My break with reality was sudden, sharp and total. I remember to this day every thought I had, every detour my brain took, the events leading up to my diagnosis, and the downward spiral that began, truly, a year before—in the summer of 1986, when I was 21. It’s said stress doesn’t cause schizophrenia, but I beg to clarify if not differ. I believe that stress can trigger an episode in someone born with the genetic susceptibility to the illness.
Taking a cue from Robin Cunningham, I’ve decided to excerpt key scenes from my memoir, Left of the Dial. I want to show you how someone living with SZ is just like you, not a person to be scared of. I didn’t choose this illness, nor did I want it. I didn’t deserve it, and neither does anyone gripped by this terror. It is unimaginable unless you’ve been there. I give you scenes from my book so that you can understand it can happen to anyone. Nobody is immune, but everyone has the potential to recover.
Let’s begin at the beginning. This is the first scene in the first chapter of my book. Take off your shoes, and slip into my moccasins, if you will.
The Last Summer
Paper eyelids cover his eyes. The lines on the machine are a sonic dirge—like the sheet music of death. My grandfather is in a coma, hooked up to the respirator.
I’m unable to move in the ice-cold silence of the Intensive Care Unit of Memorial Heights. Breaking the silence, I tell him, “It’ll be okay, you’ll get better.” I’ve heard that a person in a coma can hear you speaking.
“No, Christina,” Mom says, and turns away.
Tears slide down my cheeks. I wipe them with the sleeve of my purple tie-dye outfit.
It’s the Twentieth Anniversary of the Summer of Love—1987—and I’ve gotten a degree from the City University of New York. I’m supposed to get a job, move out, and find my way in the world. The music of my life is bitter and sad, as I flip between the hospital and job hunting. It’s like changing the stations on a radio dial that has only one frequency: terminal loss.
I see my grandfather lying there in his Sicilian skin, under the hospital gown. Maybe he is hearing angels, if not my voice. His lips twitch. Is he trying to speak?
“Grandpa,” I say, trembling. “Grandpa?”
“He’s not here,” Mom responds. “He’s not here.”
“Yes, he is. He’ll get better, he has to,” I say.
I’m wiping my eyes on the tee shirt, and Mom’s reaching around to hug me.
The joyous sounds of my youth come back: “Oh Come All Ye Faithful, Joyful and Triumphant.” It’s Christmas Eve, the Night of the Seven Fishes in Italian culture. Grandpa beams with pride as he says, “We’re all meeting here tonight because of the essay Christina wrote.” It was published in the Teen Literary Magazine of New York Public Library. I still have a copy.
“Let me quote,” he takes out his own copy. “Lobster, shrimp, and fish are foods my family associates with Christmas Eve. Dining on these is a tradition, as customary to my family as hanging stockings is to others . . .this night I will always remember, by looking at what I wrote and seeing once again in my mind everyone smiling and happy.”
Here Grandpa’s breath rises and falls in tune to the lines dancing in a fado on the machine. “No, no!” I cry, as my skin breaks out in a cold sweat.
I remember him best in the espresso-color suit he wore to church on Sundays. He acted sincerely. Senza cere. Like Michelangelo, who could “see” the figure inside the marble and sculpt without using a wax mold, Grandpa could see into you and find that which is good. You weren’t waiting to become someone, you were already there.
“Sorridi, bella,” he’d say, coaxing a smile out of me. I was a tiny slip of a girl; sensitive to the words like stones the other kids taunted me with.
When I turned twelve, the neighborhood girls—the ones with peachy lips and blue eyes and dirty yellow hair—bullied me. I’d be pushed to the ground, going to and from the bus stop. The older boys would punch me and pull my hair, steal my books. In school I had my eyeglasses stolen and I couldn’t read the chalkboard.
I’d take comfort in other worlds, reading poetry, memorizing the definitions of words in the dictionary, and writing my life. That year my essay about Susan B. Anthony won second place in the American Legion contest. Grandpa drove over the bridge to attend the ceremony. The nephew of a man on the selection committee came in first.
“It’s a fix, a fix!” Grandpa shouted, “Your story was better.”
I held the silver medal with the striped dark ribbon to my chest. Grandpa was my biggest fan. I’m lost in this reverie until the nurse comes in and says visiting hours are over.
“Come, let’s go,” Mom urges.
“Wait. Please,” I say. “Maybe today.”
“Christina,” she sighs, and comes around to hug me.
Embracing each other, we move in a slow dance out of the room. My grandma and my mother’s sister, Aunt Rose, are in the waiting area. They follow us into the hall. We’re all crying. The cold lingers in my body. Mom presses the button on the elevator and we get in, shaking, holding each other tight.
Outside it is a night without stars.
Published On: February 10, 2007