“Can’t Elope” by Miriam Camitta

I didn’t invite Margot to my wedding. She was my brilliant older sister, diagnosed with schizophrenia when I was a child. Once, I’d adored her, but she’d fallen ill in the fifties and, failing effective or even adequate medication, might now, even in the eighties, savage my perfect day: talking to her familiars, declaring a rat in the cake, or loudly accusing a guest of murder.

She couldn’t contain herself, nor could I, overwhelmed as I was by her disease, imagine her suffering. I hadn’t thought I’d miss her after she’d gone.

* * *

Until I was eight, I lived in Harrisburg with my family of accomplished but temperamental intellects: my father, a rising union leader; my mother, a meticulous albeit reluctant homemaker: my doting grandmother, a retired dressmaker; and my gifted but troubled teenage sister.

I remember the red-brown bars of my crib, my mother’s easel and paints on the sun porch, the green horsehair sofas in our living room, and an upright piano in the dining room where my father, who could play anything by ear, frequently entertained. I remember the old clawfoot tub in the bathroom at the top of the stairs, and Margot, whose job it sometimes was to watch her little sister bathe, sculpting a unicorn horn out of my soapy hair.

Mostly, though, my sister feels absent from the family, although certainly, she was there—fussing at the table, pounding Shubert and Chopin waltzes on the piano, reading Latin at the little maple desk in her bedroom, sleeping, sweating faintly into her sheets. If I try, I can see her, primping at the mirror on the landing, covering her ears, which stick away from her head, with her thick black hair, twirling through the living room in a dress my grandmother had made—(I remember the voluminous skirt, the black and white checks, the white Peter Pan collar and cuffs at her wrists)—then fuming because suddenly she hated her dress, wailing and stomping upstairs.

I can see her at the lake on a Sunday excursion, standing knock-kneed among the pines, screaming.

We’d driven into the country, past farms and fields. When I’d tired of songs and stories, my father, who had a lively imagination, entertained me with a game of driving the car. No seat belts in those days, I stood with my hands on the back of his seat. “Push,” he said, “make the car go faster.”

The game, for some reason, annoyed my mother, who was sitting up front in the passenger seat, angrily powdering her nose. It possibly upset my sister, who was close to tears. My grandmother, tired from the drama that had begun so early in the day, rested her head on the frame of the window, open to a hot breeze.

Only my father and I were looking forward to the day. I remember a dunk in the chilly lake, my father lighting coals in a cast iron grill, my mother setting a large yellow bowl of potato salad, a specialty of hers, with chunks of hard-boiled eggs and pimento stuffed olives, on the picnic table, and Margot, pouting, stretched out, belly down, on a blanket spread on the grass.

She must have walked away when they weren’t looking, because I remember my parents abandoning the food, running through the park, calling her name, and their relief when they found her standing among the trees, their helpless anger, her yelling: She will not swim, she will not come down from there and sit with the family, she will not eat the hotdogs and hamburgers our father has grilled.

I think I ran to my grandmother, wriggled between her knees. Maybe she told my father, who was shouting, to calm down. Sha, di kind. “Quiet, the child.” The child, meaning me.

People stared; I wanted my sister to disappear. I wanted the shouting to stop.

Likely, this memory is a composite of several summer afternoons, some peaceful, some unpleasant. Perhaps, at times, my sister may have agreeably bathed and eaten the lunch my parents prepared. Possibly I remember my grandmother’s cautionary words because I heard them repeated at home. What I trust is my memory of the scent of the pines, the taste of leafy water, waiting, waiting for burgers on the grill, my mother’s ominous face, and the tightening in my chest as Margot screamed.

* * *

Sometimes my memories come in scenes.

In this one I’m four. Margot’s senior year of high school. It was my bedtime, but I’d sneaked downstairs to sit with Margot on the sofa, waiting for her guests to arrive. Margot’s hopes must have been high—she’d been accepted with a scholarship in French and Latin to the University of Pennsylvania, she was a star in the high school play. Now she wanted to be inducted into B’nai B’rith Girls, an organization for Jewish young women.

Earlier, my mother had vacuumed and polished the furniture, shooed me away to bed.

Everything had to be right for the guests, everything had to be right with Margot, who, I knew from overhearing whispered conversations, had been having trouble getting along—with an aunt who cut short what was supposed to be an extended visit, with a boss at a summer job, with me, who, ahead of a luncheon for her friends, brought her to tears by sticking my fingers into the dish of butter that was melting in the afternoon sun.

Recently, she’d been aloof, no longer happy to entertain me in the bath, no longer a playmate who created fascinating dramas in my dollhouse. Now, though, she pulled me onto her lap. I could smell her flowery scent mixed in with the nervous odor of fear, feel the stiff crinoline under her skirt, the warmth of her arms around me.

“I’ll sing you a song,” she said.

Marerzy doats and doezy doats and liddle lambs eat ivy,

A kiddle eat ivy too, wouldn’t you?

The words were the refrain of a nonsense song, popular in her youth. “What does it mean?” I asked.

She recited the facts as if onstage, speaking to an unseen audience “Mares are female horses; does are young deer. A lamb is a baby sheep; and a kid is a baby goat. Also, a child, like you.”

I tried to imagine myself a four-footed furry animal, picking ivy off a wall. Tried to imagine its tough green leaves between my teeth, tried to imagine swallowing it.

“I’m not a baby goat,” I said, “and I don’t eat ivy.”

“You don’t? Maybe you do. You’re a kid.”

My mother, who had been hovering in the doorway, entered the room. “Margot says I’m a baby goat and eat ivy,” I said, hoping she’d take my part in the dispute. Also worrying she would scold me for sneaking out of bed.

“You’re a little girl,” she said unsmiling. “Now go to sleep.”

Why has this memory stayed with me when others have been erased? Why does it seem so clear? I knew my mother was worried, fearing, rightfully I’m convinced, that Margot half or maybe wholly, believed the lyrics of the song were true, which, with my mother’s silence, hung, undisputed, in the air.

I was a child with an active imagination. I’d been a cowgirl, my tricycle a horse, the sidewalk in front of our house, the western range. And my father’s games? Those weekend excursions to the country when he entranced me with games like driving the car, or Saturday afternoons when we conducted the New York Philharmonic concert broadcast live from Carnegie Hall—they were magical, wonderful immersions in movement and sound, an exhilarating embodiment of agency. But even at three or four, I never actually believed I was driving the car or conducting a symphony. I knew the difference between fantasy and reality. I could step in and out of fantasy at will, as Margot, who was likely in the beginning stages of psychosis, who clung to, insisted on, the fiction of the goat, could not.

* * *

Summer, a few months later, I was in bed with a lingering fever, worrisome, because polio was in the air. In the blur of a boring but uneventful convalescence, my sister was assigned to sickroom duty—staying with and hopefully entertaining me until our mother returned from wherever she’d gone.

Mostly, my sister was cheerful when she babysat; sometimes, even gay. But something about her this afternoon felt inaccessible, as if she’d gone somewhere, as if she’d disappeared behind her usually flashing eyes.

Still, I had hopes for a pleasant afternoon. We colored farm and city scenes in books with my extensive collection of crayons; she taught me how to cut a paper chain of snowflakes; she read, from my favorites Winnie the Pooh and Madeline.

Everything changed when the phone rang.

When she answered, her voice sounded as if she were speaking to someone else, someone hiding behind the heavy flowered drapes, or in the dust motes floating in the shafts of light coming in through the open window, or in the dark recesses of her chest, which, in spite of its womanly breasts, did not feel maternal.

“She’s ill,” Margot said to the caller, as if the she was not lying a few feet away, as if the she was not in the room at all.

Why had she done that to me? And why had she said I was ill when sick was the word our mother used for colds and the virus that had put me to bed. Ill sounded like going to die.

I couldn’t wait for my mother to return. I would tell her how my sister had felt different, had seemed to disappear, and of my own fear of disappearing into her fantasy of my death. I knew it to be untrue because my mother and doctor had told me my illness was mild. Still, Margot was my scholarly older sister, and her words had the ring of authenticity.

In the end, I didn’t tell my mother. I was afraid of annoying her with a complaint about Margot, afraid I’d found out a secret that couldn’t be told.

My mother must have known that something was wrong with her eldest daughter. Erudite, worldly, lover of art and literature, she and my father had read the books on the shelves in our living room—Crime and Punishment, Anna Karenina, Madame Bovary, Of Human Bondage, the works of Shakespeare and Freud.

I think she did know. Her sternness that day, which I mistook for anger, was more likely an expression of fear that Margot, her formerly golden child, was, herself, ill.

My fear of disappearing, of being annihilated by Margot’s fantasies, like being rendered inhuman, or fatally ill, would be repeated throughout my youth: When she spoke to her hallucinated familiars, laughing, arguing, whispering her secrets, having unintelligible conversations that I struggled to understand. When I became, for her, a woodland nymph cavorting in a forest.

I almost had to look in the pot simmering on the stove when she said there were frogs in the soup.

* * *

I remember thinking how unfair it was when Margot didn’t get accepted to B’nai B’rith Girls. But she left for college in the fall. Life was strangely quiet without her, as if she had been the plug in the hole of my parents’ worry.

Then, in her sophomore year, Margot was unexpectedly home. I was in bed, trying to sleep, but I heard her shouting. I stood outside my bedroom door, saw her standing at the second-floor landing, hurling curses at my parents on the floor below.

I made a run for my parents. I’d only gotten halfway down the stairs when Margot flung a hairbrush at me, missing my body but striking the floor below.

I crouched behind my mother, hiding in her skirts, wishing the Margot I’d known would return.

But Margot kept screaming. The longer she screamed, the worse it got. “Go to the Ferrantes’,” my mother told me. My best friend Rosemarie’s family, who lived just up the street. “Your sister is disturbed.”

I’d spent many days in the Ferrantes’ backyard that summer, dunking in the wading pool with Rosemarie. Once, at lunch, we’d drunk chocolate milk with colored straws, an exotic treat—we didn’t drink anything with straws at home. Rosemarie wanted the blue, the Virgin Mary’s color. Being Jewish, I didn’t believe in the Virgin Mary, but I knew her color was special and felt a little put out with green.

Now, barefoot and in pajamas, I ran through the night, pounded on the Ferrantes’ door, sure they wouldn’t understand my appearance at an hour when I should have been asleep. A playmate, now an orphan without my slippers, begging for asylum.

“My mother told me to come,” I said to their kind, questioning faces, perhaps adding my mother’s words: “Margot is disturbed.”

* * *

Margot may have remained at home, or returned to school for a month, or two, but eventually, she was hospitalized at the Institute, a gleaming white mansion housed on park-like grounds, a symbol to parents like mine that money (which we didn’t have) and power (which my father, then an influential labor lobbyist, did have and likely used to secure Margot’s admission) might offer recovery from what was then, in the fifties, a barely treatable, incurable illness.

Tuesdays my mother took the two-hour train ride from Harrisburg to Philadelphia to visit her. My grandmother had died, and because my school sent the students home for lunch, and my mother didn’t want me in the house by myself, I wandered the streets around the school, stopping briefly at a luncheonette to swallow a quick hot dog, waiting for the hour to be up.

If I’d felt a mote of sympathy for my sickened sister, it evaporated during my nomad year. Even when we finally moved to an apartment in the Philadelphia suburbs and I ate my lunch in a school cafeteria, I felt like an inconvenient accessory, tiptoeing through the darkened dining room, converted to Margot’s on again off again bedroom, as she slept into the day.

Margot didn’t improve at the Institute, nor in the hospitals that succeeded it. For her, as for many, schizophrenia was a chronic disease, a wave-like condition with flares and periods of remissions. In somewhat quiet times, my mother tried to keep her at home. Home, until she refused to take her medicine, and I’d wake to her speaking convulsively to her voices, or standing outside my bedroom at night, her silhouette stark against the light of the landing; shuffling, the effects of a drug, through the halls of our new four-bedroom house, muttering, laughing, shaking, twitching, chain smoking, butts and ashes piling up in the ashtrays scattered through the downstairs rooms, lipstick smearing her tobacco-stained lips and fingers. Home, until, on hot summer days, my father had to run from room to room, closing all the windows, shutting in her screams and curses so that only my parents and I heard her rage.

My mother did her best to protect me at those times, but she couldn’t stop the cursing and screaming, she couldn’t get Margot out of bed, or keep her from staying up half the night, pacing robotically. She couldn’t prevent her, during my daily piano practice, from flinging open the doors to the living room—closed to the constant cloud of smoke and chatter—standing, staring, talking to me, or her voices.

Sixteen now, and serious about the piano, I would stop my practice, turn from the keyboard, loath to break my focus. “Mother said you should leave me alone in here.”

I would have said more, but I remembered my mother’s words: She can’t help it; she is ill.

If Margot had lived in the Middle Ages, she would have been branded a witch, her symptoms attributed to demonic possession. The media and the entertainment industry share this view, likening the mentally ill, with their seemingly empty eyes, their robotic gait, to zombie-like monsters. Even in the era of twentieth century modern medicine, Kieran McNally writes, scientists described schizophrenic patients as monstrous, exhibiting “a sense of indefinable strangeness,” or as one scientist observed of his patients, “appearing not quite human.”

Margot must have felt strange as her fantasies bled into reality, a condition as frightening as the knowledge that one is powerless to escape those fantasies, as Elyn Saks describes in her memoir, The Center Cannot Hold. And as schizophrenics will do, she projected her fantasies and fears onto me, as if I were a screen in a movie theater. In my eyes, she was a demon, who might, if I let her, dismantle my world, destroying me.

I would have liked to vanquish the monster my sister had become, but I couldn’t do battle with someone my mother claimed was a helpless invalid. All I could do was hold her at bay. When she appeared during my practice, or skulked outside my door at night, or announced that there were frogs swimming in the simmering soup on the stove, I retreated to my bedroom, closed the door, and buried myself in a book. I preferred the Gothic, in which reality could be manipulated through an effort of the will: Poe’s “Ligeia,” James’ “Jolly Corner,” Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights. Novels about teenagers searching for somewhere to belong didn’t make sense to me. I knew where I was. I was stuck.

* * *

I would be an adult, living on my own, a single parent, with a job teaching high school English and my soon-to-be husband, Rick, before I’d be able to see my sister as anything other than my tormentor.

I’d been visiting my parents and now Margot and I were seated in the living room; she, on the modern white sofa that replaced the old horsehair ones, I on a large cherry ottoman opposite her.

She’d just told me in clear, plain English, not the gibberish of fantasy, that she knew the obvious resurgence of her illness meant a return to the hospital.

“They will make me go back,” she said. To the ludicrous rules, the arrogant doctors, the enforced socialization with the severely ill, the unwanted arts and crafts of occupational therapy, the punishment for not getting dressed in the morning or making her bed, and the use of electro convulsant, or as I knew it, shock therapy.

I’d heard her complain of the hospital before, but this was the first she’d mentioned shock therapy.

I imagined her lying on a stretcher, her arms, legs, body in restraints, nodes fixed to her head, shaking convulsively as if electrocuted.

“Does it hurt?” I asked, fearing the answer.

She narrowed her eyes, as if she could funnel the truth. “It’s horrible,” she said.

The space between us in the waning afternoon light felt well-defined, which made it possible for me to feel truly sorry for her. But I couldn’t completely feel her fear. I was repelled by the mess she’d made of the living room, the stench of cigarettes stubbed out in a growing pile of butts in the ashtrays scattered around the living room, the lipstick-stained cigarette filters, the imprint of her mouth on the rim of the forgotten cup of coffee.

Now, when I revisit this scene in memory, I see that my fear of the internal disorder represented by the mess had obscured my ability to recognize her fear of what must have awaited her at the hospital.

If I’d denied her fear, what other emotions had I deprived her of?

* * *

One of those was love. She’d been engaged to Ed, who’d been her student at the Arthur Murray studio where she taught ballroom dancing during a long period of remission. I remember thinking when she brought him home to meet her family, This isn’t real. How can he love her? And, She’s incapable of love.

Like the scientists who conflated their impressions with the actual symptoms of the disease, I’d attributed the often flattened, vacant look on her face to an absence of feeling. It’s a form of erasure in which I was complicit.

But now when I recall that evening in the living room of my parents’ house, I can see her radiant face as she proudly introduced her fiancée to her credulous family, the extension of her hand to show off a tiny diamond ring, Ed’s mouth smudged with her signature red lipstick, and realize how proud she was, how much in love.

At the time, I’d thought her suicide attempt following the breakup a symptom of her disease. I hadn’t appreciated how heartbroken she’d been.

I’d forgotten how funny she was. My friend Mary recalls an afternoon when we were sitting in my family’s kitchen, watching my young son eat a Swiss cheese sandwich. Margot was twitching, and I, worrying she might say something wild—about the food, (please not the frogs she’d seen in my mother’s soup) or about me, who’d lately appeared to her as a woodland nymph.

My son picked the cheese out of his sandwich and held it up. “What’s inside the holes?”

I was stuck for an answer, as was Mary, but Margot gave it some thought.

“The moon is in the holes,” she said, “because some think the moon is made from Swiss cheese. I haven’t been there, so I can’t verify this.”

I remember she called my first husband a zombie, which was, arguably true.

I remember her joke: “Why am I like a melon?” Answer: “Because I can’t elope.”

Elopement: legally defined (in the medical setting) as a patient who is incapable of adequately protecting himself, and who departs the health care facility unsupervised and undetected.  

* * *

As Margot approached fifty, perhaps with better drugs, she seemed to improve. I’ll never know if or how she’d emerge from her illness because another disease, this time lung cancer, would claim her. On my last visit before her death, I pulled my chair up to hers in the hospital day room, indistinguishable with its yellow cinder block walls from a school cafeteria or prison visitor’s area. Still chain smoking, still coughing deeply, she spoke coherently, telling me she’d refused the painful procedure to extract the fluid from her pleural sacs: “I’m just going to die, anyway.” Of the pearl necklace my father had bought for her birthday and then, at her insistence, returned: “I won’t be needing it where I am going.”

She must have had that strength all along, a strength that sustained through the terror of her illness, the horror of the hospital, the knowledge that she might live with schizophrenia but not outlive its course. Now, too late, I saw what I’d missed—a suffering human overwhelmed by disease, who was smart, occasionally funny, and kind to my son, had courage, and, at least once, had been in love.

I don’t want to romanticize her. She may have been, as one of her doctors opined, constitutionally disagreeable, the kind of person who can bully and frighten a child into thinking she is an animal or is going to die of an uncomplicated illness. Even if that is true, I think in calling me a goat, she was reflecting her fear that she herself was not quite human; in insisting my condition was dire, her fear that she herself was gravely ill, which, as it turns out, was true.

* * *

For a while, as an adult, I lived near a shelter for women transitioning from the psychiatric ward of the hospital to the community. Once, I saw a resident of the shelter sitting naked on a bench at the corner, legs crossed at the knees, as if waiting for the bus to take her downtown. The memory of that woman, naked, vulnerable, volubly conversing with her voices reminded me of my sweet sixteen party when Margot, home and ill, made an appearance as Ophelia, naked underneath the nylon and chiffon of her negligee. At the time, I’d been furious, sure she’d been trying to humiliate me. The reason why, so many years later, I’d refused her pleas to attend my wedding celebration, fearing she’d ruin my longed-for day.

The party was informal, taking place in Rick’s shoe warehouse. I felt anything but relaxed. The prospect of a floridly ill sister, potentially frightening my guests with her audible hallucinations, competed with the guilty image of a sister safely stowed at home, smoking, coughing, staring at the snowy trees outside the living room window.

A musician riffed in the open freight elevator; a friend poured wine into plastic glasses at a makeshift bar; another snapped candid photographs of aunts and uncles, cousins and friends. Among those is one of Margot wearing a worn cardigan and skirt, as if she’d decided to attend at the last minute. My father, having more sense than I, had gone home to fetch her after the morning ceremony. He was impatient: she wouldn’t have had time to change into something more suitable for a party.

The photograph offers me some consolation. Her hair is the same iron gray that mine is now; her shoulders, like our father’s, are rounded. She is looking directly at our friend, the photographer, her lips parted in a smile.

When I look at that photograph, I think about my sweet sixteen, and the thought she’d given to her appearance, choosing a movie-star worthy negligee, powdering her face a ghastly white, painting her lips a winey red. I know I was wrong about her intention to humiliate me. She probably just wanted to go to the party, be one of the guests, be what she was, my sister.

Miriam Camitta is a writer with an MFA in Fiction from the Bennington Writing Seminars and a PhD in Folklore and Folklife from the University of Pennsylvania where she taught for many years. Her work can be found in Fourth Genre, and The Masters Review and was shortlisted for the The Masters Review Anthology XI. Her documentary, “Crosstown,” about the defeat of a federal highway, was a finalist in the Independent Category at the Philadelphia Festival of Cinema. Camitta teaches at Temple University and is a fiction editor at Cleaver Magazine. She lives with her husband and her daughter’s cat.


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