Skeleton Key

vertebrae made of skeleton keys, a spinal cord, and a Master Lock brain, drawn in my homemade iron gall ink on a rich golden parchment paper

CW: abuse, CSA

My father is dying.

Every week, a new emergency: a stroke, pneumonia, sepsis, C. Diff. His lungs, filled with fluid, crackle through the stethoscope bell. His muscles are wasting. He falls a lot, shreds his skin clean down to bone. When my mother escapes the apartment to run errands, he speed-dials my sister, sometimes crying, sometimes ranting about our half-brother Scott, accusing him of getting a little too close to our mom.

My sister forwards me voicemails. We are building a case for Power of Attorney.

“Scott blew it, as far as I’m concerned,” Dad says in one, his speech slurred like all the times he drunk-dialed me after I went no contact in the mid 90s.

“He can go to hell from now on. I want nothing to do with him, ever … I’ll talk to an attorney. Well, I already–I already talked to one. Got the phone number, and he said, things can be done to expose these people … It’s important I talk to you. I sure wish to talk to you, sweetie. Please. Please call dad. Please, honey.”

click

“Please call. Please. This is your father. I need to talk to you. You and your mother mean the world to me. I love you. Please.”

I froze the first time I played one.

He sounds like my half-brother Greg on the taped police phone call, the one that got him arrested for sexual abuse:

Transcript: man, crying, “I don’t want your mom to hate me. This is my life. This is all I have.”

Five years after Greg’s body was found crouched face-to-carpet in front of his flickering television, I ran a postmortem criminal background check and discovered he died facing trial for Sexual Abuse in the 2nd Degree of a child under twelve: same crime he perpetrated against my sister & me.

I texted my mother.

How old was the victim? She replied.

I texted my sister.

How old was the victim? She replied.

What they meant was: Do we have corroboration?

We were conspiring in time-travel case law: If Greg touched a little girl in 2001, he did it in 1986, too. Future bad acts.

I scanned every page of the court case and emailed a copy to my mother.

“I got called a liar, too,” she said.

She meant by my father, after my sister had come forward in 1989 and my mother kicked Greg out of our lives. Dad always chose Greg.

Greg, his Airborne Paratrooper golden child. Greg, his first and favorite son from his first family, with his first wife.

I wanted to mail my father Greg’s case, certified with return receipt. I wanted that green postal service postcard with his signature on one side & my name and address on the other, like he was signing for me, signing you are mine.

green United States Postal Service certified mail postcard receipt

But I did not want to reconnect.

The last image I saw of my father for over twenty years: his half-toothless grin reflected in the rearview mirror of his car as he careened, drunk, down the driveway, laughing after I had screamed, Greg did it to me, too.

___

After my father got sepsis, when nobody thought he would make it through the night, my mother said, “Do you want to talk to him?”

I surprised myself and said yes.

I don’t know if he knew who I was. He asked about my nephew’s guitar and whether he would come play it. Maybe he thought I was my sister. Maybe he thought I was my nephew.

“I love you,” I said.

“I love you, too,” he said.

I was willing to let it all go: the black eyes and bruises he left on me, that time I had a skull fracture and who knows what the ER docs really thought:

x-ray imaging report noting a possible hairline fracture in my zygomatic arch, which was later confirmed

They declared a seizure did it, and maybe it did, but fists landed there, too, and it wasn’t always clear which injuries were abuse and which were my disabilities.

[Didn’t they count on not knowing for sure? Didn’t my father? Didn’t I?]

How he drove drunk with me in the backseat of the old Matador, swerving over the double yellow lines while my body got tossed around on the bubbled plastic seat liners. I used to pretend they were bubble wrap, that they would protect me if we crashed.

Karrie as a baby with a wet drooping diaper, looking a little distressed, and her father standing behind her, leaning on the brown Matador trunk with one hand and holding a Pabst Blue Ribbon beer in the other

All the times he peeled up my long patchwork skirts to reveal my panties and said, “I bet the boys like that.”

Or said I was draining the family dry because of my medical bills, that I never should have been born.

I was willing to let it all go. He sounded so frail, so weak. He couldn’t hurt me anymore.

___

But he did make it through the night.

And the next night.

And the next.

And a hospital social worker said, “He needs round-the-clock nursing home care.”

“You have to do it,” Scott told my mother, and my sister and I agreed. Our mother is in her seventies with health problems of her own. She can’t help my father up when he falls. She can’t help him in the bath. She can’t lift him into the car.

Finally, she got the paperwork for a Medicaid application. To meet the income caps, she will sacrifice my father’s social security. She will sacrifice his pension. Without that income, she will lose the apartment. Her home. Again.

Years ago, she sold the house after my father left her for his high school sweetheart, the one he’d been seeing since the mid-90s and maybe longer. It went for $75,000, furniture included, and she packed up a truck and moved to a cramped apartment across town, divorce papers drawn and ready to sign.

But they never signed the divorce papers. Instead, he came back, and they signed a lease. Now, they’re bound by poverty: no money to live apart.

 

___

My father gets wind of the Medicaid application, threatens my mother. “If you put me in a nursing home, I will divorce you.”

My sister and I laugh via text. Can you fucking believe him? 

___

Voicemail to my sister:

“You do something like this” — he means the nursing home — “This is not helping anything. I’ve never hurt my wife–your mom–physically, but mentally I guess I did for … I don’t know why now. But I thought I would have time to make it up. I didn’t want that stroke, either. And this other thing that I caught”–he means the C. Diff — “they’ll get rid of it. It will clear. I need to talk to you honey. All right, sweetheart, I hope you take this, call me back.”

___

 

August 2011, my first time visiting home since 2000. My sister and I pose in front of our favorite childhood roller rink:

my sister and me in front of a white brick building with an old, decaying sign that reads SUPER SKATE in all caps black lettering. I am laughing so hard I am almost doubled over and my sister is looking at the wall behind her.
my sister and me in front of a white brick building with an old, decaying sign that reads SUPER SKATE in all caps black lettering. We each raise one arm in a victory pose.

What you don’t see: my father’s van speeding past, me running to my mother (I could still run then) in a panic. “Was that dad? Where is he going?”

My mother, admitting she invited him to my goodbye breakfast before I hit the road back home to Utah.

“I want one last picture of us all together,” she says.

I make her call him, tell him no. We sit in the Super Skate parking lot, staring out the windshield, Mom’s knuckles white on the steering wheel, until his van passes the opposite direction.

I wonder whether she wants the picture or dad does.

Later, he yells at my mother. “What would Karrie’s Grandma think if she knew my own daughter refused to see me?”

My mother yells back. “What would she think about why we don’t have a house?”

 

___

The night of my father’s stroke, I look at the Super Skate photos. “I should have let him come to breakfast,” I tell my husband. “I should have let mom get her photo.”

I was willing to let it all go.

___

And then we found out about the secret money, inherited from his brother in 2005, not long after the house got sold:

probate case summary for Luverne Barthe, with my father names as a brother & beneficiary

It wasn’t a normal inheritance. My uncle’s guardian — a half sister — invested his money while he was locked up in the Veteran’s Home, let it grow. She created their own birthright.

My aunt leaked the secret without knowing it was a secret. My mother called her about the nursing home and Medicaid application, and my aunt said, “What about the money from our brother?”

Every sibling got three disbursements, enough to buy a house in Cedar Rapids.

ledger of transactions from Luverne’s probate case showing three disbursements to Cliff Higgins, totaling $113,692.55

A house.

My mother lives on the edge: barely a few bucks after rent, Medicare supplemental insurance, prescription co-pays, her phone bill. “If we still had the house, we’d be comfortable,” she says. I know she regrets selling it. Back then, it seemed like her only option: get the hell out of that place of bad memories, get a little cash, try to pick up the pieces.

She needs a dental implant. She needs a new car. My father totaled her van three years ago and they never had the money to replace it.

The van. Oh god, the van. He bought her that van, used, when they got back together. He used to show it off all the time like an engagement ring.

“What do you bet he plunged some of that money into the van?” I text my sister.

“And then he wrecked it,” she texts back.

my dad’s ticket with $195 fine for Failure to Maintain Control

Of course he wrecked it.

___

Here we go again: I email my mother the probate case.

I tell her, “There’s the proof in black & white. He got that money.”

“I will never understand why he did it,” my mother says.

Because he never loved us, I want to say, but I don’t.

__

Ever since I left home, I have had trouble finding a home. I have lived all over: Iowa City, Portland, Salt Lake City, Boulder.

Of all the cities I have ever lived, I loved Salt Lake City the most because of the Mormons. I almost became a Mormon because I thought they know how to fix this.

The first time I visited Temple Square, I broke down in the visitor center in front of a row of miniature houses with television screens in the windows. Families can be together forever, the videos promised.

A pair of sister missionaries approached. I don’t think I understood yet that they were missionaries, even with the name tags. They directed me to the family history computers. I sat down, typed in Greg’s name, and it returned his social security number from the Social Security Death Index.

I could run a background check, I thought. I could learn things about him he never told me in life.

“Write it down,” one of the sister missionaries said, sliding a scrap paper toward me.

I didn’t know I was dialed into Granite Mountain Records Vault.

In 1960, the LDS Church blasted into a cliff in Little Cottonwood Canyon, drilling 700-foot long tunnels 675 feet below the surface and reinforcing them with concrete and steel. Ten-foot-tall steel cabinets line the corridors, relentless drawers like cells in a honeycomb, a card catalog of every human name the Mormons have harvested so far. Volunteers around the globe photograph birth certificates, baptism records, obituaries, marriage certificates — and more — on microfilm, delivering images to the hive, where archivists preserve them in perfect 55-degree temperatures and 35 percent humidity. Entrance tunnels lend the only hint of unnatural activity, like a secret alien laboratory or B-movie beehive.

Nobody except authorized personnel gets past the 14-ton Mosler doors — built to withstand nuclear apocalypse. Once a document goes in, it never comes out. The archive shuns tours and forbids researchers access to the originals. The security of the records trumps all else: The simple swishing of pant legs kicks up enough fugitive denim dust to obliterate a record.

Not even the Salt Lake City temple is so secure. When the Wasatch Fault ruptures, the earthquake will liquefy the clay and sand beneath the temple. It will fall. The LDS world headquarters will fall. The holy city of the saints will crumble, but the vault will live on, cocooned like a time capsule, impervious as an escape pod to the problems of man.

photo: LDS Church

These are the records that allow Mormons to baptize the dead, save the souls of their ancestors, and seal families together for all eternity.

In 1836, the Prophet Elijah appeared to Joseph Smith in the Kirtland temple. He said that the hearts of the children must turn toward the fathers. He meant the ancestors. And so Mormons seal up the records, and seal families. Nobody ever goes astray.

Families can be together forever if the hearts of children turn toward the fathers.

___

In 2008, when Greg died, I got written out of the obituary. One day later, a corrected obit appeared:

excerpts from the two obituaries side by side with the list of surviving family; the first one does not include Karrie, while the second one does

I got written back into the family line, but only kind of. Carrie with a C, not a K. How does your family not know how to spell your name? 

I never knew which family member called in the correction until I found out Scott is a Mormon–converted via shotgun if he wanted to marry the love of his life. But even still: converted.

Scott, the peacemaker. Scott, the negotiator of treaties when our family was at war. Scott, the one who will never erase you from the family line.

How do you not know your own brother is Mormon? 

Scott broke me into Granite Mountain. Scott wanted us to be together forever.

Is this family?

___

“If Dad spent that money on anyone, he spent it on Greg,” my sister says, but I don’t know.

June 1977, Army infirmary:

scan from Greg’s Army infirmary chart, dated June 21, 1977 with the note: Parents killed in car accident Apr 77

“Parents killed in car accident April 1977.” But our father is still alive, and Greg’s mother didn’t die until 2004.

Greg dreamed our father dead. 

Like brother like sister.

February 8 1990, two days after 15 candles on my birthday cake and four months until I tried to commit suicide:

Cedar Rapids Gazette headline: 23 vehicles pile up in fog; 18-year-old dies; police can’t say if ADM is a factor

 

Cedar Rapids Gazette newspaper photo of a car slid under the back end of a school bus, the top of the car crushed. Police stand to the side.

“It’s hard to tell if it’s the fog, but it was different there,” one of the drivers said. He meant on Highway 30 near ADM Corn Sweeteners, same road my father drove every day to work maintenance at the ethanol plant.

One minute: clear skies. The next: fog so thick a school bus driver slowed his bus to a creep. Behind it: 17-year-old Lynn Jones, “the best of the best,” the principal of Prairie High School called him, an Eagle Scout, a swing choir boy, a “quiet leader.” He slammed the brakes too late, slid right under the bus.

The ethanol plant is eating cars. 

January 22, 1988:

Cedar Rapids Gazette newspaper photo of a car crashed into a semi truck with the headline “Steam cloud blamed in fatal crash”

Cedar Rapids Gazette: Friday’s dense steam cloud provided drivers with a terrifying few seconds of driving. The highway simply disappeared.

Maury Burr of the Iowa Department of Transportation: “You drive into them and it’s lights out.”

February 2, 1988:

Cedar Rapids Gazette newspaper photo of person on a stretcher and fire & police officers after an accident. Headline reads: Steam cloud may force road closings. Zero visibility near ADM blamed for second accident

Sometimes, I imagined Dad’s pickup disappearing into the fog on Highway 30, too. Father killed in a car accident, 1990.

__

After I ran that postmortem background check, I found Greg’s widow on Facebook. I didn’t know if she believed Greg or his victim, but I took a gamble. I wrote, I am Greg’s youngest sister, and he did it to me, too. You are not alone.

We talked on the phone. She said, “Your dad used to come into our home and insult Greg’s mother.”

“I don’t know how to tell you this about your dad,” she said., “But —

dotted notepad paper with “He had a girlfriend in Strawberry Point” written in my handwriting and traced over multiple times

I wrote down the words, traced them over and over as she talked. He had a girlfriend in Strawberry Point. 

___

We knew about the girlfriend. We always knew.

Eight years old: I answer the plastic Garfield phone, tell the strange woman asking for my father that he isn’t home and “May I ask who is calling?”

“This is his wife,” she says, in a menthol voice.

“But you’re not Mom. Mom is his wife.”

___

 

In my medical records: my father’s social security number. I could run a background check. Find out things he never told me. 

 

___

Mom finds a nursing home bed for Dad. “We can’t put him in the nicer one because they want a $3,000 deposit,” she says.

I research the cheaper nursing home, the one for poor people:

screen grab of ratings for a nursing home: poor ratings for health inspects, staffing, & medical care quality measures; fines of $8698 in the past two years

“We’ll have to be vigilant about abuse,” my sister says.

I picture my dad’s red catheter tubes curled on a shelf in the bathroom when I was a kid. He’s had to use them all these years because his bladder is too elastic, too stretched out, to squeeze out urine. I get so sad for him I hurt there, like a UTI. It’s where I always hurt when I think about him too much.

He did it to himself. He could have used his secret money. 

It doesn’t make it any better. I am relieved when he does not go.

“We can’t put him in a nursing home against his will,” the doctors say.

They are going to leave that to his children. Pursue Power of Attorney, they advise us. It’s the only way. 

___

 

Excerpt from a social worker report during one of my extended hospital stays, St. Luke’s Hospital, 1990:

Mr. Higgins has a lot of problems from his childhood because he is bitter for having to work at such a young age. His siblings got better treatment because the family situation did improve. Mr Clifford joined the Navy and received his high school diploma during his military time.

When I was 13 or 14, I got a job detasseling corn. They recruited us at school, handing out the applications, and luring us in with the promise of good money we could spend however we wanted. We didn’t even have to get a ride. Buses would pick us up and transport us to the fields.

My father tried to stop me: No daughter of mine will get dirty in the corn fields.

I did it, anyway. Spent the money on my own school clothes and supplies. I thought if I bought them myself, he couldn’t yell at me anymore for costing him money.

That autumn, the falls started. The paresthesia. The seizures. Joint pain — there since childhood — intensified. I saw rheumatologists, orthopedists, neurologists. They tested me for arthritis, lupus, lumbar injuries, epilepsy, and Lyme.

Diagnosis: migraines and epilepsy, but it didn’t explain the pain or how my knees, shoulders, ankles, elbows and fingers slipped out of joint.

My father latched onto Lyme and refused to let go, even when blood tests came back negative:

Medical record scan: Father was extremely irritable and defensive. In one family therapy session we had during her hospitalization, father expressed his belief that all of Karrie’s symptoms were due to Lyme disease and the medical community had simply failed to recognize this.

The newspapers all that year:

newspaper headline: Entire Family Fights Lyme Disease

“A tick must have got her when she out there detasseling,” my father said. He found a way to blame that job, to blame me.

But I never got bit by a tick.

“Your medical bills are draining us dry,” he said. “I wish you were never born.”

No daughter of mine will get dirty in the corn fields. 

___

 

But it wasn’t just that job. It was any job.

Kool Moo ice cream stand, Cedar Rapids, 1992: My father skids into the parking lot, marches up to the counter reeking of Pabst Blue Ribbon, and demands I clock out and come with him. “I am not coming back for you later,” he says. I cannot drive because of my epilepsy, and he knows the buses do not come to our house in Hiawatha.

“Go ahead,” my boss says, his eyes fixed on my father’s, nodding like he might to a gunmen demanding cash out of the register.

Mr. Higgins has a lot of problems from his childhood because he is bitter for having to work at such a young age.

I see it now, how my father thought he was breaking some kind of cycle. He was never a child, so he would see to it I was always one.

I wish you were never born. 

___

December 2017:

drawing in my homemade ink on parchment paper: side view of a backbone with vertebrae made of tiny, golden teeth outlined in black iron gall. The spinal cord, drawn in gold, disappears into the root of a giant, gold-capped molar that serves as the brain

At my epileptologist’s office, we discuss the possibility I was never born.

Periventricular heterotopia: newborn baby neurons never migrated from their birthplace inside the ventricles to create the cerebral cortex during fetal development. Instead, they clung to the shore of their primordial sea inside the neural tube, anchored for life in the swirling waters of cerebrospinal fluid.

I might be a fetus and adult at the same time.

Four years ago, I got diagnosed with a neural tube birth defect called Chiari Malformation, which means: my skull is too small for my brain. My cerebellum crowns through the foramen magnum like a baby through the cervix. My brain is trying to be born.

On MRI films, my neural tube is a scroll without a seal: my spinal cord slit right down the center, like with a letter opener. All the secrets of my fetal development unfurled. Inside that tube: cavities called syrinxes. Syringomyelia.

And from that loose scroll: crest cells that migrated to my brain and face to create connective tissue, grow teeth.

My teeth. Deformed, with extra roots that curl and twist in my gum tissue like sea anemone. I have a high, narrow palate crowding my molars so close their roots appear tangled on x-rays, like trees planted too close.

The brain gives birth to the body. 

By now, my sister has been diagnosed with Ehlers Danlos Syndrome, a genetic connective tissue disorder that explains our joints sliding out of place, paresthesia, chronic pain, migraines, high dental arches and tooth decay, my Chiari-Syringomyelia, maybe even my epilepsy. That’s why we are talking about periventricular heterotopia.

“Your neurons migrate on lattices of connective tissue,” my neurologist tells me. “If you have a connective tissue disorder, maybe those lattices aren’t quite right.” Heterotopia means: out of place. Neurons out of place, in the wrong home, cause seizures.

All the things my father blamed on Lyme, on my detasseling job, on me, turn out to be genetic.

And they were passed down through him.

I know because of Greg. The Airborne paratrooper golden child. Paternal half-brother. I got his records from the VA, filled out the request as next of kin, sent the corrected obit to prove it:

Greg’s diagnosis of a bicep tendon rupture; the doctor notes that normally in someone 49 years old, a fair amount of force is involved in proximal tendon rupture, but he had no injury.

His records are full of tendon ruptures, hernias, migraines, pain, insomnia, joints out of place.

My father’s red catheter tubes, his stretched bladder; spontaneous pneumothorax in the 1980s, transported via ambulance from the ethanol plant to re-inflate his lung at the hospital; aortic root dilation; pain pain pain: all symptoms of EDS.

Not Lyme. Not my job getting dirty in the cornfields.

“See if you can get your brother Scott to go with you to the geneticist,” my neurologist says when I list off the family history. “Have them look at his joints, too. He may be the key.”

Scott, the peacemaker. Scott, who broke me into Granite Mountain. Scott, the Mormon. Scott, whose corrected obit unlocked Greg’s records. Scott, whose shoulders slide out of place, too.

Scott is my skeleton key.

___

 

On the phone, I tell Scott about Dad’s accusation: Scott is getting a little too close to Mom.

False accusations of incest from a father who never believed a real one. Greg did it to me, too. My father laughing, his half-toothless grin in the rearview mirror. 

Scott tells me how he changes the oil in Mom’s van, helps with repairs around the house, helps when she can’t lift up my father from the floor.

How my father gets angry when he asks to speak to my mother on the phone.

“I never thought he was jealous,” he says. “I think of your mother as my mother now.”

This is what my father fears most: The hearts of children turn toward mothers. 

I think, I will write you into the obit, too, when she dies. I will make sure you are listed as a surviving son. I will create your birthright like you created mine. 

In Granite Mountain, a second obit will strengthen our connective tissue, bind us together forever.

 

____

At the cardiologist office, we discuss the possibility I was never born.

My echocardiogram gives me away: a patent foramen ovale, the hole in the heart of every human fetus, a secret passageway through the septum for blood to bypass the lungs. Fetal lungs are dormant. Unborn babies, floating in an amniotic sea, do not breathe. Their tiny hearts keep their blood a secret. Shhhhh, the lungs are not alive like we are yet.

When a baby breathes its first breath, the portal closes forever: no going back. Within a few months, it seals tight as a tomb. Except maybe mine never did. Maybe my lungs never trusted the air. Maybe my heart never trusted my lungs. My portal is still there, waiting, luring my blood back through time.

Inside the right atria: the Chiari Network, meshy strands leftover from embryonic development, named for Hans Chiari, the physician who discovered them during autopsies, same man who discovered my neural tube birth defect. Chiari is inside me everywhere. A through-line from heart to brain: Chiari, Chiari, Chiari.

Maybe EDS, too: it causes heart defects.

Or the hole could be an atrial septal defect–not a purposeful passageway, an accidental one, when the atrial tissue failed to finish forming.

Either way, my heart thinks I am still incubating. I do not yet exist. 

Later, they find an aortic aneurysm, too: Something for old people, I think. How can I be old and never born at the same time?

EDS causes that, too: my conception will be my undoing.

“Does anyone in your family have heart defects?”

“My father,” I say.

The hearts of children turn toward the fathers, literally.

___

What about the hearts of fathers? 

My father’s high school sweetheart left him money when she died last year.

Last year. They were still together, still in love. She had my father’s heart until the bitter end. 

“Her children called him,” my sister says. “Asked him not to take it. They needed it for her burial.”

We have to find the kids, check the story. Medicaid demands a full accounting.

I search the obits for her first name; it’s all we have.

Judy + [town where she died]

One hit. Right year, right name, right location.

It could be my family:

Judy married a man named Clifford–same name as my father. She named her first daughter Denise.

Denise.

I freeze. Denise is my sister’s name.

I text my sister. She replies, “I am going to be sick. Mom always told me that Dad insisted on my name.”

“Let’s hope it’s the wrong Judy,” I text back, but we already know it is not.

___

I search the court database for her probate, find her divorce instead: 1997. The year Mom found out the first time. Dad promised to end it, but he never did.

But Judy did — with the other Clifford. The mirror Clifford.

___

We are not a real family. We are his pretend family.

I am glad I said no to that family photo. I am glad it doesn’t exist, because we don’t exist.

___

I start searching property records. Maybe Dad bought Judy a house. Maybe that other Denise — bizarro world Denise — is sitting in it right now. Maybe she is the real child, with the real inheritance. Maybe she just found out about secret money, too.

__

I dispatch my sister to our parents’ apartment. “Rifle through dad’s papers,” I say. “Look for a bank statement or maybe a safe deposit box key.”

The only thing she finds is shoe boxes filled with fishing trip photos and this:

family photo: my father wearing overalls and a ball hat standing between Greg on his left and Scott on his right, with his arms around them.

I wonder if Greg wanted that photo. I wonder if Scott did. I wonder if they exist to him.

___

January 2018: I return home for my appointment in the Connective Tissue Clinic at one of my childhood hospitals, the same clinic where my sister got diagnosed with EDS. It is my turn to be written into this genealogy with my father and brothers and sister. For my connective tissue to become part of the connective tissue that binds us.

It’s seven years since my last and only visit. Nobody in my family has seen me with a walking cane, rollator, ataxia, hearing aids. I am recovering from DVT and a mini-stroke, still on blood thinners after I begged my doctor not to take me off them, weaker than I used to be. I am the same Karrie who left 18 years ago; I am not the same Karrie who left 18 years ago.

“That’s my Granite Mountain,” I tell my husband as I look out our hotel window at the hospital.

University of Iowa Healthcare skywalk with the windows glowing golden in the dark.

In my suitcase: hundreds of pages of medical records from my mother, my father, Greg, and me.

I may never know if my dad bought a house for his high school sweetheart, but I can draw the tracings of his heart on an EKG in 2005. I know the size of his aortic root dilation and how his hernia repairs failed. I know the precise date he refused to stop blood thinners against medical advice because he — like me — was afraid of another stroke. Is this family? Is this real? 

The next day at the geneticist’s office, the doctor bends my elbows backward, measures the degree. Bends my pinkies backward, measures the degree. Pulls my thumbs to my forearms. Watches me hyperextend my knees, measures the degree. Shines a flashlight on my teeth. She examines my echocardiogram, reviews the records of my Chiari-Syringomyelia and scoliosis.

She says: You have EDS. It feels like something real. A real connection. I am part of a family. I made my own birthright, my own inheritance. I am my own skeleton key.

When she takes the family medical files, I think: Once records go in, they never come out. Families can be together forever. 

___

In the hallway of my parents’ apartment building, I show my father my rollator, ask him to give it a whirl. He’s got a hospital rehab-issue silver walker, the kind you can pick up at the drugstore. He refuses to use it, keeps falling.

blue steel rollator with a basket parked in a car parking space

“Let me show you how to engage the brakes,” I say squeezing them and asking him to try.

“I’m going to need a new driver’s license,” he says, chuckling.

The state revoked his license after he totaled Mom’s van.

Now he is like me, the epileptic child who never learned to drive. He made himself like me.

“Keep it,” I say.

“Are you sure?” he says. “These things are expensive.”

“It’s OK,” I say. I guess I am leaving him an inheritance, too.

___

In the living room of my parents’ apartment, we talk about our hearts. Who has a hole in their heart, like Karrie? Who has an aortic aneurysm, like Karrie?

“Some of your heart problems, I have, too,” Dad says, and I can tell he is excited for the connection.

Why do our connective tissues have to be fucked up? 

Scott asks me about Salt Lake City, talks about being Mormon. “I drink coffee and beer. I could never give them up.”

He is Mormon by shotgun. 

I don’t tell him about Granite Mountain. “I almost converted,” I say. “But I could never give up coffee, either.”

We laugh.

Mom gets out her camera, directs us to stand together for a family photo. She is finally getting it: one last picture of us all together.

Is it real now? 

When I leave, my father follows me out the door and shouts, “I love you!” across the parking lot. He looks so frail, so weak, like he can’t hurt me anymore, but then I remember the secret money. He is still hurting us. The heart of this father does not turn toward his children.

I’ll never understand why he did it.

He never loved us. 

___

A month later, on the anniversary of Judy’s death, my father mails me his Harvard Heart Newsletter with an article highlighted:

headline: The Magnitude of Marriage: Better for Your Heart?

Marriage is saving his heart.

I’ve never hurt my wife–your mom–physically, but mentally I guess I did for … I don’t know why now. But I thought I would have time to make it up.

 

Losing Propositions

Today I was talking to a friend about my project of filing an IRS Referral to investigate the tax exempt status of the Association of Writers & Writing Programs, following yet another year of disability exclusion and ADA violations  at the annual conference:

My friend is a lawyer, so she very gently and sweetly wanted to make sure I understand I have zero chance of winning–not to discourage me from trying, but just to make sure I know what I’m up against. This is a very tough area of law.

She was much relieved when I said, “Oh, of course I am going to lose!” (Followed by my foghorn laughter!)

I told her about my ongoing performance series called Losing Propositions, in which I barrel into battle knowing full well I have no chance in hell, and in fact, it is the entire point: It’s the performance I am interested in, the idea that having nothing to lose is, in its own way, an extremely powerful position from which to operate.

I can scream and yell about AWP online because everything they could take away from me — seats on panels, a slot at a reading, maybe a guest post on their site — is already gone.

And here is a space in which I feel extremely comfortable. Happy, even. Is that weird? It’s my happy place, diving deep into legal research knowing full well the deck is stacked.

In 2015, when I was applying to PHD programs, it started as a performance, too. I was angry about AWP’s systematic rejection of every single disability panel, and I had always wanted to earn a PHD. These two things are not disconnected: AWP is primarily a network of member educational programs, and those programs are inherently ableist at their core. I thought, OK, I will apply to programs and seek accommodations in the process (primarily, a waiver of the GRE), and I will Facebook-blog each response publicly.

I expected every single program to slam the door in my face.

But do you know what happened? The very first school — my dream school, in fact — said yes. And then another school did, and another. Each one that said yes made a stronger case for the next school because I could list them all and say, “Seven other programs have granted this accommodation, which speaks to it being reasonable under the ADA.” It snowballed. By the time it was over, I had applied to so many programs I cannot remember the number now.

When schools denied my accommodation request, I argued my case and asked them to reconsider. If they continued to dig in their heels, I sent them research into the futility of the GRE in predicting success, particularly for underrepresented groups. When they dug their heels in deeper, I FOIA’d them, seeking very specific data that might help me estimate how many people in their programs are disabled, since schools do not keep track of disability as a form of diversity.

I got data dumps like you wouldn’t believe.

I posted everything on Facebook. Again: performance. Nothing to lose. Performing my losses.

But see?  It was the “not having anything to lose” that fueled it. Thinking of it as performance made me powerful. Made me invulnerable to the pain of losing. Made me BOLD.  But then, as often does in my work, performance became reality. In fact, some of those programs have since dropped the GRE requirement altogether. I can’t take credit for that development, but I can take satisfaction that my “test case” was on the right track.

Test case.

That’s what my friend said when I told her about this performance series. “You’re a test case!” She told me about historical cases where activists essentially did the same thing: they knew they were going to lose, but they had to at least try. Sometimes they won. Sometimes they lost, but — and this is key — got their enemies to come out and state their true position so they knew what they were really up against. And from there, they formulated new strategies.

I never thought of what I’m doing that way, but I like this framework. When I approach things like filing an ADA complaint against AWP in 2015:

January 28, 2016: U.S. Department of Justice Civil Rights Division Disability Rights Section - NYA 950 Pennsylvania Avenue N.W. Washington, DC 20530 Re: Associates of Writers and Writing Programs Dear Ms. Higgins: This is in response to the complaint that you filed with this office alleging a possible violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). After carefully reviewing the information that you provided, we have decided not to take any further action on your complaint. Unfortunately, because the Section receives thousands of ADA complaints each year, we do not have the resources to resolve all of them. It is important to note that the Justice Department has made no determination regarding the merits of your complaint or whether it could be redressed under the ADA or another .statute. Moreover, our decision not to take further action does not affect your right to pursue your complaint in another manner. You may wish to contact an attorney or legal service provider to determine what remedies may be available. In addition, a number of other options are available to you, including consulting state or local authorities or disability rights groups. Enclosed is a list of such organizations serving your area. These listings come from various sources, and our office cannot guarantee that the listings are current and accurate. We suggest that if you contact any of these organizations, you let them know that you have received this letter from us, so that they will not forward your complaint to our office. The text of the ADA, the Department's regulations, and many technical assistance publications are provided on our ADA Home Page at http:/ www.ada.gov. If you have specific questions about Title II or Ill of the ADA, or want copies of technical assistance publications sent to you, you may call the ADA Information Line at 800-514-0301 (voice) or 800-514-0383 (TTY). We regret that we are unable to further assist you in this matter. Enclosures (These are just lists of Utah disability organizations since I lived there at the time)
full text in alt-txt or you can also read it here: https://www.instagram.com/p/Bgq6G6FHYsV/?taken-by=karrie.higgins

I think, somebody has to do it. Why not me?

Back in 2016, when I got that letter from the DOJ, I didn’t know what I had in my hands. I had a right to sue letter. Again: losing can be powerful all on its own. And as another disability activist told me, this letter is beautiful. It shows how long we’ve been fighting. 

Every year, AWP treats our disability access & representation as a brand-new problem, as if we haven’t been fighting this fight, traveling in this same circle, over and over. But here we have proof. Legal proof. It is beautiful.

This is why I do it publicly: on social media, on my blog, in essays, in Twitter rants. I am performing justice. I want to show people it matters enough to fight–even if the odds are stacked against you. The process, the fight, the boldness, are what matter.

I know I have less than a 1% chance of winning on this 501(c)3 thing. That’s OK with me because … what if I do win? What if I’m the test case that becomes case law?

In 2016, when I moved to Colorado, I made protest art about the missing sidewalks and curb cuts. Everyone told me it was a waste of time. They had never seen a city respond to such a thing.

Karrie straddles the end of a sidewalk and the rocky grass where it ends, standing in a pyramid shape with her legs. In her front hand, she holds a red cane that matches her long red hair. Her other hand drags a pink suitcase behind her.

Do you know what happened by the end of that year? That sidewalk above got paved & the curb cut installed. The City saw my protest photos and just did it.

Sometimes, once in awhile, you fucking win.

But Losing Propositions–that’s where I find my power to keep going.

When I go in with the intent to lose, you can’t take my hope. You can’t take my dreams. You can’t even take my time.

If you tell me I am wasting my time studying 501(c)3 case law, I will tell you about how much I learned about the history of disability rights in education, like this case from my hometown. I will tell you how much I loved formulating a strategy, looking for ways to push disability justice forward. How can that be a waste of time?

Losing, sometimes, is winning.

visiting my brother’s grave for the first time

CW: death, graveyard, car accidents (in newspaper photos and headlines)

On the anniversary of Challenger, I visited my brother’s grave for the first time.

Karrie stands behind her brother’s gravestone, her right foot far forward so her legs are in pyramid pose. She holds a red cane in her right hand and drags a pink suitcase behind her with her left hand, red roses blooming from the zipper at the top. Her long skirt is printed with her brother’s mugshot photo and her long red hair blows in the slight breeze. In the distance, a barren tree stands tall. Photo styling & concept by me; photo by Alan Murdock.

If you have read my work, you know this date is significant to me. Two days after the last time I saw my brother, I watched the Challenger disaster on TV. I confuse NASA Public Affairs Officer Steve Nesbitt’s voice with my brother’s.

I’ve made spectrograms comparing them:

spectrogram of Steve Nesbitt saying Obviously a Major Malfunction, his voice in yellow against a green background.
Spectrogram of my brother saying “What secret’s that, honey?”from a phone call recorded by police.  It looks like a denser version of the Nesbitt spectrogram.

I didn’t plan to go to my brother’s grave on the Challenger anniversary. My husband and I traveled to Cedar Rapids for my Aunt Joann’s funeral and my appointment with a geneticist.

We had very little time — only a few minutes — and we had to sneak to the cemetery without telling my family. I needed to be there alone. I needed to process it without the sibs or my father.

Except I can’t go there alone, not really: no buses reach it; I can’t drive. My brother’s grave is unreachable except by car. Even grief rites are inaccessible sometimes.

As we drove toward the cemetery, we passed Prairie High School, and I gasped. “We are in the territory of my brother,” I said. “This is the land of Greg.”

He lived near Prairie High, attended Prairie High. I lived to the north, attended Kennedy. We had different geographies. Sometimes it didn’t feel like we came from the same city.

When we turned onto Highway 30 and passed the ADM plant, I said, “This is the land of my father.” It’s where he worked my whole childhood.

It was the land of Greg, too. “My brother had his first life-changing injury there.”

I have always felt like that factory ate my brother.

“Watch out for the fog. It creeps over the highway and causes accidents. That ethanol factory eats cars.”

headline from the Cedar Rapids Gazette about a 23-car pileup near the ADM plant
Gazette newspaper photo of a car slid under the back end of a school bus, the top of the car crushed. Police stand to the side.The caption says the accident occurred near the ADM plant.
newspaper photo of a car crashed into a semi truck with the headline “Steam cloud blamed in fatal crash”
newspaper photo of person on a stretcher and fire & police officers after an accident. Headline reads: Steam cloud may force road closings. Zero visibility near ADM blamed for second accident

It felt like the ADM plant was standing sentry. Or maybe my father was. I always feel like he is there, at ADM, watching.

When we turned into the cemetery, I found my brother’s grave without even having to wander.

View from down the row of gravestones, with my pink suitcase standing upright next to my brother’s, marking it. This was a test photo that Alan took.

It felt like somehow I had always known where he was.

It was cold–not just any cold, Iowa cold. My hands froze so badly I could not control them at the end of the shoot, when we returned to the car so I could change my skirt and wig to rush to my mother’s apartment. I couldn’t open the wig bag or slide the cap over my head. My fingers refused to grip. I cried. I needed to get that red wig off me. It’s the hair I associate with Greg. It’s a secret. The skirt, too.

My joints hurt. They were all out of place. The pose caused subluxations in my ankles and knees from my newly diagnosed Ehlers Danlos Syndrome. It’s excruciating to stand and balance like that for my ataxia & syringomyelia, too. That’s why I chose the pose: it puts me in Parallel Stress (see my other images in this series at this link).

We had to hurry so nobody would wonder where we were. I didn’t have time to process it. I am still processing it.

Close-up of the gravestone, which reads: Gregory D. Higgins July 12, 1957 to Sept 26, 2008 Son Brother Father, with the Army Airborne logo engraved in the upper left corner. Pink artificial roses & other flowers and a tattered United States flag decorate it. Photo by me.

The last time I saw my brother alive: Challenger.

The first time I saw his grave: Challenger.

That I have to keep my grief secret: obviously a major malfunction.

 

how a man shamed me for using the whisper network

CW sexual assault

In college, I lived in the Foreign Language House, a special wing of a dormitory dedicated to students who wanted to practice a foreign language every chance they got. It was a close-knit group, and activities like naked Star Trek — which, as a survivor of sexual abuse, I had way too much body shame to participate in — were the norm.

One of the guys there gave massages. He was a good friend, and I trusted him, so when he offered, I said yes.

I don’t remember a lot about before & after, but I remember his hands slipping around my ribcage and touching my breasts. I remember his fingers sliding under my bra band and into the waist of my pants. I remember freezing. I remember being afraid to tell him to stop because he was a friend, and I didn’t want to hurt his feelings.

His feelings.

Never mind it triggered memories of my brother’s grooming,  hands slipping up the front of my shirt “on accident” while wrestling. Never mind I felt violated and used. I thought he was a friend. It was normal in Foreign Language House for people to touch each other — hugs, hand-holding, cuddling under blankets — and I had no reason to think a “massage” meant “sex.”

I want to say I pushed his hands away, but I don’t remember.

I want to say I told him to stop, but I don’t remember.

But I remember the aftermath. The aftermath was the worst part.

A woman moved into my dorm, and I warned her about the massages. I told her to watch out because you think it’s just a massage, but then he gropes you. “His hands start sliding under your bra,” I said. “If he offers, don’t do it.”

He had visited the room a few minutes before to introduce himself. I saw how he was looking at her, and I didn’t want it to happen to her, too.

I didn’t know I was participating in the whisper network, in which women warn each other about men who violate them.

And I didn’t know he was lingering outside the room, listening through a vent.

Later, he confronted me. “Sounds carry through those vents,” he said. “I heard you.”

He accused me of violating him. Hurting his feelings.

His feelings.

I wanted to ask how come he lingered outside that room. Was he worried I might warn her? Did he know he had done something wrong? I was too flustered with shame, too afraid of hurting his feelings again.

His feelings.

It was never the same after that. Friends stopped saving me seats in the cafeteria. I had hurt their friend’s feelings. He was such a nice guy. How could I even think he would grope me? 

Nobody asked about my feelings.

Nobody asked if I was OK or why it bothered me or what happened.

Nobody.

It was just like my family all over again: shhhhhh, keep things our little secret or else.

And it worked. The shaming worked. I started to think I had done something wrong.

Last night, I learned my husband (then an acquaintance) was on the other side of all this. He had to listen to this guy complain and whine about his hurt feelings.

“I explained to him over and over why he was wrong,” my husband said. “He wasn’t having it. To him, you were getting in his way, spoiling his chances to pursue other women.”

His way.

I left the dorm not too long after. He stayed. He got me out of his way.

 

 

 

 

Life of the Mind Interrupted by Katie Rose Guest Pryal

cover of Life of the Mind Interrupted: Essays on Mental Health and Disability in Higher Education by Dr. Katie Rose Guest Pryal. The top half is a darker gray with the title in yellow, and the bottom half is a close-up of white flowers.

CW: mention of suicide, descriptions of ableism

Last week, I was talking to a friend about dropping out of my PHD program before I even began. “Honestly, I think it’s the best thing,” I said. “I would probably be in bipolar crisis if I had done it.”

My friend nodded. She’s disabled, too. She gets it. We both earned Masters Degrees. We both got sick, faced hospitalizations, survived manic episodes and more — all while trying like hell to churn out good work and not scare off our classmates and professors.

When I said, “I would probably be in bipolar crisis,” I didn’t mean I couldn’t do a PHD program. I meant PHD culture is toxic to people with disabilities. Before I delayed my admission (and later dropped out), I had pursued accommodations for my assistantship. At one point, Human Resources point-blank asked me how I ever expected to work in academia given my limitations & needs. When I said I had no intention of ever pursuing a career in academia, they were relieved. “You are much more likely to get the accommodations that way,” I was told.

Which is why when I learned Dr. Katie Rose Guest Pryal had written Life of the Mind Interrupted: Essays on Mental Health and Disability in Higher Education, I was ecstatic.

As a novelist, attorney, freelance writer, and former law professor, Dr. Pryal became a major voice for disability rights in higher education after she took a sabbatical from teaching and spoke up about her mental illness in the Chronicle of Higher Education:

But I feel anxiety for another reason as well. I have a psychiatric disability—that is, a mental illness—that I’ve kept secret since I was diagnosed at the age of 21. So when the teaching evaluation called me “emotionally eratic,” I feared that my supervisors would believe the words. And, despite all evidence to the contrary, I feared that Mr. Eratic might be right.

Mostly I feared that everyone at work would learn about my secret disability, and that I would get fired because of it. I feared I would be seen as unreasonable, irrational, and therefore unable to do the work required of a professor. Because of my disability, my career would be over.

Much of Life of the Mind Interrupted draws from her columns in the Chronicle, as well as other essays, with updates and expansions. Covering everything from the tenuous, terrifying tightrope walk of adjuncting-while-disabled to practical advice for classroom accessibility, Dr. Pryal not only dismantles academic ableism; she makes the case for how easy it is to be accessible — and how it benefits everyone.

In “Disclosure Blues: Should You Tell Colleagues About Your Mental Illness?,” she writes about Elyn Saks, a professor at University of Southern California who gave a TED talk about disclosing her schizophrenia:

Sak’s advice is written from the position of a tenured professor, with great academic privilege, the most important one being near-bulletproof job security. But there are other privileges that come with the type of job she holds. For example, she gives the following advice to professors with mental illness: “Schedule your courses carefully. If your meds make you tired in the morning, try not to teach morning classes. Try to choose courses you like to teach — you will do a better job and feel less stressed.” As any contingent professor knows, we often choose neither our courses nor our class meeting times.

The first time I sought a scheduling accommodation as an adjunct, I lost my job. I was teaching online, and each class included a live weekly webinar.  I always selected sections with daytime or early evening webinars: late nights = seizures. When the department overhauled the scheduling system, instructors lost control over seminar times, and I was forced to seek accommodation.

My department’s response? Tell fellow faculty about my epilepsy, beg for a daytime seminar, and hope for the best.

“That is not how accommodations work,” I told my department director. “I shouldn’t have to expose my private medical information to colleagues.”

Epilepsy comes with serious stigma: People think you are devious, crafty, lazy, dishonest, and dangerous. They doubt your intelligence, too (never mind intelligence is itself an ableist measure.) I’ve been called “idiot” or the r-word a lot when people find out about my seizures.

My director fired back. “You never told me you were disabled before.”

I wasn’t fired. Oh no, they knew enough not to outright can me. Instead, they withheld information, resources, and student contact lists, making it impossible to fulfill my duties. If I emailed my director with a question, he would critique my email instead of answering. “Learn how to write shorter emails,” he quipped once, after I sent him two paragraphs detailing a complex & urgent issue with a student. He was calling into question my competence, just as I had feared.

The saddest thing? None of it had to happen. The original scheduling process was accessible: We chose our times and that was that. No scheduling accommodations needed.

And that is a key point of Dr. Pryal’s book: accessibility and accommodations are not the same thing:

But the accommodations model requires us to disclose our disabilities, it requires us to explain, to give up secrets we might not want to share. The accommodations model depends on invasions of privacy to work.

Accessibility, alternatively, means that a space is always, 100% of the time, welcoming to people with disabilities. Accessibility means that ‘accommodations’ are integrated into a space and are not particularized to an individual–but rather created for our society as a whole. We, as a society, are disabled people. Therefore we, as a society, build spaces and procedures for disabled people.

It really is that simple.

And she shows how simple it can be with her “universal design alternative to the whiteboard,” in which she projects a blank document from her laptop onto a projection screen and writes a daily “class record.” Each week, she saves the file and emails to the entire class. “And my students really got into it,” she writes. “‘Put that on the class record!’ they would request during class, when I said something they found particularly helpful.” This was all in response to a student who couldn’t see the whiteboard and requested lecture notes in PDF. Accessibility benefits everyone. No barriers. No documentation. No invasion of privacy.

That last bit is key. Remember I mentioned my PHD assistantship accommodations? To get those, I not only had to declare I wasn’t pursuing an academic career; I had to turn over medical records and discuss — at length — my mobility limitations, mobility aids, and medication side effects. The medication side effects turned out to be more important than my actual disabilities: Side effects are easier to understand, easier to “prove,” and easier to accommodate. It was awkward and invasive. I felt like I was talking to a medical assistant, not my HR department.

And what about instructors and students who lack access to medical care? Or women of color, whose pain goes disbelieved, denied, and untreated? Transgender colleagues and students, who face misgendering and abuse at the hands of doctors?  The very concept of “documented disability” is exclusionary so long as access to documentation isn’t equal.

As Dr. Pryal writes, “we cannot ignore how race, gender, socioeconomic, and other kinds of privilege affect how people with disabilities live and work.” In “Shattering the Madness Monolith,” she shares stories of academics with diverse identities. One of them, speaking under the pseudonym “Annie,” reveals how she struggled to receive medical treatment as a Chinese-American woman, with one doctor even telling her “it was normal for Asian women to be anxious and stressed out, and anxiety was causing my abdominal pain.”

When I was a graduate student, a faculty member joked that proximity to a certain faculty member caused a couple seizures. The implication: my seizures are sexual. I don’t think anyone would have made that joke if I were a man.

Probably my favorite essay is “Breaking the Mad Genius Myth,” about Kurt Cobain and the romanticization of mental illness as “genius.” Of all the myths about mental illness, this one has done me the most harm: Bipolar robs me of credit for all my hard work. Don’t ever take medication, people will say. It will ruin your writing. They are wrong. As Dr. Pryal argues, creative people are more productive when their psychiatric symptoms are under control. For years, I bought into the myth, though. I believed medications dulled my shine. Now I know better, but I still have to listen to people deny my hard work and praise my epilepsy & bipolar as “genius.” At the same time, literary colleagues have outright accused me of exaggerating my experiences because they perceive me as “that unreliable crazy person.” That’s the problem with “mad genius.” It’s inherently “unreasonable,” as Dr. Pryal points out. The whole “genius” of it lies in being beyond “normal” reason.

While the myth of the “mad genius” romanticizes mental illness, the taboo around suicide & suicidal ideation is strong as ever. As Dr. Pryal writes in stunningly honest, heartbreaking prose, “Suicide didn’t almost kill me. The taboo did.” Taboos make us keep secrets. Taboos keep us from seeking help. Taboos keep us from asking for what we need.

Now imagine your career depends on living the “life of the mind” and you’re suicidal.

Ultimately, the reasons I couldn’t do my PHD program came down to the smallest things: I needed Paratransit; it’s not included in the student bus pass and too expensive. I needed a part-time load; part-time is not allowed. Other things, too. Along the way, as I delayed my decision, more than one doctor told me, “I’m worried about you doing a PHD.” One went so far as to say, “Don’t do it.”

“It will throw you into bipolar crisis,” she said. “I see it all the time.”

Which is why I am recommending Life of the Mind Interrupted to everyone.

___

 

For more of Katie Rose Guest Pryal’s work, find her at https://katieroseguestpryal.com/ and The Chronicle of Higher Education 

ink magick for a dental stem cell transplant

Want to read about some of my ink magick? Find it right here. I chose the page rather than post format because it’s formatted partly in two columns and needed  more width. Enjoy.

drawing of a spinal cord, vertebrae & brain with a tidal wave leaking from the back of the cervical spine and washing back toward the body, a gold-capped molar caught up in the wave; the spinal cord is drawn in black with gold illumination, the vertebrate in black with gold illumination over them, and the nerves, brain, and wave in ultramarine blue.

Winter Kills

Today is the one-year anniversary of the MRI that diagnosed my syringomyelia.

It was supposed to be a routine checkup after seizures. Sort of. My neurologist got freaked out by my gait, my abnormal smooth pursuit eye movements, my asymmetrical reflexes. She ordered a c-spine. We never did that before — only brain.

The techs blasted Prince into my headphones. In every MRI before — and I have had a lot of MRIs — I dozed off, hypnotized by the clang clang clang and bang bang bang. I slid into the tube expecting a nap. Instead, I panicked. Sometime during the Purple Rain guitar solo, I tried to lift my head. My neck burned like a beheading with a blade of fire. I am paralyzed, I thought. I can’t move my neck. I can’t move my neck. I can’t move my neck.

I kicked my feet. Screamed: GET ME OUT OF HERE. GET ME OUT OF HERE.

I knew. My spinal cord knew. All this time, it had been transmitting coded messages in the strange movements of my eyes, like a political prisoner paraded out on TV. Classified intelligence about a biological weapon implanted in my backbone. My own body turned traitor. This is not a democracy anymore. You do not get to choose. You can’t move your neck. You can’t move your neck.

“Winter Kills” is the soundtrack to the first time I saw the first syrinx in my spinal cord.

Alone, at home, MRI disc popped into my MacBook:

C-Spine MRI scan showing a silvery hole in my spinal cord at C5-T1.

I knew what that hole in my spinal cord was. If you have Chiari like I do, you know.

On TV: The Americans. “Winter Kills” in the background as KGB agent Elizabeth Jennings rifles through her friend Young Hee’s house for the access code to a biological weapon.

“The Day After” episode, when the Jennings family watches a made-for-TV movie about nuclear apocalypse, and they know: they are living, breathing weapons of mass destruction. They are quickening the End of the World.

“I was thinking about not telling the Center about this,” their contact in the bioweapons lab says. “I’d like to make the right decision… Nobody needs this. I don’t trust us with it.”

still from “The Day After” with an orange mushroom cloud blooming on the horizon and cars abandoned on a highway

The Day After was a real movie. I watched it as a kid. I lived in terror of nuclear bombs because, as we were told in school, Cedar Rapids was a prime target:

1982 newspaper clipping with a map of Cedar Rapids & a nuclear destruction zone drawn on it in concentric circles from Rockwell Collins

Cedar Rapids, Iowa: land of Rockwell Collins, makers of military aircraft communications and space shuttle parts; Duane Arnold nuclear plant; the bread basket of the nation. The Russians are going to nuke us. The Russians are going to nuke us. The Russians are going to nuke us. Nuclear winter is coming. They drilled it into our heads. The first Wednesday of every month: civil defense sirens. Take cover. 

Same as the tornado siren. I started to confuse tornadoes with nukes. Tornado shelters for bomb shelters. Tornado drills at school with duck and cover.

Later, I thought it was all a lie, but it wasn’t. On maps of a 500-warhead scenario: a triangle marking my childhood industrial wasteland in a flyover state nobody cares exists.

FEMA map of nuclear targets in a 500-warhead scenario and 2,000-warhead scenario

The Day After aired November 20, 1983: one month before my brother Jimmy died. I have always associated nuclear bombs with brother death. And there I was in 2016, in the middle of a resurrection spell to bring my other brother Greg back to life, and I made myself a spine like his:

image from Greg’s VA records indicating severe spinal injury at the same location as my first syrinx He had fusion from C5-6-7 and T1
1984 Doomsday Clock 3 minutes to midnight:
U.S.-Soviet relations reach their iciest point in decades. Dialogue between the two superpowers virtually stops. “Every channel of communications has been constricted or shut down; every form of contact has been attenuated or cut off. And arms control negotiations have been reduced to a species of propaganda.”

Resurrection has consequences.

Tear at me, searching for weaker seams.
I’ll tear at you, searching for weaker seams.

Resurrection and apocalypse. Resurrection requires apocalypse. Resurrection is apocalypse.

2017 Doomsday Clock is at 2 1/2 minutes to midnight:
For the last two years, the minute hand of the Doomsday Clock stayed set at three minutes before the hour, the closest it had been to midnight since the early 1980s. In its two most recent annual announcements on the Clock, the Science and Security Board warned: “The probability of global catastrophe is very high, and the actions needed to reduce the risks of disaster must be taken very soon.”

Nuclear winter is coming.

I am caught in a time loop: Comey canned, the president laughing in the Oval Office with the Russians who conspired to tear at us, searching for weaker seams, hacking intel about our election, turning our own democratic bodies against us.

tick tick tick