Silence sounds so restoring, so reassuring, but not for me on visiting days. My once chatty sister has been silent—and we’re talking dead silent—for so long that it’s all we’ve got: a wall of silence. For the whole visit. For thirty five years.
We used to be the best of friends, but Austine and I haven’t “talked” since the Big S destroyed her younger self. I’ve tried over the years to jump start countless conversations, to no avail. More recently we’ve reached a silent agreement: She says nothing, as usual, and I say nothing back.
We sit outside where she can smoke and, when the silence is broken by the chirp of birds, or by another psychotic from her group home, I’m frankly grateful for the company.
We could take her up to see the three older girls—Seanna lives on the beach and the sea is what we shared as family—but these days Austine refuses to leave her group home. We don’t know why. She won’t say. She can’t, of course. She lacks the cognitive power to turn over the thought in her head, much less convey it to others.
So last Sunday I was just sitting there with Austine, silently reminding myself that I wasn’t there for the sparkling conversation.
If you really want to know the truth, I was there trying to relieve myself of the guilt of not going to see her in a while. I was there to stop myself from feeling neglectful, if I’m to be honest.
It’d be easier, you see, if Austine had been the silent, retiring type. But before her life unfolded into a series of mental hospitals and group homes, she was the life of the party.
As we left our teens together, she leading the way 13 months ahead of me, she seemed perfectly well equipped for her life ahead, whatever it would throw at her.
It’s just that I never expected this. Not even after Chelle went before her. If anything, I figured lightning couldn’t strike the five of us more than once. But it did and it wound up that Chelle was really just the warmup for Austine.
Silent Austine has no idea how much she has affected my life. For one thing, I never got married after she followed all the others into lifetime schizophrenia.
What’s the point if you’re not having children? Since symptoms don’t usually present until you’re full grown, having kids at all can seem a radically foolish step, like wading into the sea water with them to watch for approaching sharks. Under the circumstances, best to stay on the silent shore. That was what I call my mental calculation.
On a chair at the base of her driveway, her knee is fidgety and she smokes ferociously. She has an enormous appetite for cigarettes. I think they distract her from her voices.
You’ve never seen a heavier smoker. In between puffs that come every few seconds, she looks over at me with a gaze of pure fear. She always has this gaze. Seeing it wrecks my head–wrecks it. What’s frightening her in there? Why is she the Silent Scream?
I hate to play the recovering alkie card, except to say that I’m never closer to a drink than on visiting day with Austine. One drink just to steel myself against the gaze. To silence my own thoughts against the endless questions I turn over about the gaze.
Is that why I skimp on the visits? Or is that just a sophisticated rationale for skimping on them? I can’t sort that one out either. Worst of all, I feel bad complaining, her necessity being so much greater than mine.
This much I can safely say: I skimp because I guess I’d rather lacerate myself with guilt for neglecting my oldest and best friend, the old girl who’s gone so far beyond my little reach.
I skimp because I’m an escape artist myself, and I can’t take any more pain.
I skimp because I hate getting the silent treatment. And that’s not about her, that’s about me. That I have the courage to change, simply by sharing her silence.
Wouldn’t a bit of the old gargle, pre-visit, be just the thing to put paid to all this discomfort? I don’t go there, and not because I’m some paragon of sobriety. Far from it. For twelve years I haven’t gone there, because twelve years ago that medicine stopped working.
Also for me, being Irish, drink is just the way to madness, a gateway to the harder stuff. I could write a book . . .
So we sit in silence and I try and make good use of our time by praying and sending Austine lotsa love and metta. Mostly though I groan inwardly in the helplessness of beholding the worst case ever.
I hang in there for the rest of the visit, without the protective layer of forced conversation. I can see what a strain it is for her to talk, even to say hello or goodbye. It’s obvious to me that she has to exert all her strength to push a few words out. Why press her?
Mostly, the poor kid’s just grateful for the smokes. I’m grateful to see a quick flash of a smile there. There is a hope. As long as the barest hint of the old girl is inside there somewhere, we’ll keep reaching out in silence.
This post currently has
You can read the comments or leave your own thoughts.
Last reviewed: 5 Oct 2013