. She also left me an unfortunate sliver of DNA that has me traveling this two-lane road to Galveston.

Green marshland swims in the foreground. Silver slips of water roll away from the road and fade into a blur of mist. Oil derricks emerge, bowing their heads to the earth like horses wetting their lips at the trough. A line I cannot define is somewhere in the distance and I feel her gathering within me.

 

Galveston is an island tucked into a natural harbor along the Gulf of Mexico. At the turn of the twentieth century it was a bustling, prosperous port. It was the largest city in the state, full of Victorian mansions and long-limbed trees, beautiful beaches and people getting rich. No one expected the Storm.

Early on September 8, 1900, a Texas-sized hurricane pummeled the island. Flood waters surged over the banks, destroying nearly 4,000 buildings. More than 8,000 people died, crushed by debris and water. One in every five, gone. Countless unidentified bodies were cremated for public safety. Whole families died, making it difficult to track casualties. The dead took the details with them.


I search for details of my grandmother like gathering sea glass along a rocky beach—bright shards of stories I coaxed from my mother when I was young and we were driving at night, when the dark helped her remember.

Grandmother was born in Corsicana, Texas, and settled down 300 miles south in Orange with her high-school sweetheart, Robert. They had two daughters, eight years apart.

A story I love: when they moved into the Orange house, the movers put the piano on the front porch and my grandmother played tune after tune as the men lugged all their belongings into the home. Every time they asked her where something should go, she said, "Just put it on the back porch," and continued playing. As the afternoon wore on, one of the movers finally said, "Lady, have you taken a look at the back porch lately?"

My grandmother started deteriorating with the move away from Corsicana. She didn't know anyone in Orange; she didn't have a job or any real hobbies other than piano. As her world withered in that unfamiliar town, depression colored her daily life. When she gave birth to my mother, melancholy overwhelmed her nearly to the point of catatonia, and she was hospitalized in the Galveston Psychopathic Hospital.

The few things that remain in our family offer a glimpse of her. I know my grandmother had a brass chain-link purse that pooled in my hands like water. I know she had a fancy silver compact inlaid with lavender flowers. I know she hated photographs of herself. I know she didn't drive. I know she hated Galveston.

 

After the storm, Galveston took action with an intensity to match the hurricane. Residents cleaned up the wreckage, constructed a 17-foot seawall six miles along the Gulf coast, and pumped sand in from the sea floor to raise the island's grade.

But when another storm struck in 1915, the island was flooded again, killing as many as 400. In 1933, eleven storms pounded the coast of Texas. After each hurricane, Galveston had to reset itself.

For my grandmother, Galveston was always a place of storms. In the 1940s, the Psychopathic Hospital was one of the few of its kind in Texas. Over the course of five weeks, my grandmother underwent a series of electroconvulsive treatments, that she might be stunned out of her depression. ECT induces seizures, resulting in convulsions and a loss of consciousness. It was hoped that her brain would reset.

 

Like the cyclical nature of Galveston's hurricanes, my grandmother's moods stormed through her and periodically wreaked havoc on her life. Without much of interest to fill her days, her drinking increased. She stayed in bed more, glasses of Canadian Club sweating on the nightstand. She cried and grew restless. She would beg Grandpa not to take her back to Galveston, and at first he would acquiesce. But she would drift away in her bed, paralyzed, until she was surrounded by salt water and skies that held no light. She felt utterly hopeless, but she knew she didn't want shock treatments. He had to take her against whatever will she had left.

After her ECT, my grandmother would misplace the names of her daughters. The memory of her newborn child fogged over. Both her depression and its treatment seemed to inhibit her ability to care for the children. Her ability to play the piano, to do her hair, to keep house.

I would ask my mother about the hospital and the shock treatments, long before I knew that I had inherited my grandmother's illness. Every time there were new details and the same sadness. But so much was elusive and I needed something tangible. Something more than story to cast a light on what linked us.

So now I am going back. Along the same route, past fences her eyes must have tripped over, grasses the same green. I hit High Island and then Gilchrist. Suddenly all the houses along the shoreline seem as surprised as I am by the appearance of the ocean. They fear the worst, sitting high on stilts, lifting their skirts to show skinny legs where water can flow past and leave structures intact.

I wonder how deep the beams go, how firmly the foundations hold in a storm, what houses look like hovering on hurricane water. Which houses were here when Grandmother traveled this road? What did she understand of them when they returned from the hospital, her mind as fogged as this forgotten landscape? Nothing looks alive, despite the abundant green. The houses seem uninhabited. Vaulted in defiance of nature, shocked, and left in eternal awkwardness.

 

From the upper deck of a ferry I watch Galveston spread before me. Texas seagulls with black heads ride the wind off the bow of the boat all the way to the landing. I drive off the ferry and twist along the eastern edge of the 30-mile island. The old Psychopathic Hospital appears before I am ready: a great lawn opening up to a campus of tall buildings, pale brick, darkened glass. It is less than a mile from the ferry landing. She would have had so little time after getting off the boat.

The campus is larger now, I'm sure, with more buildings, but I bet that wide lawn was there on her first visit. She would have ridden by it on the looping drive toward the hospital. It could have been her last sight of grass for months. As the car nears the drive my body tenses and I cannot bring myself to turn toward the hospital. I've come so many miles to see this place and now I am flooded with the fear, the bone-deep dread of what awaited my grandmother here in Galveston. All I can think is how she wanted to be free of it and I cannot take us back. I hold my breath as I drive past.

My mother told me that once, after my grandfather had taken my grandmother to the hospital for treatment, she escaped the very next day. She walked to a local bar and convinced a stranger to take her on the ferry and drive her ninety miles back to Orange. And then my grandfather drove her right back again.

I marvel at how brave she was. Winding through the streets away from the hospital I wonder where the bar was, and did she get a drink before she headed back? She must have; my grandparents liked their liquor. I see her push past the swinging doors of my mind's Western saloon, backlit by the dust swirls of noonday light. A handful of people propped on stools nursing hangovers. Worn cowboy boots and trusty Stetsons. Hazel steadies her hand on the cool wood of the bar and orders a beer. Pinches some salt into the foam like her husband always does. This calms her.

How many people did she have to ask before some man agreed to drive her home, with the promise of money from her husband? Did she stand out or fit in perfectly? What was she wearing? Did they have those plastic hospital bracelets back then? And remembering my own hospitalization, what I want to know most: how did she manage to sneak out?

 

Thirteen years ago I fell into a depression during my first year in college. Unlike my grandmother, I had the benefit of medications for this illness I inherited. They worked and things got better, until the other side of our illness surfaced. The depression lifted and I promptly whirled into a mania that landed me in a psychiatric hospital for eight weeks. While I was there, thoughts of my grandmother came to me as I began to experience what for so long I had only imagined.

Passing Grandmother's hospital site I am back at my own, and the distance of thirteen years vanishes:

I walked the halls in stale scrubs, barefoot, scrounging cigarettes from other patients and staff. It became normal, acceptable, to pick up half-smoked cigarettes from the ground and massage them straight so they could fit into the safety lighter on the courtyard wall. As I smoked, I stared up at the strips of blue sky visible through the iron bars that secured the top of the cinder-blocked patio. Cigarettes were one of the few pleasures within that cage.

My meals were on trays; I slept in a single room on a metal bed. Doctors and nurses wrote notes on charts, trying out diagnoses to find one that would fit. They drew vials upon vials of blood, sticking the awkward inside of my elbow almost daily. Twice a day there were little paper cups cluttered with pink pills, blue pills, white pills.

There was nothing to do but climb around in the jungle of my restless mind. No art, no books, no music. 

I took showers as often as I could, water falling like freedom for a few moments. I took too many apparently, because that became one measure of my sickness. One answer to my constant question: When can I leave? When I take fewer showers. When I stop going in other people's rooms. When I stop taking off my booties and walking around barefoot.

New conditions were invented at every turn, while a kaleidoscope of medications shifted my world from manic to catatonic, garrulous to thick-tongued, animated to anesthetized. I could refuse the horse tranquilizers, the anti-psychotics, but then I would be "resisting treatment" and that would only slow my release.

Days ticked by in a vacuum and I saw my life narrow down to nothing. I became convinced I would never leave.

Late one night, itching for freedom, I slipped out of my room. A horizonless exile compelled me to move. I flew down the long corridor, past the good sleeping patients, and aimed for the window at the end of the hall. I slammed into unyielding glass, pressed my head into the cold of it, whispering pleas to the night grass glowing in pools of lamplight.

Moments later, I was captured, like a wild mustang, and carried bucking back down the hall. It was a whirling chaos of movement —arms, legs, wrists, thighs, gripped tight and too close. I didn't know where I ended and they began. I fought with everything in me, but they knew what they were doing. They opened the door to my room and pressed me face down on my bed, one at each limb. A figure darkened the doorway, armed with a tangle of leather straps, all silver buckles and precise holes. My grandmother filled my mind, and we fought together, terrified of what was to come.

They strapped me down and I watched myself from above, an X across the bed, like I'd been shot in the back. A nurse plunged a needle into my hip and my sobbing faded and I stopped fighting.

When I came to, the sheets were soaked, the room dark. I began the glacial process of undoing the restraints. It was a test: if I could pass it—if I could get out—they would let me go. They would know I was not really crazy. They would not shock me.

I wrenched my right arm around, working one wrist out, straining for the next. I leaned back, knees twisting, to unbuckle the right ankle then the left. I was almost free when the faint stream of light entering the room wavered and I saw a head blacken the window in the door.

They did not want me free.

During the seven days they had me strapped to the bed, the few facts I knew of my grandmother stormed through me like so much lightning, so much wind. I knew her in a way I never had: the rage, the fear, the certainty that they would shock me as they did her.

 

Years after my hospitalization, I read about ECT, tried to understand what it must have been like. As I drive through Galveston now, one patient's comment echoes through my head: "Each shock treatment was for me a Hiroshima."

Those words confirm my worst fears.

Shock treatments back then, with their high voltages, were brain damage masked as therapy. Amnesia the goal, a deliberate fogging of the mind.

Experts now say that shock treatments are better, underutilized even. Voltages are milder, anesthesia is given. Psychiatrists tell of success stories; patients attest to its miraculous effects. Shock is not used to subdue or punish like it was in the asylums of long ago. The asylums of my imagination.

Part of me believes the experts, these cured patients.

But there remains in me an unquantifiable terror at having a body charged with so much electricity. Such a storm, so unstoppable, capable of losses that cannot be told. Part of me believes it was a Hiroshima.

 

Galveston has always sounded ominous to me. It was a long time before I realized that beneath its name another word lurks—galvanize:

1.    to stimulate somebody or something into great activity

2.    to coat a metal, usually iron or steel, with zinc to prevent corrosion

3.    to stimulate the nerves or muscles of somebody's body using an electric current

 

One of the most difficult things about the hospital is after the hospital, when the self you are now searches for the self you were then. People don't treat you the same because they no longer know who you are. You have gone somewhere they don't want to imagine, and a new distance springs up between you.

When I returned home there was the wreckage of a former self to sort through, and I am sure this is how it was for my grandmother, hospitalized at a time when such things were even more taboo. Her friends tiptoed around her when they stopped by to visit, talked about the safe details of their lives while steering away from the gaping hole that had emerged in hers. She told some more than others, but the shame of being shocked must have been overwhelming. How could she let anyone know the truth of it? How could I tell anyone that they tied me up for seven days?

 

I know my grandmother's moments of darkness. Those moments are the same for everyone gripped by depression and utterly isolating when the dark closes in. All those days at home in bed, twisted in stale sheets—she sipping alcohol, me snubbing out cigarettes in overflowing ashtrays. So many days of hiding, avoiding a world that moved too fast for our molasses minds. Time stretched out before us like a Texas road in a Texas desert, and there was no horizon.

Though I never experienced shock treatments, I know that feeling of being at someone else's mercy. I know the rage and humiliation of having no say in your fate. Every time I ask my mother to tell Grandmother's story, I am always hoping for a different ending.

 

I drive along the sandblasted strip above the seawall, leaving the Psychopathic Hospital behind. The ward my grandmother stayed in is a ghost now, swallowed by modern buildings and medical advances. But I now know the drive she took, the scenery she tried to get lost in as she headed toward something that offered wellness through obliteration. Knowing that landscape brings me closer than the actual hospital would. I know her confinement; it is her glimpse of freedom that compels me.

I stare at my grandmother's diamond on my finger. This stone of love and hope is what keeps her with me now. Sometimes in my everyday life, when I'm driving in the late afternoon, thinking of nothing, light will stream in through the windshield and tangle with the facets, spraying the dashboard with dancing points of the past. It is a pattern she knew, in the passenger seat of Grandpa's Dodge, back when driving around with a new husband was fun.

And later, in the years that grew dim, perhaps she saw that sparkle when the sun streamed in through the window on the drive to Galveston. Before her flashed a constellation of diamond light, snapping her to the present, when a sunbeam dipped into a clear stone and painted the world new. Maybe for a moment she would forget what was to come.

 

I drive out of Galveston into a clear afternoon. There is blue in the sky, a line on the horizon I can hold onto. The details of this day illuminate a woman I never met. Her blood courses through me, while the knowledge of her experience remains sharp as warning, a dark sky in the distance.

But now, against the blur of green that I pass—that she passed—if I move my hand just so, the new day will catch her diamond and send light dancing between us.