There is this song by Bruce Springsteen, pardon me that I can’t recall its name specifically anymore, as these things tend to slip your mind with age. It came on the radio the other day as my floor mates skittered their way to the mess hall for the regular dosage of too-spicy chili and weak cornbread unlike anything your mother ever would have made. Instantly, like a wave of fresh air had gone through, my foot began tapping and I was taken back to days with the window rolled down in my best friend Lydia’s Pontiac, sodas sloshing in the cup holders and the music blasting as we whipped our way out of town on back trails.
It was that song that triggered a memory in me as most things do these days. They told me that memories are a good thing, seeing as I just began to lose mine. It’s a mean old trick that age plays on you as it corrupts other parts of your body along the way. I like music; I can relate to music. And getting back time is a beautiful thing, like a last blessing.
Admittedly so, a lot of my time anymore is spent sleeping. My children come to see me sometimes and I can tell they see it too – they preach their regular jokes about, “Oh, mom will always keep on going, she was always one to do that!” as if I was the regular 29-year-old with four children again, a balanced lifestyle, a husband to help me in dire times of need. But I saw the looks in their eyes. They noticed my exhaustion and that everything had begun to fade from me. I was willing to bet that they went home to their husbands and wives and quietly said over the dinner table, “She just isn’t herself. She seemed better today but she’s just going to steadily decline.” Such is the sad story of your life when you start to lose your memories.
One afternoon while I was fighting the battle of keeping my eyes open and trained on a book in front of me, sprawled out in my bed, I must have lost the fight and ended up in a deep sleep, a game of catch-up after an insomnia tic bout from my new medications. I don’t remember dreaming but I woke up with a sense of panic for some reason, my heart racing out of my chest but too afraid to call anybody and ask for help.
It was something in the air…something had woken me abruptly for a reason and taken its hold on me. As slowly as these feelings came on, I heard the shrill cries of a child, like a screeching banshee, something that always warmed my heart even if it was during a particularly steady naptime which is something I didn’t see much of anymore.
“Oh, Grandma, I just love you!” I heard from next door as my heartbeat managed to soar back to normal for a couple of seconds. That’s when I heard it. Like a switch, the steady beat of a song permeated the room next to mine and I heard it faintly drift on through the walls… da-da, da-da, da-da, da, da-da, da-da, da-da. Everybody, even me, knew the song… The itsy-bitsy spider went up the waterspout…
“TURN IT OFF!!! TURN IT OFF, TURN IT OFF! TURN IT OFF, I SAID!” And before I knew it, I was flying out into the hallway like a bat out of hell, orderlies spreading throughout the hallway to catch me and trying to better understand whatever psychotic break this mad old woman had. The little girl with the music box sitting in her hand and a jewel-encrusted spider sitting perfectly atop had started to slam the lid down, but before she could even manage, something in me had taken hold and I had ripped the prize from her little preschool age hands. The last thing I saw before I had thrown the music box at the wall and was taken under by an orderly was the trembling lip of the little girl and the tears starting to run down her face. It looked all too familiar.
“Mom, I just don’t know what got into you…” Sadie looked into my cold, sad eyes and then glanced down at her hands in her lap, which were now tugging on a loose piece of the fabric from her gold cardigan. Suddenly, she switched to a lighter mood and continued, “I mean, I guess we all go a little crazy sometimes,” and followed up with a laugh, thinking it would make me feel better, I guess.
“I’d just like to go down for a nap right now, I think,” I started, but Sadie reached out to me and shook her head from side to side. “They asked that we spend some more time together getting to the bottom of how you must be feeling lately. You are kind of…trapped here. Maybe I haven’t done my job visiting as much as I should. Maybe I need to see you more often and make sure you’re okay here. We won’t be around forever, you know.”
Maybe you and your siblings shouldn’t have put me in here in the first place, I thought, but the thought was replaced as quickly as it arrived. I didn’t say a word and sat with my lips pursed like I normally would in a situation where words needn’t even be said. I watched Sadie reach for the remote to the television, that godforsaken box that she knew I didn’t want to hear, especially now. Just wrap up this visit please, for the love of God, and get out of my room so I can sleep! The other women in the hall had been talking about me; I knew it. I saw them turn their heads when I walked down the corridor to the shower or when I made my way to the mess hall and they just so happened to avoid me with constant glares. I knew they were talking behind my back. That old coot next door said I had attacked her granddaughter. Stolen the music box right out of her hands… and, I guess she isn’t wrong, but what is done is done.
Sadie flipped through the mess of channels, all cluttered together and advertising things like pancake makers and magic bullets and toys for kids that looked like something out of a modern day horror movie. The noise was too much for my throbbing head but I sat back in my seat and listened to my daughter drone on about some mundane subject like her husband and his outrageous working hours as she flipped through each channel.
All of a sudden, she stopped on a channel and let out a laugh like she had just watched a comedy festival. There, on the screen, was a crude cartoon spider spinning his web on a waterspout. The music started up immediately and a dull throb entered my brain where a ringing had begun to spark.
“I remember this song from when I was a child,” she laughed, “You just never forget them. The itsy-bitsy spider–”
From where I was sitting across from my daughter, I flung up from my chair immediately and grabbed ahold of her throat within seconds. Sadie dropped the remote to the floor with a dull clatter and attempted to scream and loosen my fingers but they stayed where they were, only more tight and more aggravated as the singing ran on in the background with some childlike tune. Soon enough, Sadie had loosened one of my fingers and was working on bending it back to the point of serious injury and I screamed in pain and oblivion. When the orderlies came in, they took one look at me and sent me sprawled out across the bed.
The next week, I was teamed up with a psychologist to ‘get to the bottom of my growing issues.’ I had seen the photos (and cringed at them, likely so) of my purple fingerprints from Sadie’s bruised neck and the pain I must have caused her. While part of me understood and had a compassion that made me want to call her, her words rang in my ears and I knew right now was the best time to get my life back on track and stay away.
“So, in both outbursts sustained, what were some things that were the same to you? Did anybody say anything to you? Maybe something that would have…triggered these deep-routed and painful emotions?”
I stared at the psychologist in a way that most people these days took as my old age and inattention, but was really just my way of trying to understand myself on a deeper level. “I can’t really tell you what I don’t know, I’m sorry.”
“Well, I may be able to help out. In the first case with the, uh, six-year-old girl, you shattered her spider music box that her grandma had given to her. In the second case with your own daughter, the orderlies had turned off the television set where nursery rhymes were being sung. Do you believe this is an issue from childhood?”
“To be honest with you, I’m not sure how the two relate.”
Around 8:00 p.m. I was leaving the psychologist’s office and heading back down the hallway to my own bedroom in a perfect daze, dissatisfaction on my mind and wondering what would become of me. I tucked myself into bed and wrapped tightly inside the blankets like I did when I was a little girl to sustain comfort and get away from all the worries in the world. The psychologist’s words played over and over in my mind as I drifted off to sleep.
The itsy-bitsy spider
Climbed up the water spout
Down came the rain
And washed the spider out
Out came the sun
And dried up all the rain
And the itsy-bitsy spider
Climbed up the spout again
I flung up out of bed screaming and ran out of my room, gathering attention from all the orderlies on the hall and the psychologist who was putting on his hat and jacket for the night and heading out of his office. As soon as he saw me flying down the hallway, he hesitated for a second and considered running back inside his room and shutting the door, but instead consoled me, orderlies hot on my tail. “What is it? What scared you?”
“It was…my father,” I gasped, falling to the floor in a crying heap and taking him down with me.
Sadie wrapped her arms around me and shook her head in a fashion I had never seen before – she was truly listening, she truly cared. “I just never expected anything like that from Grandpa, especially because you never said anything to us about it before.”
“I guess it took a strong memory to remember that it even happened in the first place,” I laughed, “If you can believe it. I know I’m not the 29-year-old you guys see me as anymore, a baby balanced on each hip and two more around my knees, following me everywhere while I got shit done. No, I may not be the hardass you expected–”
“You’re much more than that to us,” Sadie replied, smiling.
The Itsy-bitsy spider… my father sang, as he crawled across the bed after me, long after my mother had gone to sleep.
Climbed up the water spout… His hands pulled down my underwear and started the climb to everything that was personal and private to me at one point in time.
Down came the rain and washed the spider out… He sang as he finished his duties for the night and headed back down the hall, humming the rest of the song under his breath so only I could hear and tremble in fear.
Do you ever associate a song to a memory and realize that there was some bigger meaning in the whole thing? That’s the part of me that had turned so dark over time, as I realize now I am 80 years old and I can’t get my childhood back. And as my memories fade away, I know I will too and that will never be okay with me.