|Girl in wheelchair in sunlight, bookshelves, a wide ocean-green tile table with a pitcher of lilacs|
I'm reading Molly McCully Brown's new book of poetry. It's called The Virginia State Colony for Epileptics and Feeble-Minded, and I'm waiting to spoon oatmeal into Sophie's mouth as she seizes in the sun. We're in our dining room, and everything is beautiful. These are partial seizures. Her eyes are wide open with a look of surprise. Her arms fly out every ten seconds or so, her hands cupped. Her hum is a beat longer right before the spasm. I am patient, reading and glancing, glancing and reading. I look into her eyes in between glances. They are glassy, my own (eyes and glasses) stare out, not her. I tell her it's okay.
The Central Virginia Training Center
formerly The Virginia State Colony for Epileptics and Feebleminded
Whatever it is—
home or hospital,
graveyard or asylum,
government facility or great
tract of land slowly ceding
itself back to dust—
its church is a low-slung brick box
with a single window,
a white piece of plywood
labeled chapel, and a locked door.
Whatever it is,
my mother and I ride along
its red roads in February
with the windows down:
this place looks lived in,
that one has stiff, gray curtains
in the window, a roof caving in.
We see a small group moving
in the channel between one building
and the next, bowing in an absent wind.
He is in a wheelchair, she is stumbling,
pushing a pram from decades ago,
coal black and wrong. There is no way
it holds a baby. Behind them,
a few more shuffling bodies in coats
I am my own kind of damaged there,
looking out the right-hand window.
Spastic, palsied and off-balance,
I'm taking crooked notes about this place.
It is the land where he is buried, the place
she spent her whole life, the room
where they made it impossible
for her to have children.
It is the colony where he did not learn to read,
but did paint every single slat of fence
you see that shade of yellow.
The place she didn't want to leave
when she finally could,
because she'd lived there fifty years,
and couldn't drive a car, or remember
the outside, or trust anyone
to touch her gently.
And, by some accident of luck or grace,
some window less than half a century wide,
it is my backyard but not what happened
to my body—
Some of you will think, why would you read such a book? Sophie is seizing in the sun as I read. As she seizes in the sun, her eyes glassy, I know she has visions. There is an angel in the tree just outside the window and in her eyes, some bit of glitter. The word glint. I know she sees something more than I, I who see only purple lilacs in her eyes. In some far-off time or long ago, she might be have been a saint. She might have had visions, cured the sick, seen Mary in the garden, been Joan of Arc leading men into right. If she'd been allowed to be an epileptic, if there had been no fixing. No drugs. She might have lived not terribly but terrible (formidable in nature). She might have been burned, though, alive. We've had advancements, they say. There have been great advancements in the field of neurology, a medical paper insists. The word insist. I think of those saints with their hands held up and toward the sky. Appeal or protest or insist. Mary's hands lie crossed over her stomach when the Angel Gabriel visits, as he tells her the terrible news. Formidable in nature.
These are the thoughts that come to me as I sit waiting for Sophie to stop seizing. I am reading this book of poems about a terrible place where epileptics and the feeble-minded (Sophie) were locked up and hidden away, sterilized. This happened even into the late twentieth century. The Virginia State Colony for Epileptics and Feebleminded. Sophie's spasms stop with a sigh and release. If she had wings, they would rustle as she settled. I can feed her the oatmeal now.
You see where I'm going. Instead of terror, dyskinesia, paranoid delusions, suffering, it is visions, divinity, miracle, the heady scent of lilacs.