Monday, January 16, 2006

i know this much is true (wally lamb)




On the afternoon of October 12, 1990, my twin brother Thomas entered the Three Rivers, Connecticut Public Library, retreated to one of the rear study carrels, and prayed to God the sacrifice he was about to commit would be deemed acceptable. Mrs. Theresa Fenneck, the children’s librarian, was officially in charge that day because the head librarian was at an all-day meeting in Hartford. She approached my brother and told him he’d have to keep his voice down or else leave the library. She could hear him all the way up at the front desk. There were other patrons to consider. If he wanted to pray, she told him, he should go to a church, not the library.

Thomas and I had spent several hours together the day before. Our Sunday afternoon ritual dictated that I sign him out of the state hospital’s Settle Building, treat him to lunch, visit our stepfather or take him for a drive, and then return him to the hospital before suppertime. At a back booth in Friendly’s, I’d sat across from my brother, breathing in his secondary smoke and leafing for the umpteenth time through his scrapbook of clippings on the Persian Gulf crisis. He’d been collecting them since August as evidence that Armageddon was at hand - that the final battle between good and evil was about to be triggered. “America’s been living on borrowed time all these years, Dominick,” he told me. “Playing the world’s whore, wallowing in out greed. Now we’re going to pay the price.”

He was oblivious of my drumming fingers on the tabletop. “Not to change the subject,” I said, “but how’s the coffee business?” Ever since eight milligrams of Haldol per day had quieted Thomas’s voices, he had managed a small morning concession in the patients’ coffee lounge - coffee and cigarettes and newspapers dispensed from a metal cart more rickety than his emotional state. Like so many of the patients there, he indulged in caffeine and nicotine, but it was the newspapers that had become Thomas’s most potent addiction.

“How can we kill people for the sake of cheap oil? How can we justify
that
?” His hands flapped as he talked, his palms were grimy from newsprint ink. Those dirty hands should have warned me - should have tipped me off. “How are we going to prevent God’s vengeance if we have that little respect for human life?”

Our waitress approached - a high school kid wearing two buttons: “Hi, I’m Kristin” and “Patience, please, I’m a trainee.” She asked us if we wanted to start out with some cheese sticks or a bowl of soup.

“You can’t worship both God and money, Kristin.” Thomas told her. “America’s going to vomit up its own blood.”
*
I know what I know about what happened in the library on October 12, 1990, from what Thomas told me and from the newspaper stories that ran alongside the news about Operation, Desert Shield. After praying in silence, reciting over and over Saint Matthew’s gospel, chapter 5, verses 29 and 30: “And if thy right eye offend thee, pluck it out and cast it from thee…. And if thy right hand offend thee, cut it off and cast it from thee: For it is profitable for thee that one of thy members should perish and that not that thy whole body should be cast into hell.” Thomas removed from his sweatshirt jacket the ceremonial Ghurkha knife our stepfather had brought back as a souvenir from World War II. Until the afternoon before, it had been hung sheathed and forgotten on an upstairs bedroom wall at the house where my brother and I grew up.

The orthopaedic surgeon who later treated my brother was amazed at his determination; the severity of the pain, he said, should have aborted his mission midway. With his left hand, Thomas enacted each of the steps he’d rehearsed in his mind. Slicing at the point of his right wrist, he crunched through the bone, amputating his hand cleanly with the sharp knife. With a loud grunt, he flung the severed hand halfway across the library floor. Then he reached into his wound and yanked at the spurting ulna and radial artery, pinching and twisting it closed as best he could. He raised his arm in the air to slow the bleeding.

When the other people in the library realized - or thought they realized - what had just happened, there was chaos. Some ran for the door; two women hid in the stacks, fearing that the crazy man would attack them next. Mrs. Fenneck crouched behind the front desk and called 911. By then, Thomas had risen, teetering, from the study carrel and staggered to a nearby table where he sat, sighing deeply but otherwise quiet. The knife lay inside the carrel where he’d left it. Thomas went into shock.
*
In the emergency room, my brother regained consciousness and was emphatic in his refusal of any surgical attempt to reattach the hand. Our stepfather, Ray, was away and unreachable. I was up on the scaffolding, power-washing a three-story Victorian on Gillett Street, when the cruiser pulled up in front, blue lights flashing. I arrived at the hospital during the middle of Thomas’ argument with the surgeon who’d been called in and, as my brother’s rational next of kin, was given the decision of whether or not the surgery should proceed. “We’ll knock him out good, tranq him up the ying-yang when he comes out of it,” the doctor had promised. He was a young guy with TV news reporter hair - thirty years old, if that. He spoke in a normal tone, not even so much as a conspiratorial whisper.

“And I’ll just rip it off again,” my brother warned. “Do you think a few stitches are going to keep me from doing what I have to do? I have a pact with the Lord God Almighty.”
“We can restrain him for the first several days if we have to,” the doctor continued. “Give the nerves a chance to regenerate.”
“There’s only one saviour in this universe, Doctor,” Thomas shouted. “And you’re not it!”
The surgeon and Thomas both turned to me. I said I needed a second to think about things, to get my head clear. I left the room and started down the corridor.
“Well, don’t think for too long,” the surgeon called after me. “It’s only a fifty-fifty thing at this point, and the longer we wait, the worse the odds.”

Blood banged inside my head. I loved my brother. I hated him. There was no solution to who he was. No getting back who he had been.
By the time I reached the dead end of that corridor, the only arguments I’d come up with were stupid arguments: Could he still pray without two hands to fold? Still pour coffee? Flick his Bic? Down the hall I heard him shouting. “It was a religious act! A sacrifice! Why should you have control over me?
Control: that was the hot button that pushed me to my decision. Suddenly, that gel-haired surgeon was our stepfather and every other bully and power broker that Thomas had ever suffered. You tell him, Thomas, I thought. You fight for your fucking rights!
I walked back up the corridor and told the doctor no.
“No?” he said. He was already scrubbed and dressed. He stared at me in disbelief. “No?”
In the operating room, the surgeon instead removed a sheet of skin from my brother’s upper thigh and fashioned it into a little flaplike graft that covered his butchered wrist. The procedure took four hours. By the time it was over, several newspaper reporters and TV research assistants had already called my home and talked to Joy.

Over the next several days, narcotics dripped through a catheter and into my brother’s spine to ease his pain. Antibiotics and antipsychotics were injected into his rump to fight infection and lessen his combativeness. An “approved” visitors’ list kept the media away from him, but Thomas explained impatiently, unswervingly, to everyone else - police detectives, shrinks, nurses, orderlies - that he had had no intention of killing himself. He wanted only to make a public statement that would wake up America, help us all to see what he’d seen, know what he knew: that our country had to give up its wicked greed and follow a more spiritual course if we were to survive, if we were to avoid stumbling amongst the corpses of our own slaughtered children. He had been a doubting Thomas, he said, but he was a Simon Peter now - the rock upon which God’s new order would be built. He’d been blessed, he said, with the gift and the burden of prophecy. If people would only listen, he could lead the way.

He repeated all this to me the night before his release and recommitment to the Three Rivers State Hospital, his on-and-off home since 1970. “sometimes I wonder why I have to be the one to do all this, Dominick,” he said, sighing. “Why it’s all on my shoulders. It’s hard.”

I didn’t respond to him. Couldn’t speak at all. Couldn’t look at his self-mutilation - not even the clean, bandaged version of it. Instead, I looked at my own rough, stained housepainter’s hands. Watched the left one clutch the right at the wrist. They seemed more like puppets than hands. I had no feeling in either.

2 Comments:

Blogger Divic said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

10:34 pm, February 20, 2006  
Blogger nick said...

Great what you are doing. Seems a good way to remember what it was you liked about a book. I sometimes write things in a little notebook.

Came searching for the 613 sadnesses, had forgotten what an amazing book that is.

8:49 pm, April 24, 2006  

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