Nothing but Silence Now

Watercolor

Silence can grow and it can be broken, but silence is all we have left when everything is said and done. My sister, Cathleen Marie Childress, passed away in 2009. She was 38. Catie, as she liked to be called, suffered from Bipolar Disorder; she was verbally abusive, and when I was little she was my personal tormentor. When I got older our relationship evolved but it was still subject to her wild mood swings and depression. Catie wasn’t the easiest person to be around or communicate with. Each day came with some kind of emotional eruption that alienated not only me but my two other older sisters, Tracy and Becky. When Catie wasn’t pinning me down and lowering spit down to my face just to suck it up inches before it made contact, she was certainly getting under my skin with verbal abuse. If you asked me now what kinds of things she said, I couldn’t tell you, but I do remember her ice cold glare when she was enraged and looking for someone to unload on.

Most of my life with my sister was anything but silent; she had a rage in her that at times was beautiful passion that translated into her artwork. She loved to draw, paint with water colors, and create visual work with all sorts of paints, pencils, and markers. I think I remember her watercolor works best, especially the sunsets. The reds, oranges, purples, yellows, and blues blended into one another, with no clear borders of where one color ended and another began. Those watercolor sunsets were a lot like her Bipolar Disorder; she had no clear borders of where happy Catie ended and angry, hurt Catie began. But like a sunset, eventually her rage fell below the horizon and was extinguished for a time. In retrospect I can see the nuances whether intentionally or unintentionally translated through watercolor fusion. They say that hindsight offers perfect vision on the moments in our lives that start out as blurry and unclear; for me this is definitely the case.

Catie went to Portland Community College and then Portland State well after high school, and I went to PCC and then Pacific University in the same manner, even though we graduated almost a decade apart.  What I have learned that I know we could connect on, but our experience with being nontraditional students could have become common ground for us as well.

The midday phone calls my sister would make to my sister Becky and I still haunt me. I often think that after spending close to a decade as a low voltage communications contractor that I would have been able to keep the conversations going when my sister would call me at work and the words between us quickly ran out. We had lost the ability to speak meaningfully.

Catie usually called me at work, “Hey,” she would say.

“What’s up?” I would ask.

“Oh nothing, what are you doing?”

I’m at work. What’s up?” I would ask again while wondering why she called.

“Just wanted to see what you are doing,” She would say.

“Just working.” It was about this time in the conversation where the ability to communicate would break down. It was as if she wanted me to keep the conversation going, but the absence of conversation was where it led every time. I wonder if those calls were a quiet cry for help or an attempt to push back the loneliness that she often felt trapped in. But being young, in my twenties, I was pretty selfish with my time or I just couldn’t recognize that something was broken.

I had become quite proficient at troubleshooting when lines of communication were dead, and I was good at finding paths for new lines to be installed in even the most difficult places. Maybe I chose not to hear her unspoken message. Looking back, I was drowning at that time just as she was, but the irony of having a job troubleshooting dead telephone lines and establishing new ones doesn’t escape me now.  There is not a day that goes by where I don’t give part of it to remembering my sister. I recall the times my other sisters and I had the Catie we loved to be around.

Catie wasn’t always vindictive; sometimes she was loving and fun to be around. I can remember moments with her when I was little, watching MTV in the living room with her and my other sisters. MTV was all the rage in the 1980’s and for a while in the 90’s, but that channel gave us all something to connect with. What I remember most from the ‘80s was that she always styled her hair in the fashion of Robert Smith from the Cure. She was always so influenced by music, and that I think was something she gifted to me. I can still remember watching certain videos together. One video I remember was Billy Squire’s “Rock Me Tonite,” we laughed as we made jokes about Squire’s flamboyant dancing around his make believe bedroom. I couldn’t say what it was besides the music that had a way of keeping us together and not fighting. But MTV and movies were two common areas we could all connect.

We eventually established “stupid movie night” when I was in junior high. We would go to the video rental store and rent five movies for five days for five dollars. The films were all B-rated movies with titles like: Ed and His Dead Mother, Serial Mom, and C.H.U.D.  There are no more “stupid movie nights,” and I do miss them terribly. I miss my unpredictable sister and I miss those damn phone calls where the silence my sister and I had was better than the absence that swells in the aftermath of an overdose of prescription pills.

 

By: Steven Childress

The Twin Thing

Credit: Emma McMain

Credit: Emma McMain

 

In the middle of my Intro to Biology lab session, my phone lit up with a text from my mom. “Hi Hon. Sam is in the hospital with food poisoning. Will let you know more when we do…love you.” My own abdomen clenched like a fist. Time after time, people ask me if Sam and I have a “twin thing.” I always wonder what, exactly, they are implying. Do they suspect that we can empathically tune into one another across land and sea, as if we were still fused together with a thought-conducting umbilical cord? I always laugh and answer, “No, not really.” Nonetheless, with me in a sterilized lab room in Oregon and him in a sterilized Emergency Room in Thailand, I excused myself to the restroom. Still wearing my blue latex lab gloves, I placed one hand on my aching stomach and leaned against the cold sink.

The food poisoning didn’t really surprise me. Sam had been mountain biking in Thailand for weeks, eating cheap smorgasbords of oily meats and tropical fruits for nearly every meal. Traveling overseas and eating 5,000 calories’ worth of hand-prepared food each day entails a certain level of risk. What did surprise me was the intensity of Sam’s illness, which was relayed to me in a literal game of telephone between Sam’s good friend (who was also in Thailand), my parents, and finally me. As I discovered from the texts that caused my pocket, pillow, and backpack to vibrate at all hours of the day, my 6-foot-5, 200-pound athlete of a brother had somehow been debilitated by a nasty strain of Salmonella. He was too “out of it” to talk or walk for the first several hours, and he remained on an IV drip for the next 72. While Sam’s hands were poked with needles 7,000 miles away, I wrung my own and waited for more news.

 

When Sam and I were tiny babies, my father says he watched us lie in our crib side-by-side, hands touching as they often did. As Sam’s skin brushed my own, my dad claims that Sam jerked and did a double take, peering with wide eyes at the creature lying next to him. I can just picture the thought bubble in our heads as we recognized that we were two, not one: “Who is that?”

I was nine when Sam fell off the roof of our minivan, his daring game cut short by the impact of bare knees and elbows onto rough gravel driveway. “Emma!” was the shrill cry that tumbled from his lungs during the brief free-fall, even though my parents were closer. I felt the embarrassment of falling, the betrayal of gravity, and the sear of sharp pebble on skin. Not knowing how to comfort or what to say, I felt myself shake with laughter. It wasn’t humor. It was overwhelm. It was feeling my brother’s pain, and wanting to help, and not knowing how.

One awful day in middle school, my dad drove me to school while Sam biked. I spotted Sam streaking down the sidewalk, standing up straight on his muddy pedals. I watched as he approached a hidden uphill driveway, where a younger boy mounted his own bike at the top. Both boys gained speed, two trains on the same track, each hidden from the other’s view. I knew it was going to happen before I had time to roll down the window and yell. I saw it all: legs flailing, wheels spinning, bodies crashing. Sam and the boy were lucky to walk away without any serious injuries, but the scene played over and over in my head. I watched it unroll like a film, unable to press stop.

 

I called Sam from my apartment on his last day in the Thai hospital. He sounded like himself, making jokes about the hospital food and giving two-word replies to my inquiries about his plans for the rest of the trip. He is a listener, and I don’t like silence, so I talk. I talked on the phone about my classes, my plans for grad school, my boring Biology class, and what I had made for dinner. I asked him if most of the doctors spoke English (“enough,” he said) and when he might be able to leave (“probably in the morning,” if he stayed hydrated). Sam was fifteen hours ahead of me, and our calendars read different dates. I finally said goodbye, not knowing if he wanted me to keep talking or let him go. I tried not to imagine the hole where the needle had rubbed into his skin, the feeling of gut-twisting nausea for hours on end, cold sweats in a foreign country where sharing language was a struggle. I thought of my infant self, looking over to acknowledge that the twin beside me was separate, even though our hands were joined.

By: Emma McMain