Nonfiction by Melissa Fraterrigo
Stacy has just been admitted to the psychiatric floor of a hospital, texts Liz, my college roommate from more than twenty years ago. Can u talk?
I stop the freelance assignment I’m working on and pick up the phone. Liz explains what she knows.
Earlier in the day Stacy called her next-door neighbor, Mara, a mutual friend of ours; Stacy was crying so hard she could barely get out the words to ask if Mara could watch her kids.
Why? Mara asked. Stacy could only sob. The rest of the story becomes murky. Mara took Stacy to the hospital, where after a two-hour wait the staff asked her a series of questions: How long have you been feeling this way? Do you want to hurt yourself? Do you have a plan?
“She planned to crash her car, only the kids were with her,” says Liz.
The hospital in Iowa City did not have room to admit her, Liz reports, but Stacy’s eighty-year-old mother drove her two hours west on I-80 to a small community hospital where they had beds available.
“What can we do?” I ask.
“I have no clue,” says Liz. She promises to call or text if she hears anything else. The call ends but I remain still. It seems like the least I can do.
I brush back my daughter’s hair from her eyes before administering her morning drops of prednisolone, the first of four eye drops that will be evenly spaced throughout the day. I kiss her nose before handing her a Kleenex. She rubs her eyes, squints. “Ready?” I ask. J has a condition called uveitis, an inflammation of the uvea—the middle portion of her eye. Left untreated it causes blindness. On Fridays I hold a bag of frozen vegetables to her bicep, then inject Humira into her arm; Saturday, after the four sets of drops we administer cyclopentolate at bedtime, and this dilates her eyes. These drops sting, and once my husband or I hold her steady and plink a drop of the medicine in her eye she claps her hands to her face and rocks back and forth.
“One more,” I say, more for myself than to her.
In the fall of her kindergarten year, J began complaining that her knees hurt, and yet she had no recollection of falling or bruising herself. Her knees swelled like helmets, and walking became painful. An examination and bloodwork with a pediatric rheumatologist diagnosed her with juvenile idiopathic arthritis, or JIA, which is commonly associated with uveitis. Yet it wasn’t until a routine eye exam three years later, in March 2017, that she was diagnosed with uveitis. Until then, we had been able to control her flare-ups through NSAIDs and by applying packs of heat to her swelling joints. But with the inflammation in her eyes, we were forced to start her on methotrexate, another injection, to calm the inflammation in her body—only her white blood cell count dropped, her liver enzymes became abnormally high, and we had to go for weekly blood draws to monitor her condition. We changed medicines again that July to a biologic—Humira—which works by targeting particular cells in the body’s immune system. Accompanied by the current steroid drops, by August she was free from signs of inflammation. It’s been nearly a year since then, but two weeks ago we learned her condition has returned. Only this time they have termed her uveitis chronic and serious.
I cried for three days in a row and had been finding my resolve when I received the message about Stacy.
I met Stacy, Mara, and Liz during our freshman year at the University of Iowa. Stacy was our resident assistant in Daum Hall, only she seemed more like a peer than our RA. Together we drank and smoked pot for the first time, and after a football game, when Mara passed out in her bed, we penned “virgin” on her face with a Sharpie. We submitted a personal ad to the newspaper, seeking four men who liked Jane’s Addiction and reading, and crank-called Billy Corgan of the Smashing Pumpkins when we somehow found the phone number to his Lakeview home. Each of us visited Stacy’s parents’ farm in their small, conservative Iowa town, and later, when Stacy came out, we embraced her partner as if she’d attended undergrad right alongside us.
The four of us have weathered our share of agonies, from stillbirths to miscarriages, premature birth, infertility, and a spouse’s leukemia—but there is no doubt that Stacy has had more than her share of heartache. She grew up in a conservative Christian home and her parents have yet to accept her marriage or the children who are the result of that union.
Somehow, despite everything going on with my daughter, I imagine Stacy in the blandest of hospital rooms, alone or perhaps making conversation with her Bible-quoting mother, a woman who continues to say that the stillborn baby Stacy delivered did not survive because Stacy and her partner are lesbians.
“Melissa, she had a f’ing plan,” Liz had said. “A suicide plan.” I had nodded, even though she couldn’t see me. Inside I trembled.
I have had that kind of plan, too.
I pry J’s eyelids open with my thumb and forefinger and squeeze a drop of prednisolone into her eye. The medicine is white, and as she blinks she opens and closes her mouth, grimaces. “That’s right, you’ve got it,” I say, encouraging her to keep blinking, to let the medicine settle deep in the cavity of her eye. “You ready?” I ask, hovering over the second eye.
“Not yet,” she says, dabbing her face with tissue. Sometimes she sits up and I’ll rub her back before we move on to the other eye. “I’m ready,” she finally says and opens her un-medicated eye wide.
This brave girl. It’s hard to think she’s mine. Stacy in a hospital, J on the couch, my college roommate incredulous that a good friend of ours could have a suicide plan. Liz’s reaction had shocked me. At some point didn’t everyone want to give up, to go away?
I recall my own such days distinctly. I wanted to write, knew it with a certainty unlike anything I had ever known. I wanted to earn my MFA, and yet I didn’t know how to make it happen. A dutiful daughter, I’d tried nursing school as my parents wanted, and hated it. When I told my dad I wanted to write, he said, “That’s fine, but you’d better get a teaching degree.” Still, working in the classroom felt vastly different from the story ideas swimming in my head. It was my third year out of college, and I was living in Chicago but driving sixty miles each way to a suburban middle school where I taught seventh-grade English. This suburb had been flattened by a tornado in the early nineties, and developers came in and built miles of reasonably priced two-story homes overnight, complete with toothpick trees and schools with carpeted hallways. The schools of this suburb, with its shellacked veneer, could not keep up with demand, and more students were enrolled than ideal. This led to stuffed homerooms and teachers like me who were without classrooms and between classes pushed a cart heavy with textbooks and supplies through cramped hallways.
I hated my job, and I didn’t know whether things would ever improve. While I had been eager to share my love of literature with students, in the three years since graduation the profession had lost its allure. I spent my first year teaching at a high school in central Illinois, where on my second day of class a student told me to fuck off. During a mid-year review, the principal at that school noted that I would be very attractive if I lost five pounds.
During my second teaching job in the suburbs, I left my Chicago apartment at 5:30 a.m., morning dark as night, and on I-55 I selected the left-hand lane, butted inches from the concrete meridian. Every day I thought about driving into that embankment. I was barely making rent and did not have my own classroom. The other English teacher in whose room I parked my cart during third period made a point of correcting my grammar in front of my students, his eyes beady behind thick glasses, his face slick with oil no matter the weather. Our mutual disdain only intensified when he began leaving me notes in my mailbox that warned me not to use any of his classroom supplies.
Foolishly, I approached him, asked him not to correct me in class. After that conversation he began to lock up the dictionaries and other materials so my students could not use them. As things began to escalate, I asked the principal to intercede. “That’s his classroom,” the principal said. “I can’t keep him from it. You’ve got to learn to work together.”
As I began my morning drive to the suburbs, accelerating from fifty to sixty-five to seventy mph, I gravitated to the left lane. By this time in my commute the car would be warm, the dashboard aglow, the sound of traffic and the wind-smeared windows, and I wanted to jerk the wheel to the left as hard and as fast as I could.
I was certain the impact would be enough.
“She had a plan, Melissa. A f’ing plan.”
“Oh my gosh,” I said. “Poor Stacy.”
Poor indeed. I think of Stacy, how quick she is to crack a joke and smile, and I wonder how long she has been fighting these thoughts.
My daughter looks like any other nine-year-old. She dances and swims and likes to make nests for the rabbits that dart across our backyard.
Yet every four weeks a uveitis specialist uses a slit lamp, which emits a thin stream of light into the interior of her eye, as he examines the cornea for abrasions and foreign bodies. He also looks for signs of cataracts, detached retina, and glaucoma—tests that are usually administered to individuals in their seventies are administered to my fourth grader. The tech raises the chin rest to accommodate her smaller stature.
My daughter’s eyes are large and brown and almond-shaped, and at this point her vision remains excellent. Yet the uveitis has no symptoms, meaning without the frequent checkups and the slit lamp there would be no way of knowing if the middle section of her eye were swollen. Ten years ago, before the introduction of biologics, uveitis destroyed the tissue deep inside the eye, and children and adults lost their vision. The topical corticosteroids like the prednisolone are not strong enough to combat the swelling and come with their own side effects. I know we are fortunate to have health insurance, to have these drugs, to have the slit lamp and Drs. Trunger and Moorly. We are fortunate to have access to this knowledge.
Still, we were shocked by the initial diagnosis of uveitis. J doesn’t wear glasses and has twenty-twenty vision. She’s never complained of so much as a headache. Yet I’m beginning to realize it will always be like this—outwardly J seems healthy. Our family boring and mediocre. We try to eat two vegetables with our dinner. J has a bedspread with butterflies and flowers; kitties in varying shades of purple pattern her lunchbox. She loves to curl up on the couch and read or cut out paper dolls of her own design, outfit them in an entire wardrobe made from scrapbook paper. But there is always more going on than meets the eye.
Sending you the biggest hug. I believe in you. I love you. I text Stacy before the hospital staff confiscates her phone. I watch the screen momentarily to see if she responds, then put down the phone.
I imagine they’ve pumped her full of drugs in an attempt to balance her moods. I last saw Stacy just a few weeks ago, when the four of us convened in a hotel room in Chicago. We met in the hotel bar and ate overpriced grilled-cheese sandwiches and drank wine for five hours before moving to another restaurant for more food and drinks. During that day Stacy had detailed the impending breakup with her partner of fourteen years and how days before Christmas her partner had demanded a divorce. Stacy had stayed home with their three children while her partner worked toward her PhD. She had little money of her own and a dead resume. Still, they had begun therapy, and Stacy seemed determined to make it work. She had accepted adjunct work, and Mara had agreed to watch Stacy’s kids after school.
Why did I not do it? Why did I keep my hands at the wheel despite their unsteadiness? How did I pull into the parking lot of Indian Trail Middle School and lead my students through a discussion of the novel Ransom or, when we read Children of the River, lecture about the Khmer Rouge, which forced thousands to flee Cambodia in the 1970s?
I woke at 4:30 a.m. to study for the GRE before driving to the suburbs. On weekends I’d sit in coffee shops around the city with a yellow legal pad and a pencil, letting a story idea unspool and following it—the act of writing very much a pursuit of hope and possibility.
I spent the last two periods of the day in the same classroom, where I had an actual desk alongside my cart, and a small group of students would linger after the bell rang and the school day had ended. They’d draw on the board and goof around. They liked Trent Reznor or had no idea who he was. Some were gangly and wore too-short pants. Others dressed in all black and Doc Martens. I loved their awkwardness—loved that they chose to hang out in my classroom, their conversations lively and spiraling. I was flattered that they acted as if I wasn’t even there.
When I finally learned that I’d gotten into graduate school for writing and told these students I wouldn’t be returning in the fall, I remember one of them—Erica—telling me that all year the third-period English teacher had been telling his students that I was a bad teacher and that they should steer clear of me.
I shrugged it off. I had gotten into graduate school, and now I would have the chance to study writing. It was what I’d been working toward for months, studying for the GRE, taking a fiction class in downtown Chicago, stuffing a McDonald’s hamburger into my mouth on Wednesday nights minutes before class began. Maybe everyone has a plan. I had mine. I just chose not to follow it.
If I could tell Stacy one thing and have her really listen, I would put my arms around her and pull her to me. I would let her know that I understand. It’s hard. Today is very hard. But what tethers us to the earth today is constantly evolving, and tomorrow—tomorrow may be altogether different.
How do we ever know what is to come?
Even now, my life is cloaked in uncertainty. I watch J blink and dab her face with a tissue, and then she looks at me—her eyes like a pair of headlights leading the way through darkness.