bioStories Blog is an extension of the online magazine bioStories: Essays from the magazine, news, updates on contributors, and other features appear here.

Monday, September 10, 2018

The Next Fifty Years

by Stephanie Lennon

Once Grandpa’s heart gave out, there was no point in Nana continuing her treatments.
“Stop the dialysis and she’ll be gone within a week,” the doctors had said.
Five years prior, at their fiftieth wedding anniversary, Grandpa had joked that the next fifty would be much easier. We were all hesitant to laugh, knowing even then that neither of them were in great shape.
A family meeting was called. Nana wasn’t “fully there” anymore, so she didn’t have much of a say in her own damn demise.
She just knew that she wanted to be with Grandpa.
~ ~ ~
The nursing home moved her into a private room. Hospice workers from a nearby center were assigned to check on her. A nurse. A priest. A social worker. To help Nana transition. And to help us watch her go.
Apparently it takes a village when we die, too.
The first few days felt like a giant family reunion. Without the stress of dialysis, Nana was almost herself again.
She even flirted with the priest from the hospice center. Said he looked cute in his collared shirt.
Nana had never been afraid to speak her mind. Hell, at Grandpa’s funeral she looked straight-faced at the attractive EMT volunteering his time to escort her and said “I’m single now, you know.”
For days, family members rotated in and out of that tiny room, taking shifts as if Nana were a dangerous criminal plotting her escape.
Every now and then, she’d open her eyes and look around the room. Each time, it brought me back to dinner at her kitchen table.
She would always ask “How many are we?” when deciding the seating chart for the evening.
Surrounded by her favorite people in the world, Nana radiated happiness. She was the reason we were all together. She was the sun, and we were the planets in her orbit, unsure of where we would go once her light went out.
~ ~ ~
Every two hours a nurse would come to kick us out and pull the curtains closed. Turns out when you spend all day every day in bed, your skin slowly eats itself if left unchecked.
My uncle would take this opportunity to sneak out for a cigarette. One time he came back with a Snickers bar for Nana, who had been diabetic for as long as I could remember.
Whenever we visited my grandparents’ old house, my mom would give Nana a hard time about the ice cream in her freezer or the Ring Dings in her cupboard.
“You cheating again, Mom?” she’d say.
“I’m old. I can do what I want,” was her readied response.
She’s right, of course. After a while, what’s the point? Especially once you find yourself staring up at the last ceiling tiles you’ll ever see.
~ ~ ~
She didn’t have the strength to tear open that Snickers wrapper, but she sure wouldn’t let it go once she had it.
One bite. Two bites. A quick nap to regain some strength for the third. A solid grip, even with her eyes closed and her stomach struggling to remember how to digest it. She never did finish it.
We sat in a circle around her hospital bed. Made horrible jokes about the death grip she had on such a long-lost comfort food. Her rosary was nestled in her palm beneath it. It seems comfort comes in many forms.
          My cousin slid a goofy-looking pair of wireless headphones over Nana’s ears, deflated gray curls settling underneath.
Through the Bluetooth on his phone, he cued up Nana’s favorite: Elvis Presley. We watched as her shoulders shifted up and down and her lips moved along with the words, a star in her own silent movie. Joy in its purest form.
~ ~ ~
Her most lucid day came toward the end of the week. I sat next to her bed, holding her wrinkly hand in mine.
I knew this was going to be my last chance to ask the world’s wisest lady the world’s most important questions. With fifty-five years of marriage under her belt, I knew exactly what to ask.
“Nana, how did you know Grandpa was the one?”
A smile spread across her face like a pat of melting butter on Grandpa’s hot potato pancakes.
          “Argyle socks,” was all she could muster before getting lost in her black-and-white-photograph past.
I couldn’t help but laugh. I squeezed her hand to bring her back from those early days.
          “Special boy in your life?” she asked, each word a struggle.
“Not yet, Nana.”
“You’ll just know, Stephie-doo. Trust me.”
I trust you, Nana.
~ ~ ~
As the week came to a close, the hospice nurse told us that we should leave the windows open. This would make it easier for her soul to pass through once she was ready.
Once everyone had had their chance to say goodbye.
She was stubborn and selfless until the very end, refusing to let go until everyone around her was asleep. Waiting for that perfect moment, as if she didn’t want to leave anyone with the burden of seeing it happen.
Nana had been without Grandpa for exactly fourteen days. She was ready to be back with him, where she belonged. To finish up those next fifty years of marriage.

Stephanie Lennon lives, teaches, and writes in Brooklyn, NY. Her work has been featured on She is currently writing a middle grades fantasy novel titled Miss White's School for Vivacious Voices.

Tuesday, August 14, 2018

Trunk Stories

by Clifford Royal Johns

When I inherited my paternal grandfather’s railroad pocket watch, I worried about actually using it. It meant a great deal to me, so I didn’t want to lose or break it. The watch is one of those things I have where touching it, or even just seeing it, reminds me of the person who owned it. For instance, when I bake in my friend Alvina’s pan it reminds me of her. My grandfather wound that watch every morning and wore it every day from the time he began working for the P&LE railroad in the early 1930s. It was just part of his way, a way that affected my whole outlook.
When I was a boy in the 1960s, my grandfather would often drive down from Pittsburgh to our dairy farm in southwestern Pennsylvania to spend the weekend, sometimes to hunt, sometimes to fish, and other times just to help with repairs around the farm. I liked his visits because he paid attention to me, even though I was the youngest of four kids, and he seemed to genuinely like teaching me things. In retrospect, it’s clear he taught me lessons that were often unrelated to the actual subject at hand, for instance, instructing me about fishing might have really been about the potential payoff of patience, or taking apart an engine and putting it back together might have been about organization and the proper sequence of things—“So you don’t have any parts left over when you’re done,” as he would say.
My grandfather was a short round man who wore bib overalls, a hickory-striped railroad engineer’s cap and often smoked a swooping calabash pipe. Sometimes he would bring a bottle of whisky and sit in the living room stacking shoes from the kid’s shoebox on top one of the snoozing English Setters who still liked him anyway.
My memories of childhood are mostly just still photos, snapshots of the tractor parked on the barn bridge, the field of sorghum above the house, or the whelping box we kept in the dining room when one of our setters had puppies. For people important to me though, I retain more of a photographic negative; I remember people by the shape of the hole in my life they leave behind. My grandfather’s watch reminds me of that missing piece, that hole, but I choose to wear it anyway, retaining a piece of the man and his memory close at hand.
Once, when I was eight, my father decided we should have some shooting practice. For this, my father, my two brothers, and I would stand on the back porch and shoot at empty coffee cans set on sawhorses or logs, using the hill just above the house as a backstop. This time, rather than just watching then chuckling when we didn’t hit anything, my grandfather decided to shoot at the makeshift targets too. He was a knowledgeable man with a gun, a good hunter, especially of pheasant and grouse, which were plentiful on the farm’s back hill. “Come on Skeezix,” he said, “let’s go down to my car. I think I’ll shoot one of my own guns.”
We walked down the hill, me trotting along, and him walking with his sailor’s rolling gait, past the smoke bush and the pine tree to his car, which was parked on the gravel-covered barn bridge.
My grandfather drove an enormous, black, Cadillac Fleetwood Sedan Deville with fins, chrome everywhere, and enough trunk space to carry supplies for a three-month arctic expedition. The car was eighteen feet long. When he walked to his car to retrieve something, I always went with him in hopes of seeing what he might have stashed in that cavernous trunk.
He seemed to carry everything a human could want in that trunk, and he organized things so carefully that if he pulled anything out, the shape of the hole clearly identified what had been removed, much like an intricate, French-fit box. In that car’s trunk he’d packed boots, a cooler, a folding chair, some shotguns in gun cases, a suitcase full of extra clothes, railroad flares, a glass gallon jug filled with gasoline, a glass gallon jug full of water, an old blanket in case he had to crawl under his car to fix it, enough tools to repair anything from a bicycle to our John Deere 3010 tractor, and various, mysterious boxes and leather cases. That day I found out his trunk also contained an enormous holstered 45-caliber Colt revolver on an elaborately tooled leather belt—the kind with small leather loops to hold individual bullets, just like the gunfighters wore in the movies.
When we returned to the back porch, my father and brothers had brought out the 22, two 16-gauge shotguns and the appropriate bullets and shells. My brothers and I fired off a few rounds, then grandpa showed all three of us some improvements to our technique. Since I was the youngest, I got most of the instruction. Until that day I’d only shot the relatively light 22-caliber rifle, and even that was a bit much for me, I was eight, after all. When my father went inside for something, Grandpa, leaned against the porch’s corner post, smiled, took a puff on his pipe, and said, “You want to shoot this?” He drew the 45-caliber revolver and showed it to me.
I said, “Sure,” staring in awe, and a bit of fear, at the ancient gun.
When he handed it to me after loading one shell in the cylinder, I suspected it weighed too much. I could barely hold it up, yet I was a boy like any other, and I was determined I could handle it. With both hands, I hoisted it up in line with a blue Maxwell House coffee can. Grandpa cocked it for me. I pulled the trigger.
I don’t think the Maxwell House can had much to worry about, but I believe I did hit the side of the hill, though maybe not. My father came running outside, and found me sitting on the porch, the terrific boom still echoing in my ears, my arms akimbo. Grandpa reached down and picked up the gun, holstered it, leaned against the porch post again and took another puff on his pipe while looking down at me. “I think you missed,” he said. Then out came that quiet chuckle that made me feel like he was pleased to see me making mistakes, perhaps even proud of it, and perhaps a little proud of how well his somewhat dangerous practical joke cum learning experience had worked. His chuckle was accompanied by a grin, a twinkle in his eye and a knowing nod. He was always willing to stop what he was doing and teach, if I was willing to learn. He seemed to think that I would learn best by making mistakes. I learned a lot.

My grandfather carried his fishing gear in his car trunk too, including the extra rods he kept prepared for me and my brothers. We could go fishing anytime. We went to Lake Somerset and a few pay-lakes in the area, but I preferred just walking down the hill to fish for bluegill in the pond on our farm. I think he liked fishing with us so much because he liked to tell stories, and fishing is mostly sitting, and waiting, and talking a lot. He would tell stories while he caught fish and I stood there holding a rod doing, I swear, the same exact thing he was doing, but somehow not catching anything at all. “It’s the way you hold your tongue,” he said one day, “and I’m wearing a hat.”
At Lake Somerset on a warm, clear summer evening he said, “I think this is the lake, yep, over there by the dam, just beyond that tree, I once caught a fish that was twenty-eight inches between the eyes.” I figured he was telling one of his embellished fish stories. It wasn’t until later when my father said it was the absolute truth that I started to believe it. Then my father added, “If you measure the distance from one eye, down around the tail and back to the other eye, twenty-eight inches isn’t all that big a fish.” My grandfather didn’t react to my father’s explanation, but he did seem to enjoy my frustration at finding out that the story was the truth and not the truth at the same time.
Once, down at the farm pond, grandpa sitting on his lawn chair fishing and me sitting on the ground holding my fishing rod and watching my unmoving bobber, we saw a ripple speeding across the pond. I said, “I wonder what that could be?”
“That’s a muskrat,” he said.
I stood up, but all I could see was a ripple. I thought it could have been a snake, or a fish swimming close to the surface, or just about anything, but he said it with such calm indifference that I believed him without question.
“How can you tell when it’s a muskrat?” I asked.
He put some tobacco in his low-swung Calabash pipe, tamped it thoughtfully with his thumb, then lit it. He looked at me with that twinkle and grin he’d get when he was about to tell a whopper, and said, “Because it was swimming backwards, and muskrats always swim backwards to keep the water out of their eyes.” He said it as though he was teaching me something important. He said it carefully in between puffs on his pipe, yet his cheeks rose, and his eyes still twinkled, and his chest shook just a little. I knew he had pulled my leg, though at the time I’m not sure I knew which part of his answer was the leg puller. I believe he knew what it was. I suspect it probably was a muskrat.
My grandfather always carefully considered what I said. He didn’t answer quickly or offhandedly. At Lake Somerset, he once pulled in the biggest fish I’d ever seen. I told him I thought it was big enough to win a prize. After he put the fish on the stringer, and lit his pipe, he sat down. This time, he pulled off his frayed Sherlock Holmes style fishing hat, which was covered with tied flies he used when fly fishing, then wiped his forehead with his shirt sleeve. He squinted at me to make sure I was listening. “Well, now,” he said, “I once caught a fish that was so big, that when I pulled it out of the water it took four minutes for the hole in the lake to fill back up.”
Twinkle. Grin.

Many times in my life, I’ve been told by a relative or family friend that I remind them of my grandfather. I like the comparison and consider it a terrific compliment. He had a work-hard-then-relax kind of attitude, and he was a pretty good craftsman in wood and metal. Although I don’t drive a giant black Cadillac with fins and chrome and an improbable trunk, when I pull out of my garage you can almost tell what kind of car I drive by the shape of the hole it leaves. Yet, I doubt my craftsmanship or my car is what my relatives think of when they compare me to my grandfather. I suspect it’s more about other attributes we share, including my sense of humor. Once a neighbor boy watched me plant a Japanese lilac. After the hole was dug, he asked what I planned to do with the dirt piled up beside the new tree. I leaned on my shovel and considered the question carefully. I looked him in the eye. “Well, now,” I said, “I guess I’ll just have to dig another hole and bury it, won’t I?”
My grandfather died when I was thirty. Our farm was long since sold off, and he’d retired and moved to Florida. Still, his departure left a hole in my life, and while holes tend to erode at the edges, the hole he left will never fill. It is by the shape of that hole that I recall the man. I still wear his watch.

Clifford Royal Johns grew up on a dairy farm in Southwestern Pennsylvania. He lives in the Chicago area with his wife and his dog where he writes and builds furniture. He is the author of Walking Shadow, a science fiction/mystery novel. His short stories have appeared in Shimmer, Story Station, Crossed Genres, and many other magazines and anthologies. He recently completed his MFA in creative writing at The University of Southern Maine.

Tuesday, July 31, 2018

The Color Blue

by Katie Milligan

My memories are all tinted with blue.
I remember four blue-raspberry mouths stained with the sticky sugar of popsicles. I see my grandfather’s jeans, stiff yet worn, bouncing up and down as he gives me a ride on his knee. There is the teal woolly yarn of my baby blanket against a flushed cheek, clutched in my tiny hand. Blue is nostalgia. Blue is childhood.
I can remember the cornflower blue, fuzz-worn fabric of the snack-stained matching armchairs my parents sit in—big for him, small for her. I finally settled on sky blue for my bedroom walls after surviving my angsty neon-green teen years. My mother made a sinfully delicious dessert for my 11th, 14th, 16th, and 18th birthdays, full of rich blueberries and graham crackers and whipped cream. Blue is familiar. Blue is home.
The boy who has always been there has sapphire eyes; their sharpness nearly blinds me from behind angular glasses. The deep navy of my father’s police uniform contrasts with the innocent turquoise of the purity ring that he gave me when I turned fifteen. Blue is protection, loyalty. Blue is safety.
The cloudy, violet fingers of volleyball bruises inch across my shins and kneecaps, products of diving on the unforgiving gym floor at Graham High School for seven years. Damp steel-blue fog hangs like a wet blanket over the shelter house at the Christiansburg Park where my heart was broken for the first time. My best friend’s auburn curls dance against her Air Force dress blues as she boards a plane that will carry her far into the sky. At my fifteen-year-old teammate’s funeral, there was a basket of royal blue rubber bracelets to wear to remember, inscribed with Ecclesiastes 4:9-10. Blue is pain. Blue is goodbye.
I see all the different skies, like postcards, whipping through my memory. There’s the churning grey-blue lake at Warren Dunes, Michigan, ringed by a sky with buttery clouds. There’s the brooding indigos of Ocean Isle, North Carolina, freshly calmed from the exploding scarlets and oranges and magentas of the watercolor sunset. There’s the blue ice-capped Andes Mountains of Peru, expansive, cold, close to God. Blue is tranquility, reflection. Blue is adventure.
But my memory isn’t just blue. It’s purple like my February birthstone amethyst, and grey like my stuffed elephant and my 2013 silver Ford Fusion, and green like homemade guacamole with onions and peppers, and yellow like the sunflower fields that bloom in Yellow Springs each September. It’s a palette, and a giant thistle of a paintbrush dabbles in each color and swirls them together to create a magnificent mess. But somehow, the colors don’t blend together to make a non-color, a mud like the slush from day-old snow. They stay crisp, marbled, vibrant. My memory is a masterpiece.
I don’t know why the color blue is so significant to me. But it’s my favorite color. Scientists have proven that certain colors are more stimulating and better enhance our memories.
People perceive colors differently based on their life experiences, their moods, their memories. What is blue to me might not be blue to you, and someone else might perceive another blue entirely. At their very core, humans are all the same. A skin-bag of bones, a pulsing heart, muscle and arteries, veins and cartilage and blood. But there’s something else besides the physical, beyond the flesh: a mind. And that’s where the common path begins to diverge into hundreds, thousands, millions of paths. Like the fractures in my living room window when my brother hit a golf ball into it. Like the ripples that sped across the pool in my grandmother’s backyard when my sun-tanned, floatie-clad cousin landed a tiny cannonball.
The mind is incredibly vast—boundless, even. The human brain can store 2.5 petabytes of data. That’s the same as 2,500,000 gigabytes. It’s essentially unlimited storage space for memories. Scientists estimate that in a lifetime, one person can accumulate as much as one quadrillion pieces of information—fifteen zeros worth of scraps, tidbits, and snippets. Every person you pass throughout the day—the Oxford-educated professor, the breast cancer survivor, the high school drop-out drug dealer—is a walking, talking, living, breathing encyclopedia. Full-to-bursting with thrills, disappointments, victories and defeats, trials and errors, the mundane and the extraordinary, milestones passed, lessons learned, adventures explored. Imagine how much pain and frustration and waste could be avoided, if only minds could be combined, if colors could be blended.
There are two distinct types of memory: long-term and short-term. Contrary to common sense, short-term memories are much more easily forgotten. The brain’s hippocampus transfers short-term memories, which last an average of thirty seconds, into long-term memories, which can last anywhere from three days to three years. It’s shaped like a horseshoe and as one gets older, its functionality declines. On Wednesday evenings I go to the Good Shepherd Village nursing home in Springfield to sing hymns with the residents. Last week there was a woman in a wheelchair with a washed-out Led Zeppelin t-shirt, a wooden cross necklace, and antique silver rings on every finger. Between every song, she would grasp my arm and say, “I go to the Church of God down on Hillside Avenue.” After every song, it was the same. Six, seven, eight times, and her head bobbed up and down with renewed vitality each time. Several years ago, I learned that my grandfather was suffering from dementia; the short-term memories were slipping away from him, but for a while, he could still summon to the surface the long-term memories. It was as if someone was repeatedly flushing his memory-palette under hot, soapy water. With time, the once-vivid colors became thin, then translucent, then dissolved into nothing but white. Stephen King once wrote, “The color white is the absence of memory.” I’m not sure if that’s true, since the color white reflects all wavelengths of visible light while absorbing none, and the color black absorbs all wavelengths of light while reflecting none. Black is an inky memory with the lights off; white is a vacant, void memory. Maybe it’s both. Maybe it’s greyscale. Either way, it’s heartbreaking. All that space in their memories, and their hippocampi betrayed them. They are doomed to forget.
But maybe, on the opposite end of the spectrum, there is such a thing as having too many colors crowded together on a palette. Maybe, when there are too many hues, too many dollops of paint saturated deep inside, they start to mix and embroil into chaos. Are there real-life Rain Men who can remember everything, every insignificant and every fateful detail? In 1942, Jorge Luis Borges published a short story called “Funes the Memorious” about a young man named Ireneo Funes who was thrown from a horse and became crippled. Soon after the accident, he discovered a peculiar talent of remembering everything. He could tell time to the exact second without a watch, he could recall the precise shape of clouds, he could even recollect the exact pattern of the sprayed river water that flung from the in-motion oar of a canoe. To the narrator of the story, Funes said, “I have more memories in myself alone than all men have had since the world was a world.” Borges’s tale is a fantasy, but there are six confirmed cases of this condition today: hyperthymestic syndrome, which is Greek for “exceptional memory.” The first known case, Jill Price, can recite obscure details of her life since the age of fourteen. She has reported that this highly advanced ability is a daily burden. Ireneo Funes calls his memory a garbage disposal. A waste. A blessing at times, but mostly a curse. I think there is such a thing as overload.
Memories become prioritized and organized in our brains by the level of emotion attached to them. I am more clearly able to remember the moments of sheer fear than mild contentment. I can distinctly see the worry lines on my mother’s forehead on the day that I came home from school and she told me my father had been hospitalized. I remember the exact angle of the late afternoon sun slanting through the window. I remember I was wearing black sweatpants and a maroon drawstring hoodie with canvas zigzag slip-ons. I was sitting in my car watching the snow peacefully drift from heaven when I got the phone call that my best friend had been in a car accident. I can remember the shaking hands, the scrambling struggle to open the car door to step out into the winter wonderland, the cathartic relief at the news she was okay.
If you unfold the mysterious wrinkles of the brain, you’d get 100,000 miles of axons (the brain’s neurons that fasten themselves to other neurons to store information). That’s enough to travel around the Earth four times. We tuck things away between these folds, sometimes for safekeeping and sometimes to forget. What triggers release such that small bubbles of memory float to the surface? What fragments of fear and regret and discomfort burrow deep within our subconscious? We may never know. Our memories shape us, and our memories protect us.
To me, it makes sense that our memories are like an artist’s palette. Paint is fluid, impressionable, changes color and consistency as it is told. So do recollections. There is a balance. The Goldilocks principle. Not too little, not too much. If we were all just machines, without emotions, without authenticity or empathy or the ability to remember, how could we enjoy this life?
Imagine if a giant syringe was lowered down and the tip—just the very tip—made contact with this globe we call home. Imagine if every last drop of color was sucked out of the world. There wouldn’t be any more red. No more red rubber rain boots romping through puddles, no juicy beads of pomegranate, no lipstick stains, no more Band-Aids stained with a single drop of blood. There wouldn’t be any more yellow, no more tropical pineapple rings or blonde fuzzy ducklings or dewy goldenrod, no Lays potato chips or waxy honeycombs. No more orange incessantly dribbling basketballs or pink fairy-spun cotton candy.
Our memories can so easily be distorted, whether it be from blunt-force trauma to the head in an instant, or a disease that slowly gnaws away at us for a lifetime. So, while you can, be purple, and grey, and green and yellow. Be red and orange and pink. Be blue.

Katie Milligan is a student at Cedarville University pursuing a major in English with a focus on editing, publishing, and creative writing. She lives in Christiansburg, Ohio and enjoys hiking, taking Polaroid photos, and thrift store shopping.

Friday, June 22, 2018

You Are Here

by Kelly Garriott Waite

The picture, taken before color photography was ubiquitous, is gradations of light and dark, bright and shadow. In it, my father straddles a three-foot log, a jagged vertical crack down its center like a lightning strike. The bark is rough and covered in places with moss. The grass surrounding it is mostly short and neat, as if the log had been dragged to this space specifically to make a seat for my father. But it can't be comfortable: Dad's right leg bends back, the toe of his shoe dug into the ground as if for purchase. His left leg is forward, his heel pressed into the grass. His pants—the seventies equivalent of Dockers–are sharply creased down the center. He wears a button-up shirt, untucked, and Converse tennis shoes, their dark laces loosely tied. Dad holds a five-string resonator banjo, its round drum resting on one leg. His smiling face is in profile, that characteristic dimple in his cheek as he looks at the middle finger of his left hand, pressed behind the D string's third fret.

* * *
1. To worry excessively and without cease.
2. Music: One of several thin silver strips separating the fingerboard of various stringed instruments into sections. Pressing just behind a fret will divide a string in two, causing its lower half to vibrate faster, thus producing a higher-pitched note. Each fret will raise a string's tone a half-step or 1/12 of an octave.

* * *

Between certain frets, the fingerboard of Dad's banjo was inlaid with mother-of-pearl, the smooth white inside of the shell of certain mollusks: oysters, mussels, and abalones. I remember swaying from side to side, studying the shimmer of the inlay, watching the colors change from violet and pink to gold and green. Looking at the photograph, I am reminded of the abalone shell that belonged to Dad's mother, a woman who fretted so often that my grandfather sometimes snapped at her, stop buying trouble, as she peered through the dashboard of the passenger seat, giving voice to her worries about weather or traffic.

Why steal the mollusk's rainbow to settle it upon the neck of the banjo? More than mere adornment, it served as position markers, grounding my father to keep him from getting lost inside the music. This is where you are, the inlay murmured to Dad. Remember, you are here.

* * *

Used in Western music, an octave is composed of eight notes and their four half steps. The beginning and ending notes of an octave match in pitch but differ in frequency.

* * *

A mere handful of notes, a single octave is insufficient to express musically the range of human emotion. And so, using the fret-string combination, the octave is repeated three times on Dad's banjo.

* * *

A can of Budweiser rests before Dad, its label gazing off camera. A music book is open, its soft cover folded back. I hold my magnifying glass over the book and try to discern the title of the song. But all I can make out is a smattering of notes, fat circles with wings, except for the whole note, which is entirely too heavy to fly and thus has no need of wings.
* * *

Note value:
Used in music to show how long to play (or hold) each note. Commonly, a whole note is held for four beats, a half note for two. On it goes, with each previous note value halving itself all the way down to the smallest, rarest note, the 256th, a note with six fast fluttering wings, a note so light it barely makes a sound as it briefly alights before flitting away. 

* * *

Dad often played "Cripple Creek" and "Dueling Banjos" from the movie Deliverance. Sometimes he played "Will the Circle Be Unbroken," a song featured on an album of the same name by the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band. Dad bought this album and stored it beside the seventeen-volume collection of Beethoven's works, eighty-five records in all, which he largely ignored, but which my sister played loudly when she cleaned the bedroom we shared: sonatas, symphonies, and string quartets. I remember the scratch of the needle upon a record. The momentary silence before the room was flooded with sound. I remember, after the room was clean, my sister returning the records haphazardly to the shelves until the cabinet was so messy, Dad could no longer stand it and made us sort out the records and put them into their correct volume. Dad's life was a series of attempts to impose order on a disordered brain.

* * *

When he wasn't playing, the banjo hung on the wall next to Dad's recliner. Beside it was the four-string he'd also acquired. When he got the notion to play one or the other, Dad sat up in one swift motion, his back lifting and his legs folding down simultaneously while he reached toward the wall.

* * * 
1. German: anxious.
2. Music: anxiously.

* * *

Here's what Dad never told us: He took a prescription medication to alleviate the symptoms of Obsessive/Compulsive Disorder (OCD), a disease rooted in anxiety.

Here's what took me years to tell my children: I also suffer from OCD.

Here's what I hope my children tell my grandchildren: They have anxiety. They have learned how to manage it. There is no shame in mental illness.

* * *

A phrase or theme that recurs throughout a musical or literary piece.

* * *

I believe that the leitmotif of Dad's life was anxiety and finding a way to alleviate it. He never spoke of anxiety, perhaps because he didn't want to buy trouble. Instead, I believe he sought relief through his hobbies: photography or sailing or playing the banjo, dropping one project and taking up another, sometimes circling back to an earlier one, repeating the pattern throughout his life.

* * *

As expected, Dad gave up playing the banjo. The instruments remained on the wall for longer and longer stretches of time until they became more decoration than entertainment. With every hobby, Dad discarded its accouterments, in this case, the music books, the silver picks, the pitch pipe. Eventually even the banjos disappeared.

But I don't think Dad was a quitter. Rather, I believe that when a hobby had lost the power to distract his mind–-when, for instance, he could play a song without having to concentrate–-he dropped it for something new upon which to focus. Every new project had the potential to quiet his mind. Something to tell him: You are not lost. Remember you are here.

* * *

My younger daughter, like her grandfather, flits from thing to thing, as if searching for something to quiet her brain, something to ground her, too. She tells me she doesn't want to have children: she's afraid they'll inherit the anxiety.

Can I guarantee her this circle of anxiety will eventually be broken? No. But I try to explain the positives that accompany it: the compassion for others, the creativity, the way of finding beauty in the world where others might not. I'm not sure she believes me. I'm not sure she believes it's worth it.

But perhaps mental illness isn't so much illness than the normal about which we do not speak. Perhaps each of our brains are gradations of lightness and darkness, brightness and shadow. Perhaps if we spoke our truths rather than hiding them, we would feel less alone, braver, not as strange as we perceive ourselves to be. Perhaps the heaviness of our hearts and our minds would evaporate. Perhaps if we said, this is where I am, someone might reply, me, too. I am here, too.

Kelly Garriott Waite writes from Ohio. Her work has appeared in the Hopper, Allegro Poetry, and the Fourth River: Tributaries.

Friday, June 8, 2018


by Sarah Belliston

Ever since my son Jack could walk, he’d head to my bookcases and pull the books from the shelves into a pile. Sitting there like a hen hatching chicks, he’d pick a thick volume and set it on his outstretched legs. He’d turn it sideways so the weight of the book rested on his feet and the cover opened into his lap. Then his dexterous middle fingers would run along each side of the book, catching just one page, and flip it down. One by one. Over and over. When the book was finished, he’d turn it around and repeat the process. My family joked that he was reading; I joked that he loved books as much as I did.
At eighteen months old, a team of doctors diagnosed Jack with autism spectrum disorder.

A hybrid is something born from two different species, or a composite built from two different things. Hybrid cars are supposed to be good for the environment. We would not have the purposeful inventions of the liger, the tangelo, or the blood lime without hybridity. (Lions and tigers do not live in the same areas so the crossbreed of the liger has only been documented in captivity.) Because of their genetics, these hybrid animals are often, though not always, infertile.
At conception, the DNA of each parent is put into a blender and cut into pieces, so the child gets a unique mix of the parents’ chromosomes. When those chromosomes merge to make sequenced pairs, they can only match with the same structure. Different species have different structures, but related species like zebra and horse or citrus fruits have enough in common to make a hybrid. In plants especially, the seeds sometimes carry the genes for multiple colors or varieties. Depending on how the plant is pollenated, a recessive color could become more common despite being he recessive trait. When the seed grows up to have the same desired trait as the parent plant, gardeners call this being “true to the parent.” Many genetic probabilities work the same in plants as in humans. These probabilities can sometimes be determined by a Punnett square.
For example, my husband, Scott, has a genetic blood disorder called hemochromatosis. Two of his five siblings also have the condition, which is relatively mild as long as you know you have it. Those with the disorder absorb too much iron, which can cause liver failure if left unmanaged for too long. Another relative had hemochromatosis and developed cirrhosis of the liver late in life, never once having drunk alcohol. My husband has to get his iron levels tested every few months. When his iron becomes too elevated, he donates a pint of blood, which makes the body produce new blood, which in turn uses up the high iron levels and returns his system to normalcy.
Before we married I took a blood test and found out I carry the recessive gene for hemochromatosis. One study estimates that ten percent of Caucasian people are a carrier, and one in 200-500 develop the disorder. Our Punnett square looks something like this:

Sarah h
Sarah H
Scott h
Scott h

Each of our future children would have a fifty percent chance of having hemochromatosis and a one hundred percent chance of being a carrier.
My mother asked me if I was okay with these odds. I said yes. I married my husband. His genes mixed with mine and the sequence of our combined DNA made a hybrid, what we thought was a good hybrid with smiles and laughs and ten fingers and toes.
I considered the known problems, but I didn’t think of the unknown. When autism appeared, I wondered what our Punnett square would have looked like. And what my decision would have been.

Some autistics have symptoms from birth, while others go through a type of regression, usually before the age of five. This regression involves a breakdown of neural pathways in the brain that can affect communication and sensory perception. Some regressions happen overnight; parents wake to find an autistic child in their neurotypical child’s bed. This kind of regression produces the common metaphor of autism as a kidnapper that has stolen the child.
Other autistics, like my son, regress slowly, so slowly I couldn’t tell you exactly when it started. All I remember is that after his first birthday I noticed more and more signs. By his fifteenth-month well-child visit I had to admit he hadn’t met any of his communication milestones. At the hearing screen a month later, I watched him lick the hinges on the door as the specialist said, “Have you considered autism?”

Science doesn’t know why people develop autism. A Punnett square is impossible. There may be a genetic component, but if so, scientists have identified over 200 possible genes that could mutate in multiple ways and result in a spectrum disorder. My most recent talk with a geneticist said they can identify a genetic cause in less than ten percent of cases. The identification success rate gets even lower when the autistic does not have intellectual delays. I think of Jack and how he did first grade math at four years old. Testing him wouldn’t give me any more answers. My husband’s sister was diagnosed with Asperger’s after we were married. Her son, who is a few years older than Jack, is also autistic. It was in the sequence all along.

There is no cure for autism. Instead there is what I like to think of as “symptom management,” which usually consists of behavior modification therapy. This therapy focuses on substituting wanted behaviors for the isolating repetitive actions autism is known for, like replaying the same five second portion of a video 200 times or flipping pages in a book for hours.
Jack started behavior modification soon after diagnosis. When he was almost three, we decided to stop. Behavior modification works amazingly for many, but it didn’t work for Jack. The therapy had made his behaviors worse and caused a larger regression. Before using behavior modification, he mainly ignored my attempts to interact with him. After the intervention he would lie down and will himself to sleep in order to escape unwanted stimulus, i.e., me.

Six months later after we stopped behavior modification, Jack was more interactive with me but we weren’t making any progress on his communication. I travelled across the country for a weeklong training on a different kind of therapy based on relationships and social communication instead of deterring behavior.
The program is called Son-Rise and has a reputation in the autism community for the claim it can cure autism. I was more interested in the therapy because it focused on attempting to understand the purposes behind the autistic’s actions. The program also has the central idea that the reward for social interaction should be the joy of the other person, not a treat or motivator (as in behavior modification). So, instead of a cue to look someone in the eye, the parent/facilitator acts in a way that makes them interesting to the autistic and then rewards any glance with an overexcited response. In essence, they teach the autistic how interaction with another human being can be fun.
By the end of the week, there were many things about the program I knew would not work for my family or my child. To complete the program with fidelity, you need a dedicated playroom where the autistic stays for eight hours a day while different volunteers rotate through, ensuring that every moment is maximized for therapy and the environment is controlled to decrease the likelihood of surprises for the autistic. I could do the gluten-free and casein-free diet they suggested because Jack only ate a few items anyway. But when they told me to take away screens, I balked. Since then, I have come to see the wisdom in their words. Some autistics, and some neurotypical children, have delicate nervous systems that cannot handle the input from a personal, interactive screen. They become isolated, irritable, and have frequent meltdowns. However, Jack is not one of those kids, at least not yet.
So when I came home, I adapted the new therapy to our family and my son. We used our whole house as his playroom and tried to be observant and ready to interact with him all the time, instead of just for set hours. I saw an immediate increase in Jack’s eye contact and verbal communication. When I slowed down and focused on his reactions, he gave me more of them. When I flipped pages next to him, he stopped flipping and came over to take my book, which would turn into a game of passing books from one pile to another. Our “game” was a baby step to interaction, but leaps ahead of where we were before. Our future suddenly looked brighter, and the trip we’d planned to visit my brother across the country looked brighter too.

At the Son-Rise training, one female facilitator told a story of helping a child to say their first word. When she tried to celebrate with the parent afterward, the parent denied hearing their child speak. The session had been videotaped, and the trainer said she had to play back the tape three or four times before the parent could hear what their child had said. When I heard this story, I wondered how it was possible for a parent to ignore auditory evidence, but on that trip to visit my brother, I found out exactly how it could happen.
Sometimes Jack connects with people right away. When we got to my brother’s apartment, Jack connected with his then twelve-year-old cousin, Tyson. A good big brother to three younger siblings, Tyson happily sat with Jack in front of the television. They watched the credits of a show scroll by, and Jack supplied a steady stream of what I thought was gibberish. Tyson said, “I think he’s reading the names. I can almost understand what he’s saying.” I brushed off the idea immediately. I had heard this gibberish plenty of times when Jack stood in front of our television at home or flipped pages in his books.
Later that night I sat on the floor next to Jack as his three-year-old hands and eyes concentrated on an iPad. He had gotten into an ebook app and was flipping the digital pages as fast as he could. A steady stream of gibberish accompanied the motion. I thought about what Tyson had said. I scooted closer. Jack’s gaze was fixed to one spot on the screen, the top left corner of each page. Staring with him, I listened again and it was as if a translator had been slipped into my ear. All of his gibberish suddenly made sense. I heard “the,” “and,” “this,” and “can.”
Jack was speaking.
Jack was reading.
His sequence was wrong. He read the first word of each page instead of left to right and top to bottom. He read heavy volumes instead of picture books. But there was no denying it anymore. I wondered how long he’d been reading, how long I had been unable to hear.
I felt for those other parents, the ones who didn’t understand their child’s first word. Maybe their child was like Jack who, I realized, often dropped consonant sounds, so “pig” was a short i sound and “horse” was “ohss.” Maybe the parents were like me and couldn’t believe their child spoke because the action was tied to something unimaginable, like a child who could read before he could speak, or like understanding that autism doesn’t break someone’s brain, it only makes them process information in a different sequence.

In critical disability studies, there is an “affirmation model” of disability. The idea is that society and culture have trained people to view and portray disease and disorder as negative and pejorative. This model analyzes literature that highlights the good events or actions that wouldn’t otherwise happen if disability didn’t exist. Words in the Dust is a novel that tells the fictional story of an Afghan girl with a cleft palate. The deformity allows her to pursue an education, whereas fixing her cleft palate would result in marriage and little opportunity for learning. In John Elder Robison’s memoir, he writes how his undiagnosed Asperger’s allowed him to understand machinery in a way that led him to create pyrotechnics for KISS after he dropped out of high school. Naoki Higashida, a nonverbal autistic, writes in his book that taking away his autism would fundamentally change who he is as a person.
After reading these stories, I wonder if autism will turn out to be a positive or a negative for Jack. I’m not sure what about Jack is his autism and what isn’t. I don’t know if his ability to match his voice to any melody or sound would still exist without autism, or if his laugh would still bubble up from his center and spill over into everyone within hearing distance. Would his unusually blue eyes still twinkle? Would his gaze still make people stop and pay attention if it was more frequent?

In truth, I don’t know if my husband’s gene pool caused my son’s condition, gifting him the particular sequence that resulted in his autism. There are more members of Scott’s family with autistic qualities, but it could be something in my genes that is hidden in me but manifested in Jack’s hybrid sequence. A theory called the female protection effect thinks that genetic mutations must be more severe to cause autism in women, which means that I could have passed on faulty autism genes to my son without having any symptoms myself. Another study found that copy number variations (where sections of DNA are repeated and the number of repeats varies between people in the population) are more commonly passed on from the mother’s egg than the father’s sperm. At least for one specific area called the 16p11.2 region, found in about one percent of people with autism. However, the study points out that simply having a mutation in this area does not mean the individual will always develop autism.
At this point in the research, it feels to me like it’s just as likely that everyone has a gene that could result in autism. Autism affects almost every family I know. Some more than others. One in fifty-nine children are diagnosed on the spectrum in the United States. The statistic just changed in 2018. The rise is attributed to the growing number of mild forms of autism getting an official diagnosis. An article I recently read talked about the detrimental part of having a genetic profile. Two individuals with the same sequential defect can have very different outcomes. Genetics do not determine prognosis, and yet if parents know of a serious mutation, they may think their child is not capable of progress.
After diagnosis, the thing I most wanted was for someone to tell me that my son was capable of learning, that spending hours and years trying to teach him would result in success. I didn’t want to put him or myself through the hardship of therapy without a guarantee. If he lacked ability, maybe the kind thing would be to leave him happily sitting on the floor alone with his books.
Maybe he was happy there by himself, but I also know that he was happy when a few months ago he wrapped his little arm around my neck and gave me a kiss for the first time.
Even so, I am going forward with more genetic testing. If there is an answer in the sequence, I still want to know.

I used to think that autism appeared one day and changed my son. When I began this essay I wanted it to be about how my son was a hybrid of himself and autism. But really, autism was part of him all along. I am the one who has become the hybrid.
I spent my life before Jack unconnected with autism. Now, it is my life: in my life, my house, my writing, my brain, and my heart. I begin each day thinking of autism. I’ve become the autism lady, always ready to regale people with my laundry list of facts and opinions. Now those opinions include the possibility that perhaps my son has benefited in some way because of his hybridity, his sequence.
Moments are more important to me now than milestones. I judge my success as a parent, and Jack’s success as a child, not on achieving the goals we set, but on attempting them. I have hope and am more willing to entertain the impossible. If I had never thought my son was capable of reading, I would not have been listening, and I never would have heard his words.

Sarah Belliston lives in Utah with her family while she attends BYU for her MFA in Creative Writing. She loves a good book, a good movie, and a good musical but hasn't figured out how to do all three at once.