Sickness Will Surely Take the Mind
“Don’t you remember?” my mother asked. “You were out of school for most of seventh and eighth grade. You had Mrs. Colletti for a tutor.”
“Look in that cabinet,” she said, pointing to a tin box near the television. “There’s a red book. I’ve recorded everything I could remember.”
I sat thumbing through the pages. I skimmed over the list of my twenty-six abnormalities and stopped at the following sentence and read it aloud.
“Between 1971 and 1984 Jason had close to 280 esophagus dilations. During Lent in 1984, he became very ill and almost died.” It all seemed like a dream, like a story about someone else’s life.
Mrs. Colletti used to come to my house in the early afternoons, five days a week. We’d sit at the dining room table and go over division and fractions, the Civil War, Reconstruction, Rip Van Winkle, Treasure Island, and The Beatitudes. I used to gaze at her green eyes, the little laugh lines that bloomed at the corners of her mouth each time she smiled. When she wore a short sleeve blouse I stared at her armpits, trying to catch a glimpse of her breasts. Besides Daisy Duke from The Dukes of Hazzard, Nastassja Kinski in the movie Cat People, and Jean Wilkins, my third-grade teacher who taught me to tie my shoe, Mrs. Colletti was the first woman I felt a desire for, even if I didn’t know what that desire was, or what it meant. Sitting next to her I felt a tightness in my crotch, like that feeling I experienced when barreling down the bumpy sidewalk on my three-wheeled, pink plastic motorcycle.
Even though she was old enough to be my mother and married to an undertaker who buried poor people in cardboard boxes and roamed the hospital hallways, trying to drum up business from family members of patients who were near death. I imagined that one day she’d leave her undertaker husband and marry me.
In and out of Children’s Hospital every other week, and out of school for most of the seventh and eighth grade, I was forced to eat baby food because nothing else, save 7up or water could get past the narrow valley of my esophagus. I could sometimes feel it open like a burst dam, feel the sudden rush of liquid, cold as a mountain stream make its way down. Other times I gasped and ran to the bathroom to puke it all up. The dilatations were not working. I’d lost a lot of weight. I was sick from the ether for nearly a week after each surgery. Doctor Jewett even referred us to a new, younger doctor to see if maybe he could do something. Doctor Cooney however, failed to show up to the OR after I’d been put under. Another time my mother and I encountered him in an elevator. He stumbled, fell against the wall, and asked in a voice cracking with surprise “What are you guys doing here?” He was drunk and scheduled to do surgery on me the following morning. My mother sprung into combat mode and raised holy hell with hospital administration and we never laid eyes on Doctor Cooney again.
Finally, after months of dilatations, of driving back and forth from Dunkirk to Buffalo Doctor Jewett had come to a stalemate. He called my mother and said he didn’t know what else to do. He told her to pray for a miracle.
My mother, of course, had an army of saints she prayed to – Saint Albertus Magnus, patron saint of medical technicians, Saint Sirmium, patron saint of weavers, healers, martyrs, and exorcists. Saint Anthony, whenever I lost my gloves, or hat or the jackknife my grandfather had given me. Saint Cosmas and Damian, patron saints of surgeons, pharmacists, and barbers. Saint Bernadette of Lourdes, who had digestive problems of her own, and Teresa of Avila, the mystic, my mother’s favorite. It was Teresa whom my mother chose to emulate those final weeks of her life, forgoing pain medications and comfort, for a greater glory.
“Suffering,” she told me, “brought you closer to God.”
Being home from school so much, I watched a lot of television. My favorite show when I was eleven, twelve, or thirteen wasn’t Happy Days, The A-Team, or even Highway to Heaven, even though I often imagined I was an angel, moving among the living, biding my time. My favorite shoe was the nightly news. Each evening at six o’clock I sat in front of our television, almost in a hypnotic state, watching WBKBW’s Eye-Witness News from Buffalo with Irv Weinstein, Don Postles, Rick Azar, and Tom Jolls. Even the theme music, along with low-tech, 1980’s graphics, put me on the edge of my seat. I couldn’t explain why I was so fixated on the news and current events, or what made me feel I needed to know what was happening outside the little bubble, of my hometown, but the need was real. Maybe it all started with the murder of John Lennon, or the books my mother bought me on JFK and MLK. Whatever the reason, by the time I was thirteen I was a hardened news junkie always looking for a fix. Even my teachers commented how unusual it was for someone of my age to be so into the news.
Each night I followed the plight of shipyard workers in Gdansk, the hijacking of TWA flight 847, and the saga of Joseph Christopher, the .22 caliber killer who terrorized Buffalo, as well as the famine in Ethiopia. Sure, I could locate Ethiopia on a map, or tell you the latest headlines, but that didn’t mean I was a good student. I grew bored easily. I was lazy, a daydreamer. I’d rather draw caricatures of my teachers in my notebooks, or fling pencils across the classroom than listen to a lecture on cell structure and function or practice dividing fractions. If not for those two years of home tutoring with Mrs. Colletti I’d remain a dismal, uninterested student. With her sitting next to me at our dining room table, my grades went from Cs and Ds to As and Bs.
When I felt well enough, I returned to school for a week or so, or attended functions like my eighth-grade class party, which, because a few of my classmates’ fathers were cops, it was held at the police department clubhouse. To my surprise, all my friends were holding big plastic cups of foamy beer, laughing, and making out with one another. They all looked familiar, but somehow, they were different. Even Joe and Mike seemed indifferent to my appearance. They gawked at me and ran away, not knowing what to do or say, as if somehow, I’d returned, not just from my home or the hospital, but from a past they had long ago outgrown and forgotten. On the cusp of puberty and all its discontents, while my classmates went on dates and discovered the taste of each other’s breath, I spent my afternoons with older women – my mother, Mrs. Colletti, and my Nana. A chasm had opened between my friends and me, a chasm that would only grow wider in high school.
As far as my constricting esophagus went, my mother’s prayers were indeed answered, and in the spring of 1985 Doctor Jewett’s dilatations seemed to be working. I was able to eat real food again — pizza and cheeseburgers, my mother’s meatloaf. Was it a miracle cure brought about by my mother’s faith, or the dedicated work of doctors and nurses? Either way, I would not need another dilatation for nearly twenty-seven years.
Though we ate TV dinners almost exclusively, sometimes my mother and I ate popcorn for dinner. Sometimes, late at night she’d drive to the Regent theater and send me in to buy a giant bucket of popcorn slathered with butter and salt. One of our favorite foods was Green Giant canned asparagus. Just add a little salt, some butter, and the mushy, boiled-down stalks transformed into a savory delicacy. Not until I was in my mid-twenties, would I taste fresh asparagus.
It was during this time that my mother bought me an acoustic guitar — a Yamaha Eterna EC-12 classical with nylon strings. It cost $100 and she paid $10 a week. She also signed me up for weekly lessons with Tom Gestwicki, who was the leader of his own folk choir at Saint Elizabeth’s. Each week I sat gazing at the mess of glossy photos of guitarists he’d hung on the walls of his tiny practice room inside Crino’s music store. I never asked for a guitar, or ever desired one, but soon I was smitten. I’d given the trumpet a try, but only managed the themes from Jaws, Rocky, and the beginning of Olivia Newton-John’s “Let’s Get Physical.” I knew almost instantly that I’d become a guitar player. Somehow it would win back my friends’ admiration, somehow it would save me. The first song I learned to pluck was “Blue Tail Fly.” Then I learned “Aura Lee,” a Civil War-era song that Elvis took the melody for “Love Me Tender,” my mother’s favorite song. It was during this time that I discovered The Who’s Tommy, the deaf, dumb, and blind boy who played pinball and saw into worlds no one else could envision, as he gazed at his own reflection. Tommy made me feel less alone and like I was real in some way I hadn’t been before.
If John Lennon was the harbinger, the voice crying in the wilderness who turned me on to a new way of thinking and viewing the world, then Pete Townshend — with his defiance, his power chords, and poetry, his giant nose, made me believe that not only was there a world out there beyond my bedroom window, beyond the outskirts of town, but that it was in reach for a kid like me, who also spent too much time in front of the mirror, but instead of my own reflection I saw the Elephant Man and Quasimodo staring back.
Listening to Tommy made me feel less alone. It made me feel like I was real in some way I hadn’t been before. Listening to Tommy I was an eager acolyte — ready to take that amazing journey, to see all there was to see, and learn all there was to know.
“Sickness will surely take the mind,” Townshend sang. “where minds can’t usually go,” and I believed him. All I had to do was smash that mirror.
Jason Irwin has had nonfiction published in IO Literary Journal, Cleaver Magazine, The Crux, Coal Hill Review, and The Catholic Worker. He is also the author of three collections of poetry: The History of Our Vagrancies (Main Street Rag, 2020), A Blister of Stars (Low Ghost, 2016), Watering the Dead (Pavement Saw Press, 2008), and the chapbook Some Days It’s A Love Story (Slipstream Press, 2005). He lives in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.