“Letter to my Sister in a Mental Hospital,” by Julia Laxer

Snow falls, building like thrush on the freeway. Black palate, no answers.

A daddy calls you by name, but you hear soap opera in his voice, see the frazzled tangle of memory in crepe lines. Do you see past our eyes to something else?


Answers I

cannot ask, you can’t afford, anger. Snow falls.


Snow falls, and I call to ask

if you can go outside, if you can

taste the cold too, taste it in numbers or letters or shivers?



Where are you-

feeling what? You see the-

what? Are there-? Do you see the-?



Are there any shadows left?



I untangle answers like seaweeds from your hair, like you are a bird building a nest and these are cold ribbons, some other girl’s ribbons that you wear. This

keyboard can’t type as fast as my heart beats.




Writing on a machine in the future.

Words spilling, but no you to hear them.

Even if I hand you the letter.

Even if I give you the key.






The first Christmastime we spent without you, sister. Without Grandma too; the table felt empty. So I brought a friend, a wildman who lives in the desert, didn’t talk to nobody for nine months. Saw no shadow but his own. Dad couldn’t handle it, to see a man so wild and so free, not caring about his faded holes, patchy-life, faded-jacket. I wish you were there to witness the culture-clash; Mom and Dad, all of us and Benny in the living room. Mom and Dad trying to pry from him just what does he “DO” all day, out there in Utah, out in the desert, by himself…


And, I knew it was a bad idea to let him come, to invite the stranger in; we watched Dad back-fire as he drank, turning even more and more sour. And, we kept looking for you, listening for you: your loud-laugh and loud-feet. (Apparently, you’ve been noisy at the hospital. The nurses tell.)


Christmas felt alone without you; Thanksgiving was novelty.  But, Christmas, that’s when it felt really real. Watching Dad lose it, and we all felt alone. All of us, around the table after Dad drank the the dinner into a fiasco, and I left crying. I cannot even remember what was said but I think it included your name.




I call you in Springtime to see

if you see budding azaleas, wide-eyed dogwood and showy forsythia.

To see if your voice says, “Rhododendron. Yes, and lots and lots of birds.”



You speak with a faraway tone and say that you walk for hours everyday; they let you leave, and you walk for hours.


But I do not hear the flowers in your voice.




Voice. It is troublesome. Pepsi-machine hums behind us, in the patient-cafeteria next to an empty, sad-looking buffet-table. I try to keep a smile on my face, I know how it is in places like these. When we speak, I cannot help but feel your eyes on my forehead, where the lines have begun. Your pupils dart dangerously; you sharply back away from the table, standing up.


I have to say your name twice. I have to say your name twice.




When you were seven years old, and I was fourteen, we rode the Metro on Saturdays to D.C. and went to the museums. The ones that mattered: The Hirshhorn, the Corcoran, and especially The National Gallery of Art. I remember sitting on the plush bench, writing with a purple-felt pen in my hand-collaged journal, while you drew, studying the famous lines and faces. Sitting in the white rooms, lit by colors and idea, we studied the greats together. I felt so lucky to have you, as a sister, to visit the greats with.




When I visit you, I ask if you’re drawing. “They won’t let me have India Ink,” you say, eyes staring way above my head, forehead twitching, fingers tapping on the smeary table. In the meeting the next week, I advocate for you. You deserve therapy and exercise. Healthy food. Humane treatment, above all. The Director mentions Art Therapy. I demand they give you the ink. I am forceful, and you practice escape on the clean slate, with the inky blood.


You show me your art: an intricate line-drawing of a rat perched on an apple, eating a crumb. Filled-in with crayon.




Later, in the court-house, you are committed, again. The investigator removed his glasses, wiped his forehead, and sighed after almost nine hours of testimonies, “She is one of the most delusional patients I have seen in a very, very long time.”




I wait inside my house. I wait inside, for you to get better.


I send you postcards. I imagine making bread, planting gardens, washing my hair: things I would do if my stomach wasn’t filled with worry. And, the cats are both sick; both of them. You wouldn’t believe it unless you saw them. The house is cleaner than its ever been. Still, I see the stains.




On the first on June, I am finally where ocean and land meet. Hesitantly, I think of Grandma, who I know passed away, even though I feel her every minute beside me, still thick in her thick scent.


I think of you. The disconnect.


Her death still happened, yet she is right beside me. Your lungs still move with air, veins coursing and cursing, yet I don’t know who you are, now. I hold to my anger, bite it with my tongue, like I am trying to remember not to inflare the red sun.




The funeral never happened. Two days after she passed, you were back in the system. And the azaleas still bloom, and they are fushia by the sea.




We have waited since the end of last summer for the funeral. Grandma died in early August of last year, and it’s almost been a full year. It’s June, the first of June, and Manzanita is awake, for a coastal Oregon town. The day is full and night comes, with its inky dark hands. Calla lilies quiver in seawind, as I walk around the quietness, remembering the taste of salt and moonlight, and think of you: everywhere, and Grandma. I think of how you called me on the drive to the coast, from the Oregon State Hospital, and I’m afraid to call you back, in case you tell me something.




I meditate on grief. I lie on a flat stone that is warm, face up to the sky and feel like a gecko, claiming the rock, wind whipping my skin in the sun. I call the Patient Line from a cell phone, eyes closed, trying to imagine your face. A man with a soft voice answers, and I ask for you. The moment is scratchy, and I wait for your “Hello?” You hear my “Hello!” and you complain of the sound of the wind. It “irritates” you, you say, and we hang up.


Every conversation is calculated. Every time the excuse is more impersonal. The wind whips and whips. My armies are stationed. My hair blinds out the blue; whipping too. Salted-sand rushes in the wind, and the scent of dunegrass flushes in the sun. It feels beautiful, like an intense breath, on my hot cheek.




Next time around, will it be different for any of us?

Will you be an ox?

Will I be oxblood?

Will he be a laceration?

Will she be a heavy hoof again, or

do we get to leave

our mortal body?




“Do you like the red dress that I brought you?

The red dress, the red dress?

The beautiful dress?”




I say your name twice.

Have you worn it?



There is no shortages of wishes here. You’ve become religious, and I’ve bought you four rosaries, but you’re not allowed to have them.


What hurt would you do with your rosaries?

How would you hurt? How do you hurt? How you hurt?


Would they help your wishes?




Next time around, will it be different? Will you be a painter, and never give up on acting? Will I be a dancer, with a spine like a snake? Will we be fluid, still oxblood; nonetheless? Or will we be transformed, past the pain of our beast?




Printed with permission from Julia Laxer, copyrighted by Julia Laxer @ 2014. This piece, winner of the Fall 2014 Orlando Prize for Creative Nonfiction and selected by Finalist Judge Deborah Feldman, originally appeared in Issue No. 17 of the Los Angeles Review.

Author: A Room of Her Own

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