By Jane Ratcliffe
I reached toward my bowl of oatmeal. Before me, I noticed a pair of hands. Faintly red with raised blue veins, they floated in the shallow morning light. I drew a sharp breath. I lived alone. The doors were locked. Who could be in my house? Unnerved, I kept watching the hands. The colors glowed, the skin like the bark of a young tree. Then I recognized the ring: an oval diamond set amidst tiny dots of turquoise and topped with a bright ruby. My ring. Therefore, my hands.
It was March, 2008. These were my first moments of brain injury, although I didn’t yet know this was what was happening. It was like watching my life on a high definition television screen. I was in my body. Everything around me was vibrant and precise. We were just in two separate worlds.
Exactly a decade earlier, on March 9th, 1998, I was temping in a furniture showroom in New York City, helping the owner with some office work. A huge wooden tabletop hung over the manager’s desk. I was there for a week and each day I said to her, “Aren’t you afraid that’s going to fall on you?” She laughed.
Nevertheless, I wouldn’t go near her desk. Until the end of the week, when I daringly strode over to get a stamp and, bam, the rope snapped and the tabletop fell on my head.
“A tabletop fell on my head,” I said, laughing so hard tears rolled down my face.
“A tabletop fell on my head,” I said again, as my vision shut off, then returned.
“A tabletop fell on my head,” I repeated, as now my hearing went, then returned.
Over and again, I said this. Laughing. Crying. It was the funniest thing that ever happened to me.
The owner and I dashed to the Emergency Room. I calmed down, but had a whopper of a headache. We waited for several hours and no one tended to me. When I suggested that we leave, feeling that I was inconveniencing the owner, he held the door open.
At home, I slept. This was in the days before soldiers and football players were all over the news. Now I would know: when a hundred-or-so pounds falls on your head it’s wise to stay at the hospital. The next morning, the pain was blinding. I couldn’t move my head. I made it to the showroom owner’s fancy Upper East Side doctor. He listened to my heart and tested my reflexes. He didn’t order an MRI, CT scan, or X-ray. It didn’t cross my mind that he should. I was healthy. I’d never been injured. No one around me was nudging me toward returning to the hospital.
The headache lasted four months. Then it went away.
The pain roiled back a year and a half later in the middle of attempting plow pose in a yoga class. I went to another doctor, who told me my neck was riddled with scar tissue; he and his colleagues wanted to cut out a part of it and load me up on drugs. I declined both. I kept writing for magazines and websites, but I didn’t tell my editors that I was in so much pain I prayed for buildings to collapse on me or trucks to plow me over. I applied to grad school, was accepted, and started classes, but I didn’t tell my teachers that the pain was so severe I couldn’t wear my hair in a ponytail because of the way it pulled on my muscles. My first novel was purchased and my remarkably thorough editor and I sat in his office and read every single word of it out loud. I told him how excited I was. I didn’t mention how every syllable I uttered vibrated the solid mass of agony that was now my head. I even took up boxing. Boxing! And I was good at it. Here, for obvious reasons, I did tell my coach. “If you weren’t too old and didn’t have a head injury, I would be training you for the Golden Gloves,” he responded.
I found a way to enjoy my life. I refused to go down. But the pain didn’t budge.
Finally, a friend took me to Dr. Robert Gotlin, the Head of Sports Medicine at Beth Israel. The moment I walked into his office, he said, “Your head is on crooked,” and prescribed acupuncture and craniosacral work. Nine months later, I was pain free; I carried on with my life as if nothing harrowing had happened.
Two years later, in 2003, the pain was back. I lived in the bath, sinking beneath the hot Himalayan-salted water coaxing my head muscles to realign. This time I noticed my anxiety was going up. My sleep was getting wobbly, my digestion wonky. Doctors told me it was common after head injuries to have either anxiety or depression increase, especially considering I’d been hit on the top of my head, a particularly vulnerable spot. I returned to my old practitioners, plus added in the most exquisitely painful “massages” that slowly moved my muscles into their proper place. Eight months later, the pain once again let up. I was “well.” And then—tired of the endless daytime construction and nighttime party zone my Lower East Side neighborhood had become, plus wanting to be closer to my aging parents—I moved to Michigan.
It was there, in January of 2008, in my sweet little house, the first one I’d ever owned, that my body slipped into a state of terror: Heartbeat bolting like a scared brown hare. Vise-grip head pain that never broke. Gravity-defying vertigo. Sleep that slunk away when I needed it most. Plus, the rosy pink of my nail beds had fled, my belly distended as if I was pregnant, and my skin had gone yellow. The whites of my eyes? Now grey. But I still recognized my own hands.
Nonetheless, I needed help, so my eighty-year-old father moved in with me. We transformed my TV room into his bedroom, my couch into his bed; his clothes hung neatly beside my vacuum cleaner. His bottle of VO5 shampoo nestled next to my organic one on the white shower shelf. His brogues stood ready next to my door. The smell of Stilton and apples and coffee pervaded the house.
“I’m scared,” I’d say. “I know you are,” my father, the engineer, would respond, his deep London baritone composed and tender, “but you’ve nothing to worry about. The body is like a car. We just have to figure out what system isn’t working properly and then fix it.”
And so we went in search of fixes.
First we tried a local sports doctor, full of youthful enthusiasm, who prodded my head and neck, had me turn my head this way and that, then told me I’d most likely always be this way. “In a year,” he said, “you’ll probably be worse. You just need to learn to live with it.”
At least he believed my symptoms were connected to my head injury.
The neurologists, internists, and general practitioners I saw next all treated me like a petulant child. I was having trouble sleeping because “you think too much.” My heart was racing incessantly because “you worry too much.” I had no color in my nail beds because “some people just don’t have pink nail beds.”
“But I used to,” I explained to one of them.
“Yes, and I used to have more hair and a flat stomach. You’re just getting older.”
Deep in my bones, in my marrow, I knew the root of my myriad symptoms was the head injury. And yet: the injury was now ten years old. Therefore, it was hard even for me to feel one hundred percent confident that this gaggle of symptoms truly was a result of the injury. Perhaps my bones were wrong. Perhaps I had just lost my mind.
Certainly, there were people who encouraged this belief. “You’re just depressed,” they said. Or: “You’ve always had problems with anxiety.” This is what they said to my face. Behind my back they said, She’s doing it all for attention. Or: She’s unstable.
This line of thinking was weirdly seductive. When my mother was in her early thirties, just after giving birth to me, she was hospitalized and received daily doses of shock treatment. She was suffering from what would now be diagnosed as Postpartum Depression, but this was the sixties, when “women’s issues” were still more openly equated with “hysteria.” I’d grown up thinking my mother was semi-crazy. So now, as the heir apparent, it was time for me to be crazy too.
Had I been a man, I wonder, with a wildly pounding heart, inability to sleep, and locked-down head muscles—and a severe head injury in my history—would anyone have doubted the veracity of my experience?
Eventually I agreed to see a psychiatrist. I had nothing against psychiatrists, but I had a huge fear of pharmaceuticals. I’d eaten organic, raw food for years, boxed regularly, walked everywhere, didn’t smoke, barely drank, slept well, studied Tibetan Buddhism, practiced yoga. The works. Aside from some recreational drugs in my youth, I hadn’t touched so much as an aspirin since I was twelve.
Dr. G, in his thirties and casually dressed, offered me an easy smile. I reeled off my symptoms. He nodded his head, still smiling.
Then: “You have Generalized Anxiety Disorder.” I’d been there all of six minutes.
“I know all of this is connected to my head injury,” I mustered, “because the pain is back.”
“Anxiety can often cause pain,” he said, handing me a crisp white prescription with Zoloft scrawled across it. I gazed at it, but couldn’t bring myself to touch it.
“So can head injuries.”
He pushed the paper closer to me.
“This will help.”
I took it.
In the parking lot, I climbed into my father’s Crown Victoria. He’d left my seat heater on; the warmth eased through me. A man with a droning voice was narrating a books-on-tape. Something about murder. My father shut it off. Then there was silence. I gave him the prescription.
“So what do you want to do?” he asked.
I shrugged. I was so scared I could barely speak. Scared about my body. Scared about these drugs.
“Let’s fill it and then you can decide when you get home.”
Like me, my father didn’t trust medications. Warm milk and the occasional hot water bottle had gotten him through.
We went to a drive-thru pharmacy. On the way home, I watched the snow transform all it touched. When we were little, my father, my brother, and I used to build gigantic forts along the side of our house where the winds formed banks. Clad in puffy snow pants and jackets, we’d slide from room to room until our mother waved us inside for hot chocolate. I wondered if my life would ever be normal again.
The next morning, while my dad watched, I swallowed my first pill.
“How do you feel?” His breath smelled of coffee and toast.
“Okay,” I lied.
I knew heaps of people on antidepressants. Most of them swore they helped and were encouraging me to take these. But they’d all been depressed. I wasn’t.
That night I didn’t sleep. In the morning, my heart was racing harder and faster than before. I called Dr. G.
“I’ll call in a prescription for Ativan,” he said. “It will help with the spike in anxiety.”
Off my dad and I went to the drive-thru pharmacy again.
Again, I was awake all night.
“I’ll call in a prescription for Seroquol. This will knock you out.”
My dad and I sat in my living room and talked a long time before I worked up the nerve to take that pill.
“Don’t take it if you don’t want to,” he said. The moon was high that night and the cats purred in our laps. “There are more doctors to see. More options.”
There was a horse race in my chest and my head hurt so much it was hard to speak.
“I’m a burden,” I said. “On you and Mom. On my friends.”
“No,” my dad said. Then he spoke at length about balancing carburetors and pistons and flawed heating systems ending with: “We’ll figure this out.”
I decided that even if taking the medication went against everything I believed in, I had to find some stable ground. After that, I reasoned, I could work my way back to health with the modalities with which I felt more comfortable.
I swallowed the pill and trudged up to bed. Slowly, every inch of my body grew numb. I felt like an elephant shot with a tranquilizer gun. I blanked out for twenty or so minutes, then was awake the rest of the night.
When I called Dr. G the next day, he finally sounded concerned.
“Come back in,” he said.
And so I did.
This time I left with a prescription for Lexapro.
“Different drugs work for different people. This will be a better match. And try six Ativan a day. That should help with your racing heart.”
Back to the pharmacy we went.
Before all of this happened, before my body gave out, I took daily walks in the graveyard near my house. Rolling and lush, it was like a miniature Central Park with headstones. I felt foolish walking in circles with no purpose, but my Manhattan-trained body was used to walking hours every day and I found I needed the movement.
After several days on the drugs, determined to regain my life, I returned to the graveyard.
Out I went into the sort of cold only Michigan in winter can muster: Biting, demanding; even your teeth go brittle. I trudged behind my own breath, alongside the white and grey slabs of stone, some dating back to the early 1800’s. I pondered what sort of lives these men and women had lived. How had they survived their suffering? I ignored the obvious answer: many of them hadn’t; their suffering was the very thing that had landed them beneath my feet. Instead, I imposed upon them resilience and perseverance and some sort of deep inner wisdom.
Although I knew the graveyard terrain quite well, this time I couldn’t find my way out again. Everything was familiar—Baby Mae King’s tiny gravestone with the lamb resting on top, the mausoleum near the fence where the foxes live—but I didn’t know what to do with the information. I sat on the steps of one of the memorials and hoped that someone would find me. The cold sank deep inside me, and the pain in my head intensified. No one was coming. I walked again. The gravestone in the image of a proud dog, the cluster of broken headstones buried in the ground, so worn the words were no longer legible. Yes! These I knew! Surely the gates were close by. But my eye could only capture more low rolling hills thick with bare trees and marble and snow. I rested again. Again, no one came. This went on until I found my way out.
I’d survived the three previous head injury rounds by powering through, so back I tromped to the graveyard two more days in a row and got lost both times. The fear became too great; I quit walking.
I came by the power-through technique honestly. My parents grew up in London during the Second World War. They were both from working class families. My father has three siblings. They lived in a two bedroom house and took in lodgers. My mother has seven siblings. Her father was a gifted bricklayer with a drinking habit and a bit of a temper. I never met any of my grandparents, but one of my favorite stories about my Grandfather William was that he’d missed a day, maybe two, because he’d been on a bender. When back on the job, exquisitely laying his bricks, the foreman had reprimanded him for the skipped days. Apparently, my grandfather packed up his tools, looked the foreman square in the eyes and said, “Lick ‘em on, I’m off!” and, well, off he went.
Of course, he was reckless: He had a family to support, my mother being one of them. And, yet, I’ve always admired his courage. It seems to me he had such deep-seated belief in his abilities, such a vibrant trust in himself, that he knew he would be okay. And here, even amidst my terror, visions would come to me daily of me skipping through a summer meadow, laughing. Lick ‘em on, I said to the sickness in my body, I’m off.
While not as impulsive as my grandfather, my parents are equally tough. I think it came from their city being bombed seventy-one times during the Blitz alone. I remembered once, years before, Rimpoche—I’d been studying Tibetan Buddhism for well over a decade then—asking me to explain the word stoic. “It’s what the English were during World War II,” I said, wondering if this would make sense to him. It did.
Stoic, I said to my ceiling in the wee hours of the night.
The new drugs only worsened my condition. My body rattled like a train speeding down old tracks. Red-hot adrenaline shot from my heart down my arms. I went on hours-long crying jags for no discernible reason.
“Follow me,” my dad said in the mornings, both of us in our pajamas. And together we ran in circles around the kitchen table, up and down the stairs, through the living room, and back around the table until, at last, the burning eased.
I popped so many Ativan I felt like a junkie.
My father was both stalwart and loving. He cooked me oatmeal in the morning, made me avocado and cheese sandwiches carefully cut into fours for lunch. At night, he sat in the white rocking chair by my bed and read to me from Winnie The Pooh—more complex plots confused me. He never let his fear show. When I felt drawn, day after day, to march in circles around my snow-laden backyard (the graveyard now being off limits) he encouraged me.
During the war, his older brother had been a member of the esteemed Royal Engineer paratroopers. “After the war was over,” he shared, “the officers had the troubled men tear down the Nissen huts, then build them again, then tear them down, until their minds had settled enough that they could return to the world.”
Walking in endless circles, cold, ashamed of what the neighbors must be thinking, I thought of Vincent Van Gogh and his confinement at the asylum in Saint-Remy. I’d once seen a movie that depicted him, frightened, circling a bleak yard. I could feel his sadness.
At night, I leaned against my father on the couch. “You’re enormously strong,” he said. And: “I’m proud that you’re my daughter.” We watched television. I was obsessed with “Law and Order SVU,” I think because problems, horrible, astonishing problems, were identified and, usually, solved, all within an hour. I wanted that for my own life.
After two terrifying weeks on the pills, I decided I needed a new psychiatrist. My instinct continued to tell me that my racing heart was connected to the head injury. It told me to quit the drugs altogether. But the same friends who encouraged me to start on them, kept reassuring me that it could take a few tries to find the right match. My new doctor was a woman, and she spent more time listening to me than Dr. G had. Nevertheless, at the end of our session she handed me a prescription, this time for Paxil.
The next day, I felt substantially worse. My father and I ran up and down the stairs, around the kitchen table. He shared stories about overcoming hardships in his own life. I circled the garden and lay on the frozen ground because my body inexplicably ached for the earth. My life had become a second by second existence. Being in the now, a longterm spiritual goal of mine, had become my natural state. There was no past. No future. There was only that moment and the exquisite pressure of surviving it.
In the midst of this, I was somehow teaching creative writing. My father and his war mentality insisted upon it. “You can do this,” he said, his deep voice sturdy as he drove me to school. “You’re a good teacher.” During class the room routinely flipped and spun, my heart raced, the pain shouted, I forgot what a student had read the moment they closed their mouth. In the back of my mind I would be desperately trying to figure out how I’d gotten to class and how I was getting home again; I was tempted to stop teaching and ask my students if one of them was driving me. But then class would end and I would follow the students to the door, down the three flights of stairs, and outside to the parking lot where my father waited for me. He asked about my students. “Any good writers?” He kept me engaged outside of my failing body, kept me focused on the positive. It worked. Through sheer willpower and my inherited resilience, I’d taught a surprisingly good class. I knew I would be healthy again soon. We just had to figure out what was wrong with my head.
It was on the third morning of Paxil that those strange hands floated before me. I was still in my body, but I’d slipped into a dreamlike reality. I knew something terrible was happening. Later, as I climbed into the tub for my daily bath, I knocked over a cup of herbal tea I’d just made and the boiling water flooded my foot. I watched it turn red, but experienced no pain.
And then there was the urge to swallow the whole bottle of pills. It wasn’t a suicidal urge. I didn’t want to slit my wrists. Or drown myself in the nearby river. In fact, I’d never fought so hard to stay alive. I simply had an overwhelming craving to pop more pills the same way you might crave chocolate cake or potato chips—made worse when the very thing you’re craving was in the house.
I didn’t tell anyone what was going on. Not my parents. Not my therapist. Not even my most trusted friends. I was afraid if I told them they’d err on what they saw as the safe side and feel obligated to report me to the authorities. I wasn’t exactly sure what that entailed, but I knew it involved more drugs.
The next day as I took my bath a voice in my head said, “Your mind is on drugs right now. Trust in me and I will get you through this.”
The source of this voice was unclear, but I did trust her and so I listened. First I got on my computer and researched my experience. I discovered that if you flood the brain with extra serotonin, the key agenda in antidepressants, it’s the equivalent of taking amphetamines—and since, I would soon learn, my brain wasn’t actually lacking serotonin, this explained the vehement kick up in racing heart, anxiety, and insomnia. I also learned that a large number of people were in a similarly disconnected condition brought on by drugs, most commonly Paxil or Effexor. Many had been in this state for years. Nobody knew how to get out of it. While I was glad to learn I wasn’t alone, the prognosis didn’t look good.
It was during this intense desire-to-swallow-the-whole-bottle-of-pills patch that my father had to return to his own house. Of course, he didn’t know all that was going on with me. Like any good Brit, I’d learned to keep my upper lip stiff. What happened now was he came up on Monday mornings, drove me to and from school, and stayed over until Wednesday when he chauffeured me again before leaving in the afternoon. I had a few friends in Michigan, but none of them lived nearby; I hadn’t been in my house long enough to have established a local community. Which meant from Wednesday afternoon until the following Monday morning I was completely and utterly alone.
In an altered state.
With a racing heart.
And a bottle of pills that I wanted to swallow.
Every second of every day I thought about how much I wanted to swallow them.
I finally found a doctor who believed me: Dr. Denton. A slim man with glasses, he spoke very little on the first visit; he later revealed that this was because I was so sick he wasn’t sure he could help me. His office was an hour away and was bleak—the waiting room was done up in dark paneling, fluorescent lighting, and lined with homely, uncomfortable chairs. Nevertheless, Dr. Denton was the first person who actually x-rayed my head and neck.
“Double the worst case scenario I’ve seen in twenty-eight years,” he said, highlighting with a pointer the precarious angle––which needed no pointing out––at which my head perched on my neck. “You’re not getting enough oxygen to your brain. You must have a strong will, because otherwise I don’t know how you’ve been functioning. Most people would be hospitalized for this.”
I began to cry. When I looked at my father, who was standing beside me somewhat rigidly, preparing for the worst, no doubt, he was crying too. I was relieved to have the diagnosis, to have my truth confirmed, and to know that I’d at last receive help for my original symptoms, but as far as the drugs went it was too late, the damage had been done.
It’s uncanny how similar the symptoms are between insufficient oxygen to the brain and anxiety. Similar enough that it’s easy to understand that a doctor or two might misdiagnose me. Except less easy to fathom when I repeatedly told each one about my head injury. I’ve worked hard to forgive these doctors for not listening to me. Or not believing me. Or being so sure that they knew more about my own body than I did. I’ve also worked hard to forgive myself for taking the drugs.
Every week my father drove me out to see Dr. Denton and he put my head on straight. Within minutes, my heart stopped racing. The adrenaline surges slowed. I no longer wanted to cry. My sleep improved. I became more hopeful. My father was over-the-moon. It was just a matter of time before he had his daughter back. But within days, my head had slipped and my heart was racing again.
“Your head has been on crooked for so long, it thinks the misalignment is proper alignment. It’s not trying to harm you, it’s trying to do the right thing. It will just take time before it learns.”
“How much time?”
Dr. Denton shook his head. “I’m not sure. I’ve never seen anyone whose head is as crooked as yours.”
The differences between straight-headed Jane and crook-headed Jane were so pronounced that even over the phone my friends knew where I was in my Dr. Denton cycle. When the terror moved back toward peak condition, my friend Chris would say, “It’s time to visit Denton, isn’t it?” And it was.
In the end, the head straightening wasn’t enough. Because oxygen hadn’t been circulating through my body properly for years, damage had set in throughout, damage that was beyond Dr. Denton’s purview. So while continuing to see him, I expanded my search.
Nine months after collapsing I met Dr. Lu. Small, with bright eyes and the slight forward bend of a monk (as it turned out, he was partially raised by healing monks while living on the streets of Beijing during the Cultural Revolution), he saved my life. I’d heard that he was a “medical intuitive.” That he knew things about you without having to tell him. I’d spent months telling Western doctors everything I could think of regarding my health and had ended up with brain injury. So while being a medical intuitive stretched where my mind could go, I decided to put him to the test.
His practice was in his home set on a beautiful wooded lot in an affluent neighborhood. It was summer and azaleas and rhododendrons flourished along the path to his door, where I was asked to leave my shoes. Inside smelled of sweet herbs. There was a wooden statue of the Buddha on the table beside me along with a large mala, and Dr. Lu’s dog, Philip, joined us in the treatment room. I perched on the edge of the wicker couch, my lips sealed. This didn’t seem to bother him. He took my pulses, looked into my eyes, examined my toenails and fingernails, palpitated most of my body, then had me stick out my tongue. When he was finished he said, “You’re in a tremendous amount of pain. The worst is at the top of your head. You’re having trouble communicating. You feel separate from everyone.” And he continued on, listing every symptom that I had. I wept tears of relief.
Dr. Lu would play a pivotal role in my healing. As it turned out, Dr. Denton was correct: because my head had been on crooked for so long pretty much every system in my body had been affected. And the drugs had exacerbated that. I was quite ill. But through cupping, gua sha, acupuncture, herbs grown by the healing monks in the foothills deep in China, kindness, and some special healing gift Dr. Lu possesses, I began to get well.
My life is dramatically different now. Different than before the collapse, when I used to travel the world, eat dinner out every night, box, date, go to museums, meet friends for lunch, get into a bit of mischief, write for magazines, shop, the regular stuff.
And different from seven years ago. My skin now has a rosy pink glow, as do my nail beds (um, oxygen). I sleep again. The room doesn’t spin. My heart is calm. My stomach flat. No rushing adrenaline. I’m free of both terror and pain. I’m much kinder to myself. I like myself more. I think I’m kinder to others as well. I certainly understand much more about suffering than I once did. Once deeply connected to the ecosystem of the city, I’ve drawn closer to nature. I walk my goddog every day through the park. I know the names of a handful of birds now and can recognize the call of toads in mating season. I’ve learned that the same days the river is running hard and fast, the downward pressure in my head is worse. Lying on the earth continues to calm me. I like feeling integrated into nature. I like believing in Mother Earth.
I’m driving again, though not as much as I’d like because the dream state brought on by the drugs has not yet lifted. Dr. Lu has recently told me there’s a word for what I’m living through: Tou ru guo. It means living in a half-hallucinatory state—and, apparently, it’s not uncommon for people to go insane from this. Luckily, he believes I’ll make a full recovery, and I do too. In the meantime, I’ve become adept at ordering just about anything online. And I’m still chummier with isolation than I’d like to be. I’m not yet traveling––which is painful. I can only work part-time. Large groups are hard as they require a certain amount of focus that hasn’t yet returned. I miss my old life quite a bit. And feel left out, or left behind, in ways that hurt in a deeper manner than I knew things could hurt. But I also know I’m lucky.
I know essays like this are supposed to have pithy insights or even struggles rendered worthwhile by potent lessons learned. Many even draw to shiny conclusions radiating hope and inspiration. Here’s the way I originally ended mine:
Earlier I credited Dr. Lu with saving my life. And he certainly helped me tremendously, gigantically. But I saved my life. I’m still saving it. Dr. Lu would concur. When I first met him, he said to me, “I can’t heal you, but I can help you to heal yourself.” And so I am.
And it’s true. I did save my own life. And I am still saving it. But there’s nothing pithy or shiny about it: It’s fucking hard work.
“This is really happening,” I sometimes say in my classes when my students are quiet or look bored. “You’re really here.” And sometimes, lately, I find myself saying that to myself.
Perhaps it all comes down to my grandfather’s words, which are with me more and more these days, exasperated by the challenges I still face as well as bowled over by this world we’ve collectively created—the beauty of it, the horror. I can see him in my mind’s eye: A slight man, but mettlesome—perhaps he’s still a little drunk or in the I-don’t-give-a-shit throes of a hangover. Though his work is dirty, his clothes are in good order; my grandmother has pressed his shirt, his trousers, his jersey. He’s a proud man. Meticulous. And handsome, as photographs attest. He listens to the foreman, his reprimands, his scoldings. He is trying to shrink me, my grandfather thinks. Inside he feels much bigger than this. Inside he feels a forest growing, an ocean thundering, a series of sunsets and sunrises, the glory of flowers in the morning, the warmth of a cat on his lap. Inside he feels himself.
Lick ‘em on, I’m off, he says.
The question is, of course, off into what?
Jane Ratcliffe has been widely published, including short stories in New England Review, The Sun, Michigan Quarterly Review, NER Digital, Literary Orphans, and The Intima. Her essay,“You Can’t Be Too Careful,” was selected as a Best American Short Stories Notables 2013 and her novel The Free Fall (Henry Holt), was chosen by the New York Public Library as one of the most notable books of the year. She has written for numerous magazines and websites including Vogue, The Huffington Post, Vh-1, Interview, Guernica, The Manifest-Station, Tricycle, The Detroit News and Mr. Beller’s Neighborhood. Jane has an MFA from Columbia University.
Your story is amazing. Just amazing.
Thank you so very much, Barbara.
I’d like to know what ‘Lick ’em on’ means? I’m not sure why it’s so important that I find the meaning of this phrase, all I know is that I do.
Hi Julie, it’s a phrase my grandfather used that I drew strength from (and still do!). The story is in the essay. Let me know if it somehow doesn’t make sense.
Thanks for your wonderful story Jane. I am going to post in in my office as I see many people who would benefit from reading it. If you are ever in Maine I would be happy to help further your journey towards vibrant health. I admire your bravery and tenacity and the steadfast love of your father as well as the example of your grandfather. People all too often don’t know that they have alternatives to the conventional way of doing things or they are afraid to do something different. The wisdom and power to heal is in the body, not the medicine or the doctor. It is the doctors job to listen, observe, and interpret what the body is trying to say with its symptoms. If we do what the body asks us to do, the healing can happen.
Thank you for your beautiful words, James. Yes, if I am ever in Maine (which I would like to be!), I will look you up. Take good care. Jane