Lucille Lang Day
When my cousin Jan’s daughter Teresa called to say that Jan had stage 4 lung cancer, I didn’t need to wonder why. Jan, age fifty-nine, had first lit up with me in her backyard when she was ten years old and I was twelve. We were smoking Lucky Strikes pilfered from her father, who died a year later of heart disease at the age of sixty-two. I quit smoking shortly after I turned twenty-one, but Jan continued to smoke for the next five decades.
She lived near Seattle. I lived in Oakland, California, and I hadn’t seen her for six years, but she was my only first cousin, the daughter of my mother’s identical twin. We grew up together, both only children, and she was the closest I ever came to having a sibling. I pictured us playing in her backyard as kids, and I knew I should go visit her, but I didn’t know if I could bring myself to do it. Our visit six years earlier had been the only time I’d seen her in the past twenty-six years. Jan was a paranoid schizophrenic who had spent most of her adult life in mental hospitals. She was often delusional, unable to tell the difference between reality, fantasies, and dreams—sometimes even when she was medicated. Her negative fantasies and false memories sometimes involved me, and I’d found it very disturbing to be around her since she became ill when we were in our twenties.
* * *
Jan’s birth when I was two and a half was the most exciting thing that had ever happened to me. I felt that this new member of the family was my baby too, and I couldn’t keep away from her. When Aunt Ethel put her down for a nap, I’d sneak into the bedroom and look at her between the slats of the crib. Often she was still awake, and sometimes I’d shake a teddy bear or put my face right up against the slats to make her laugh. Of course, I’d get caught and my aunt and uncle would shoo me out of the room, which I couldn’t understand, especially since Jan often cried when she was left alone.
At three Jan would rush up to me, shrieking with joy, and throw her arms around me when I arrived at her house. I loved her passionately in return and enjoyed nothing more than trying to entertain her. I wanted to teach her about blocks and jacks and coloring books, and all the things I was learning in kindergarten. I couldn’t imagine our ever doing anything to hurt each other, but it was that same year that I learned we would, when we took Jan’s shiny red tricycle to a small incline near her house and agreed to take turns riding it down the little hill. I went first, but as soon as I mounted the trike, before I could get my feet positioned on the pedals, Jan, who was large for her age, came up behind me and pushed hard. I was off and flying and never did get my feet on the pedals or control of the trike. At the bottom of the incline, I hit a crack and fell. The trike landed on top of me, and I skinned my knee. When I got up, Jan was still standing on top of the little hill, laughing.
The adults told me she was little and didn’t know any better, but I wondered. I had played with many children, both in my neighborhood and at school, and nothing like this had happened before. Also, I could remember when I was three, and I believed that by then I already knew that pushing someone down a hill on a tricycle could cause injury. As far as I could tell, Jan had intentionally tried to hurt me.
This was the first of many similar incidents throughout our childhoods. When my back was turned, Jan often punched or kicked me. Once she even stabbed me in the leg with a pair of scissors when we were cutting out paper dolls. At first I responded by hitting or kicking her back (although I didn’t try to stab her), even though I always got in trouble for it because I was older. The adults said I should set a good example for her. They asked me to tell them when she hit or kicked me, but when I did, they said they didn’t like tattletales.
When we played games, Jan made up her own rules, and we never did have a fair and square go at Candy Land or Chutes and Ladders. She also scribbled in my coloring books, cut the heads off my paper dolls, and broke my toys. Again, when I complained, the adults always said it was because she was little and didn’t know any better, even as years passed and she grew older. Once, to get even, I cut the hair off one of her favorite dolls (her father promptly bought a new wig, so there was no permanent damage). Sometimes I told her there was a witch under her bed or just outside the window. Since hitting was off limits, I liked to retaliate by scaring her. I couldn’t stand her, but at the same time, I still loved her, and when she wasn’t hitting, kicking, stabbing, or cheating at Candy Land, she was full of hugs and kisses for me, and I was always won over anew.
As an adult, she once called me from the mental hospital to ask for a favor. A woman in her sewing class had accused her of stabbing her from behind with a pair of scissors. My first thought was, My God, she’s still at it! Jan was now in solitary confinement and banned from group activities. “Please call my psychiatrist,” she pleaded, “and tell him that I would never hurt a flea. Tell him you know this for a fact because when we were children, you always hit me and kicked me, and I never fought back.”
“I don’t remember that,” I said. When we were kids, she had always accused me of starting our fights, and the adults didn’t know which of us to believe. Could it be that she’d never had a clear sense of reality? Had she sincerely thought all along that I’d attacked her for no reason?
I might have questioned my own memory, but I had a witness: my father had once seen her run down a hallway toward where I was sitting on the floor playing with my back to her. She threw her momentum into a kick that landed in the middle my lower back. I cried out, and my father said, “Jan, if you ever do that again, I’ll give you a spanking you’ll never forget.” She said, “It was an accident.”
Her own father was fond of saying, “Spare the rod, spoil the child,” and spanked her often—with his hand, his belt, or a yardstick. He never spanked her, though, for attacking me (I don’t think he ever believed she did it), only for disobeying him. He even spanked her for not cleaning her plate, on which he heaped adult-size portions of food. She weighed 150 pounds when she was eight years old and had to get her clothes at a special store for large people.
Did her spankings lead to her aggressiveness? Was she taking her anger out on me? I’ve read that people who are abused as children often become abusive parents. Do they also become aggressive while they’re still kids?
Jan was born when Uncle Dick was fifty-two years old, two years after his marriage to my Aunt Ethel. After several miscarriages his first wife, Mendel, an Orthodox Jewish woman, had died of breast cancer in her thirties.
Uncle Dick was a Navy man, a retired Chief Warrant Officer, who had fought in both World Wars. He adored Jan; she was his “pumpkin,” his “dumpling.” I believe he wanted what was best for her but didn’t know what that was. Even when I was a child, his parenting and many of his ideas seemed bizarre to me.
When Jan was five, she still used a potty chair and Uncle Dick carried it around everywhere. I told him and Aunt Ethel often that Jan was big enough to use the toilet. One time at the Colonial Cafeteria, he put the potty chair down by our table, and Jan proceeded to have a bowel movement. The people at the next table complained, and the manager asked my family to leave. Seven years old, I was deeply embarrassed. I feared that people thought I would be next on the pot. I knew that children shouldn’t be allowed to have their bowel movements in the dining room at a restaurant, and I couldn’t understand either why Uncle Dick and Aunt Ethel thought it was okay or why neither my parents nor Aunt Liz and Uncle Bob tried to set them straight.
I also told Uncle Dick that Jan should go on a diet. He said, “If there’s a nuclear war, she’ll live on her fat for months, but you’ll starve to death in a week.” This frightened me until my parents assured me that there wasn’t going to be a nuclear war.
When she was ten, Jan told me her father had said, “There are two kinds of women: the kind men use and the kind they love and marry. The beautiful ones are the ones they use, and the plain ones are the ones they love and marry.” I knew this wasn’t true, and it made me feel awful for Jan. He was saying he was glad she was unattractive and he hoped she’d stay that way. It was another reason why he was keeping her fat, and it explained why he refused to pay for orthodontic work to straighten her crooked teeth.
Her parents kept her hair in an ultra-short Dutch boy cut, with a little fringe of bangs. The sides were cut almost to the top of her ears. Whenever she had a haircut, Uncle Dick joked, “She had her ears lowered.” The back of her head was shaved in a crew cut almost to the top of her ears, so that her hair in back was the same length as the sides. Jan and I agreed that this hairdo was hideous, and she always protested the haircuts. She never got her way, though, and if she protested too much, Uncle Dick whacked her with the yardstick. I think now that these haircuts were another way to desexualize her.
My mother told me that strangers sometimes asked Aunt Ethel or Uncle Dick, “What’s wrong with her?” They thought maybe she had a genetic disorder or metabolic disease.
I feared that great unhappiness lay ahead for her, and I wished I could save her, but I was about to enter my own turbulent years of teen marriage and motherhood, and it would be a long time before I could even begin to save myself.
I can’t say I was happy for Jan when Uncle Dick died. I knew that the death of a child’s father was not a good thing. Still, I hoped that her life would be better without his strict discipline, beatings, and distorted ideas, but when she said, “I wish my mother had died instead,” I knew there were things I didn’t understand and that her life might not improve after all.
It didn’t. After her father’s death, whenever Jan didn’t come straight home from school, Aunt Ethel called the police and said she’d run away. The police then went looking for her at her friends’ houses, and when they found her, they took her to juvie. She spent longer and longer periods of time there, and finally was sent to a prison for adolescent girls, euphemistically called Las Vistas Girls’ Camp. I wasn’t allowed to visit, because her mother and social worker thought I was a bad influence. I’m sure I was, but I don’t think I was nearly as bad for her as her parents and the girls at Las Vistas, many of whom had been arrested for prostitution, burglary, or narcotics. If her mother had wanted her at home, I think she would have been allowed to go, but instead I think Aunt Ethel said, “I can’t control her. Keep her locked up,” and used juvie and Las Vistas as free boarding schools.
While this was going on, I got married at age fourteen and gave birth to my first child, a daughter, at fifteen. I’d wanted to skip adolescence and catapult myself to adulthood, and I thought that marriage and motherhood would be my tickets to freedom. I felt wiser than my parents, aunts, and uncles, and didn’t want to obey them anymore.
By the time she was fifteen, Jan had been locked up most of the time since Uncle Dick’s death four years earlier. At last, at a hearing in 1965, a judge said, “This doesn’t make sense. You’ve spent the past three years in custody, but you’ve never been charged with a crime. I’m sending you home.”
If hanging out in the projects with a boy can be called dating, Jan started dating Juan, a gang member who was the cousin of a girl she’d met at Las Vistas. She described this romance to me: “We were drinking beer and making out at his apartment, and he reached into my pants. I pushed him away and said, ‘Stop! I’m a virgin,’ but he called me a liar and raped me. Afterward, when he saw the blood, he said, ‘My God, you really were a virgin!’ He’d never had sex with a virgin before. His cousin Leti told me he had another girlfriend. I got mad, and to make him jealous, I said I’d had sex with his friend Eloy. It wasn’t true, but now I’m pregnant and Juan says, ‘Go tell Eloy about it.’”
Both Aunt Ethel and Aunt Liz tried to talk her into adoption or abortion (abortions were illegal, but Aunt Liz, who’d ended her own two pregnancies, knew a doctor who performed them), but Jan said, “No. Lucy is a good mother, and I can be a good mother too.” I saw this as a vote of confidence and wanted to live up to it, but for Aunt Ethel, it proved that Jan had gotten pregnant to copy me.
Jan quickly found a boyfriend to replace Juan. Carlos was short, with curly hair and a bad eye. He knew Jan was pregnant, and he wanted people to think he was the father. They married and put his name on the birth certificate of Teresa, who was born before Jan turned sixteen.
Less than a year later, Jan called one morning to tell me she was not in love with Carlos, but with Tony, a cousin of another girl she’d met at Las Vistas. She’d dated Tony before meeting Juan. “I want to leave Carlos and go to Reno to be with Tony,” she said, “and I need you to take me to the train. Please come now, while Carlos is at work.” Separated from my own husband, I agreed to help, and before noon she and Teresa were on their way to Reno to be with Tony, who was working as a baker.
Tony was Puerto Rican. Ultimately, Jan would have five children with five different men from five different ethnic groups: Mexican, Puerto Rican, African American, Tongan, and Caucasian.
* * *
Several years later, in 1970, I had the opportunity to do another favor for Jan. She’d left Tony, and she called to ask if she could live with me. I was a junior at UC Berkeley, divorced and living in a two-bedroom apartment in the married students’ housing with my six-year-old daughter, Liana. I had long since forgiven Jan for hitting me, kicking me, and damaging my toys when we were kids, and I wanted to help her. Also, I could use help with the rent. I said yes.
Jan now had two daughters, Teresa and Loretta. We put all three girls in one bedroom and twin beds for Jan and me in the other.
As soon as I turned out the bedroom light the first night, Jan started talking: “I love Loretta but not Teresa. I know someone who will take her. I’m going to give her away.”
“Jan, you can’t give away your daughter. I’m sure you love her. You’re just tired. Let’s get some sleep.”
“Actually, I love Teresa, but not Loretta. I want to give Loretta away.”
“Jan! You can’t do that. Stop talking like this.”
“I want to give away Teresa. I never loved her father.”
“That doesn’t matter. You can’t let it affect how you feel about your child. You need someone to talk to. I’ll help you find a counselor or therapist, but right now, please, let’s get some sleep. I have classes tomorrow.”
She kept talking in circles for another hour or so, and as it turned out, she would do so every night, sometimes for longer than an hour, sometimes for two hours or even three.
The next morning, when Loretta woke up at six a.m. and cried for her bottle, Jan did not get up. I shook her, saying, “Jan, the baby’s crying.” Jan made some incoherent sounds, but did not open her eyes, so I went to the kitchen to heat the bottle.
After I gave all three children their breakfast, and Liana and I were ready to leave, Jan was still in bed. I shook her one more time, saying, “I’m leaving now. You’re going to be alone here with your kids.”
Every morning it was the same. She never got up to give Loretta her bottle, to dress the kids, or give them breakfast. She never did laundry, either. She threw her children’s dirty clothes in with my laundry and left her own dirty clothes on the floor of the bedroom or closet. She had lost a lot of weight during adolescence and was now a normal-sized young woman. When all of her own clothes were dirty, she started wearing mine.
I said, “Jan, you need to wash your clothes. You can’t keep wearing mine.”
“They’re not yours: they’re mine.”
“That’s ridiculous. I’m letting you live in my apartment and use almost everything I own, including my car while I’m at school, but you have to wear your own clothes.”
“It’s not your apartment or your car,” she said coolly.
“No, it’s my apartment, my car, and my clothes.” Her voice was calm and mechanical. That was the moment I knew she was mentally ill.
She’d been living with me for almost three months, and I was now afraid of her, so I went to my parents, her mother, and my Uncle Bob and Aunt Liz, my father’s brother and his wife, for help. My hope was that they’d all chip in to get another apartment for her, move her out of mine, and pay for her to see a psychiatrist, but her mother said, “You’re trying to blame Jan for your own selfishness,” and Aunt Liz said, “Why can’t you girls just get along?” I explained that I couldn’t get along with her because she was mentally ill, but as when I said she attacked me when we were kids, only my father believed me. He said, “I’ve noticed how she follows you like a shadow, mimics your gestures, and repeats what you say. I think she believes she’s you, and that you’re an imposter.”
My fear escalated, but I went home and told Jan she had to move. Not surprisingly, she said, “No, you have to.” Nevertheless, although her dirty laundry was still scattered around the apartment, the next day when I came home from school, she and her kids were not there. The following night she came back and announced, “I’m in love. His name is Kenny. We’re going to live together, and he’s looking for an apartment.”
A few days later, I supervised as she and Kenny, a wiry African American man, packed up her belongings. After they left, I had the lock changed for fear she might come back for more of “her” things when I wasn’t home.
Three more years went by. I’d stayed in touch and seen her at family gatherings, but I’d also kept a distance. Now, I felt sorry for her. I was in graduate school and living with a man who was a teacher, whereas Jan had never graduated from high school and was living in a slum. Ben and I invited her and Kenny to join us for dinner and see an African dance troupe perform at Zellerbach Auditorium at UC Berkeley.
Jan, who came alone, sat quietly and rigidly through dinner and the dance performance, but she opened up afterward, when we returned to Ben’s and my apartment for a glass of wine: “I live in a bad place. My neighbors talk through the walls.”
“What do they say?” I asked.
“That black people are stockpiling guns and are going to kill all the white people.”
“I don’t think it’s true.”
“I know it’s true,” she said, smiling mysteriously. “My father told me too.”
After she left, Ben and I agreed that she needed a psychiatrist. Ben thought she had some control over her paranoia, but she was giving in to it, letting it suck her in. Maybe a psychiatrist could help her fight it instead. Again I told my parents, Aunt Ethel, and Aunt Liz and Uncle Bob that Jan was mentally ill, but only my parents believed me, and the family chose to do nothing.
A few months later, one of her girlfriends, alarmed by her statements and behavior, took her to the mental ward at the local public hospital. I went to visit, and we sat alone on the floor of a locked hallway, outside the patients’ locked rooms, as she rambled about people gathering guns and poison and plotting to kill her and her children. As she spoke, my anxiety grew so intense that it was hard not to shake, because I started to fear that someday, thinking it was self-defense, she might kill someone.
After being observed for seventy-two hours, Jan was released from the hospital with a prescription, which she didn’t take. The following year, I married Ben, and both Jan and I got pregnant. I gave birth to a girl, she to a boy, Kenny, Jr. Then, for the next two years, she was in and out of mental hospitals. When she was in, Tony’s mother took care of Loretta, Kenny’s mother took care of Kenny, Jr., and Aunt Ethel took care of Teresa. The children were placed in foster care when the grandmothers weren’t available. Sometimes I took Teresa and Loretta to a park or museum with Liana.
The doctors said Jan was a paranoid schizophrenic, a diagnosis she shared, my mother told me, with her father’s sister. She was stabilized on medication whenever she was in the hospital, but she always stopped taking the medication after she got out.
Early in 1976, following one of Jan’s breakdowns and hospitalizations, Aunt Ethel arrived with Teresa at Jan’s house to find police cars and an ambulance out front.
“What happened?” she asked Jan.
“I drowned Kenny, Jr., and I’m going to jail.”
Aunt Ethel told me this on the phone, adding, “She says she did it on purpose, but please tell people it was an accident.”
Jan was initially charged with second degree murder, but in a plea bargain the charge was reduced to involuntary manslaughter, to which she pleaded guilty. When I visited her in jail, she said, “I wanted that baby and I planned that baby, but the neighbors put an evil spirit in him. If I hadn’t done it, the neighbors would’ve killed all of us. I held him under the water until he started to float.” I decided not to visit again until she was medicated.
The next time I saw her was at Napa State Hospital, where she was serving her sentence. We were locked outside in a courtyard, with no other patients or medical staff around. Jan had ballooned up to 250 pounds, and at 125 I did not like being alone with her, even though she was on medication. I didn’t trust her, and I knew I never would again.
She got out after two years and rented an apartment a few blocks from my house in Oakland. Fearing that she might spot an evil spirit in our four-year-old daughter, Ben and I sublet an apartment in Berkeley for the summer. We moved back into our house in the fall, after Jan fell in love with Inoki, a Tongan man who liked large women, and moved in with him. She regained custody of Teresa, who’d been living in a foster home, and Loretta, who’d been living with Tony’s mother. Then she got pregnant again and gave birth to another daughter, Yolanda.
When she came to visit me with the baby, she seemed lucid until she started talking about her father. “He and Mendel had a son,” she said. “His name was Richard, Jr., and he was born during the war. Mendel died in a concentration camp, but some people said they’d smuggle the baby out of Germany. My dad lost track of him. I’m going to look for him. I want to find my brother.”
Uncle Dick and Mendel met as teenagers in Michigan, where they both grew up. Mendel was in California during World War II, while Uncle Dick fought in the Pacific. Neither of them went to Germany, and they did not have a son, but I didn’t say this. I knew that when Jan was a child, her father had impressed upon her how much he’d wanted a son, so in her inner world of fantasy and delusion, she had given him one.
The next time I heard from her, she was calling to say, “People say I’m crazy because I don’t want to get dressed or take a bath or comb my hair. Please tell them there’s nothing wrong with that. I don’t have to get dressed or take a bath or comb my hair if I don’t want to.”
She repeatedly abandoned Yolanda, leaving her on the porch of Inoki’s brother’s house. Inoki finally left Jan and took Yolanda to live with his aunt and uncle, but Jan was not yet done having children. With Art, her new boyfriend, she moved to Oregon and gave birth to another daughter, Gabriella, early in 1984. Aunt Ethel went to help Jan after the baby’s birth but returned quickly. “Jan is having one of her bad spells,” she explained. “She said a monster had come to her house. I told her, ‘There are no monsters.’ She said, ‘Yes there are. You’re the monster!’ I was afraid to go to sleep there.”
Art and Jan came back to the Bay Area in late June to pick up some things they’d left behind. Before heading back to Oregon, they stopped by to show me four-month-old Gabriella, a beautiful baby with big blue eyes.
On July 4 a front-page story in the morning paper caught my attention: At the Rainbow Gathering, an event that drew 20,000 hippies to the Modoc National Forest in Northern California, a 33-year-old woman had stripped naked to dance around a bonfire with her baby. As she danced, she threw the baby into the fire, then went running off through the trees. The baby’s father pulled her out of the fire, and she was taken by helicopter to the pediatric burn center at UC Davis. The woman was captured by onlookers and subsequently arrested. Her name was Jan.
She called me from jail to say, “I know you think what I did was wrong, but a witch playing a guitar put a spell on me.”
Gabriella survived and was adopted by one of her nurses. The judge gave Jan an indeterminate sentence of five years to life for attempted murder. She was sent first to a ward for the criminally insane at Patton State Hospital and later transferred to Napa State Hospital. Her mother, my parents, and Aunt Liz and Uncle Bob visited her regularly, but I couldn’t bring myself to go, although I received loving cards and letters from her, as well as hats, pillows, and even a bedspread that she’d crocheted. I wrote back and sent her gifts each year for Christmas and her birthday.
From time to time she called me collect. Sometimes she was coherent, and other times she wasn’t. Once she started talking about how we used to go shopping with our mothers at Kahn’s department store when we were kids. I said, “Yes, I remember.”
“Remember the time the band of gypsies saw us at the jewelry counter?’
“No, I don’t remember that.”
“The gypsy king put his finger up my butt and smelled it, and then he put it up your butt and smelled it. He said, ‘The short fat one is good, but the tall thin one is evil.’”
“You’ve imagined this. Nothing like that ever happened.”
“Yes it did!” she screamed, then hung up.
Other times I was impressed by the accuracy of her memories, such as her recounting of a visit to the Santa Cruz Boardwalk in about 1958. “Your dad threw the ring in the clown’s mouth on the merry-go-round,” she said, “and he demanded a free ride because they gave free rides for that when he was little.”
“I’d forgotten that, but now I remember. You have a good memory.”
“An elephant never forgets!” she joked.
Another time she told me that the hospital often held dances for the patients. “That’s great!” I said.
“No it isn’t,” she protested. “The men here are losers. You wouldn’t like them: they’re all crazy.”
Through the years, when anyone asked about Jan, Aunt Ethel said she was at Napa because she had brain damage from LSD and a motorcycle accident. My aunt always described her as “a beautiful girl,” and maybe if she hadn’t been fat and had crooked teeth, she would have been.
She applied many times for parole. As a first step, she was once transferred to a halfway house, but she was shipped back to Napa in short order by ambulance and in a straitjacket because she’d attacked both staff members and other patients.
In 2004, when Jan had been hospitalized for twenty years, I felt guilty that I’d never gone to see her, so I went through locked gates and doors, and after filling out paperwork and depositing my purse in a locker, I met with her at a round table in a large room decorated with patients’ artwork. Many people were visiting other patients at other tables, and several medical staff members and security guards were present to keep an eye on all of us. Jan was wearing her prison uniform of tan slacks and a brown shirt. Her brown hair, now streaked with gray, was long, and she was still heavy. We hugged, and she professed her love for me. She did not say anything crazy.
Both Teresa and Loretta lived in Washington State. Ninety-three, frail and demented, Aunt Ethel, the last surviving family member of my parents’ generation, lived with Teresa. Jan was short on visitors, and I planned to start seeing her at least once a year, but Teresa hired an attorney to try to get her transferred to a mental hospital in Washington.
In 2005 the attorney arranged to have her sent to a jail near the Oregon border for a visit with Teresa. The week after Aunt Ethel’s death, when Teresa arrived for the visit, Jan was released in her custody with no identification, no medication, and no clothes except the prison uniform she was wearing. Teresa said on the phone, “Someone made a mistake.”
I had another hypothesis: realizing that Jan had a competent adult daughter, someone had decided to release her and make it look like a mistake. At that time the tab to California taxpayers was $150,000 per year to keep someone in a mental hospital, so there would have been an incentive to let Jan go to Washington.
Two weeks later she had a breakdown and was hospitalized there, and for the next six years, she was in and out of hospitals and halfway houses. Teresa got apartments for herself and Jan in the same building, but when Teresa went away for a few days, Jan landed back in the hospital when neighbors called the police because she was “howling at the moon.” The landlord said she couldn’t return.
* * *
When she got the cancer diagnosis, I debated whether to visit, call, or write. I looked up “stage 4 lung cancer” online and learned that the average life expectancy was eight months. Liana wanted to visit, but I wasn’t sure whether I did. I thought there was plenty of time to decide, but three weeks after her first call, Teresa called again to say Jan’s condition had worsened, and if we wanted to visit we should come soon. After the second call, I decided to go, and Liana and I started looking at our calendars to find two or three days when we could travel together. In the meantime, Teresa was going to visit Jan over the weekend, and I asked her to let me know whether she was up to seeing Liana and me. I didn’t want to go all that way to find her unconscious or delusional.
On Monday morning Teresa called and said she’d had a good visit with Jan over the weekend, that her mother had been more fully present emotionally and mentally than she’d ever been. Then, early Monday morning, Jan had died peacefully.
Loretta concurred that Jan was emotionally strong and mentally clear during her final days. She made beaded bracelets for Loretta and her daughters, and she played a CD over and over that Loretta had made of her favorite songs. A minister visited and, at Jan’s request, sang “The Old Rugged Cross,” “O Love Divine, How Sweet Thou Art,” and “Jesus Loves Me.” Her room was decorated with collages, photos, and get-well cards. Loretta massaged her legs. Jan requested that her hair be donated to children with cancer after her death.
I wept, not just because she’d died, but also because she’d never fully lived. It seemed to me that fulfillment of whatever genetic potential she’d had for schizophrenia had been ensured by the abuse she’d received as a child. My family had failed her by turning the other way when her father beat her and also when she first became mentally ill; and society had failed her by repeatedly, despite her illness, sending her home, where she was expected to take care of herself and her children—things she was not capable of doing. The terrible things that had happened to her and that she had done were not her fault.
About sixty clinics in the United States now treat people with early psychotic symptoms to help them maintain their grasp on reality, and some psychiatrists have proposed adding a new diagnosis, “psychosis risk syndrome,” to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, the primary reference text used by mental health professionals. As Ben, my second husband, thought long ago, there appears to be a window of opportunity when a person can choose whether to give in to mental illness, and treatment during this period can help prevent a first schizophrenic break. It is now way too late for Jan, but hopefully others will be able to avoid full-blown mental illness.
Thinking back, I believe that Uncle Dick was paranoid too, but not paranoid enough to be labeled schizophrenic. Isn’t it paranoid to keep your child fat to ensure survival during a nuclear war? To try to make your daughter unattractive starting in earliest childhood, because you fear that otherwise men will take advantage of her? I think a lot of Uncle Dick’s abusive behavior was not due to meanness or sadism, but to irrational fear.
Jan’s life was tragic, but it was not a total waste. Teresa and Loretta loved and accepted her and did what they could for her. Jan had four daughters, at least eleven grandchildren, and many great-grandchildren. I don’t know how Gabriella turned out, but Teresa put herself through college, and she, Loretta, and Yolanda became loving mothers and grandmothers. When I look at the photos they send, I remember the baby who smiled at me through the slats of her crib, the little girl who ran into my arms, and the woman at Napa State Hospital who said she loved me. Love is hardy. If it weren’t too late to see her again, I would go.
LUCILLE LANG DAY is the author of a memoir, Married at Fourteen: A True Story, which received a 2013 PEN Oakland Josephine Miles Literary Award and was a finalist for the 2013 Northern California Book Award in Creative Nonfiction. She has also published a children’s book, Chain Letter, and eight poetry collections and chapbooks, including The Curvature of Blue, Infinities, and The Book of Answers. Her short stories, essays, and poems have appeared in more than 100 literary journals, such as The Chattahoochee Review, The Cincinnati Review, Green Hills Literary Lantern, The Hudson Review, The MacGuffin, Nimrod International Journal, Passages North, and Paterson Literary Review. The founder and director of a small press, Scarlet Tanager Books, she received her MFA in creative writing at San Francisco State University and her PhD in science/mathematics education at the University of California, Berkeley. For more information, see http://lucillelangday.com. Twitter: @LucilleLDay.