On the morning of my ninth birthday, there were voices I didn’t recognize in the hallway outside my bedroom door. Most of the voices were from men, and I thought I could also hear Mrs. Crider’s voice. She was a neighbor who sometimes babysat us, my three-year-old sister and me.
I figured Mom wouldn’t want me to leave my room in my pj’s, so I got dressed before peeking out the door. The voices were coming from the end of the hall, in the front room. There were two uniformed policemen standing at the end of the hallway looking at Mom, who was sitting on the couch between Mrs. Crider and Bob, her husband. My sister, Jenny, was crying, and Bob had her on his lap. Mrs. Crider had her arms around Mom.
I pushed between the policemen — one of them jumped because he hadn’t known I was there — and asked, “Mother?”
Mom and Mrs. Crider looked up at me. Mom wiped her eyes with the palms of her hands and waved me over to her. “Artur,” she said, “come here. I need to talk to you.” Mrs. Crider scooted over a little, and I sat between them.
“Artur, your dad was in a car accident on the way to work.”
“Will he be home later, after work?”
“No, Hon, he won’t be home again. Do you remember when James, Bob and Betty’s son, was killed in the army? We went to the funeral home and later we talked about why everyone was sad.” I nodded. “Your dad,” she continued, “has died. He won’t be coming home.”
She reached out and pulled me against her. I kept quiet to make sure I understood what she meant. I knew I didn’t always understand what adults said and sometimes I wouldn’t answer the way they expected.
“Why is Jenny crying? Is she hurt?”
Mom gave a sort of half-smile and said, “She’s crying because I’m crying. She doesn’t really understand.”
“Okay… may I go get cereal now?”
She let go of me, the half-smile still on her face. “Yes, Artur, you may. But don’t make a mess. We will have visitors later.” Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Mrs. Crider hold out her hands, palms toward the policemen and lightly nodding. Kind of saying something was okay.
We had visitors all the rest of the day and Mom’s mom and dad arrived the next day and stayed with us. On Friday, we all went to the funeral. Dr. Sam was there, too. He and I sat on an over-stuffed sofa in a back corner, but we could see the casket and all the flowers. There was a single yellow rose laying on the casket. I had seen Mom cut it from Dad’s rosebush by the corner of the house.
Dr. Sam and I talked about people being sad and how I could recognize if people were sad or upset. He pointed out how sometimes a few people talking might give a short laugh, and then return to being quiet or talking softly. I shouldn’t be confused, they were still unhappy — even if they had laughed.
“Artur,” Dr. Sam asked, “how should you behave when someone near you is sad?” We could see other people as they talked to Mom and looked at Dad. I knew the people looked sad.
I thought about it a moment and said, “Mirror. I should try to look like they do. Act like they do.”
“Yes. But, don’t get carried away with it. If some are crying out loud, it is better to not mirror them. Just try to look like a sad person. Being a mirror is the right answer — except when you see someone angry. How does an angry person look?”
“They get red in the face. Maybe yell. They’ll make fists at people. You said I should try to walk away from angry people.”
“Very good, Artur. You’re doing very well.”
We sat there on the couch for a while, watching people. Dr. Sam is a big man and my mom’s dad didn’t see me when he and Bob Crider came and stood near us. I thought Grandpa looked more angry than sad, but I wasn’t sure.
“How’s she going to take care of him?” Grandpa asked. “I told them not to adopt no Russian kid. Who knew what kind of broken child you’d get? Now, here she is with an anorexic and no husband…”
Dr. Sam stood up fast for someone his size and took hold of Grandpa’s arm. “The word is ‘alexithymic’ and he is learning to deal with not understanding emotions. What’s the chances,” Dr. Sam went on, “you’ll learn to deal with him without being rude and insulting? Artur is not just a diagnosis.” Even though he wasn’t shaking his fists and he was talking soft, I thought Dr. Sam was angry.
The other two men looked down at me and Grandpa mumbled he was sorry and walked away. Dr. Sam sat back down and Bob came over and sat on the other side of me. His aftershave over-powered the scent of the flowers. Bob said, “Artur, I know it is hard to understand, he’s so sad for your mother it came out as being mad.”
“Yes,” Dr. Sam chimed in, “we’ve talked before about how sometimes emotions get mixed up and are hard to keep straight. The important thing is, he does care for you and he isn’t mad at you. He’s upset.”
“Okay,” I said and sat back to think about it some more.
I went back to school on Tuesday, and Grandma and Grandpa left on Thursday. When I got off the school bus on Friday, Mom was waiting there to walk me home. Most days, I walked by myself, but it was a pretty, sunny day, and I guessed Mom needed to get out of the house and had come to meet me. We turned and took the long way home. That meant she wanted to have a “talk.”
After the yellow bus had passed and it was quiet, she asked, “Are you okay?”
“How’s school? Are the other kids treating you better?”
“They leave me alone, which is okay. School’s all right. I like arithmetic — it makes sense. I don’t like gym. Mr. Green says I’m not a good team player… Mom, can I ask a question?”
“Am I a broken kid?”
She turned to face me and squatted down right there in the sidewalk, so she could look at me eye to eye. “You are not broken. Grandpa told me what he said, and he’s very sorry. He doesn’t understand how great you are. He hasn’t learned yet that you are the best part of us… of me.” She gave me a long, tight hug. I liked the way she smelled. After a little while, she got up and we continued walking.
She was quiet for a while and then asked, “Does it bother you that Dad died on your birthday?”
I didn’t think she would have asked unless it upset her, so I said, “A little.”
“I’ve been thinking,” she said. “The hospital paperwork on your birth says you were a fully developed, thirty-seven week baby. Born on September 18th. If we subtract those thirty-seven weeks and one more day for good luck, why that means you’re a New Year’s Day baby. My very special New Year’s Baby.
“So, let’s you and me always celebrate your birthday as January First. If other people have to think you were born September 18th, it’s their mistake. We know the truth. Okay?”
“Sure, Mom. I like the idea of my birthday being on the first day of a new year.”
She smiled. I think she was happy.
By the time I was eighteen — by the calendar, not by agreement — I was much better at knowing the emotions people were displaying. And, I could make them believe I felt the same way. It just wasn’t as easy for me as it was for others. They didn’t even have to think about it.
Understanding emotions and girls was very confusing. Girls did not make sense, and boys acted different when girls were around. I didn’t like it. It made it extra hard. Not like math and science. The answers in my favorite subjects were right or wrong. Very logical.
My high school senior year, I tried a little harder and got all A’s, even in the hard stuff like English and History, and I received a scholarship to start at Purdue in the fall. My favorite senior year class was Advanced Science. That class was where I discovered biochemistry had everything — physics, math and, of course, biology and chemistry. The answers were still always right or wrong. They just weren’t always easy to find. I would study biochemistry at Purdue.
For my final exam in the science class, instead of taking the test, we could write a two-thousand-word paper on any biology or chemistry subject that interested us. I wrote about my alexithymia. There is a lot of evidence the cause of alexithymia is in the corpus callosum, the connection between the two halves of the brain. In my paper, I theorized that as an infant in the Russian orphanage, I got so little interaction with people my corpus callosum was not “exercised” enough to develop connections between the brain hemispheres for the understanding of emotions to take place.
Maybe, someday, I’ll be able to help people with alexithymia.
Thirty years. Thirty years this work has been my life. For thirty years I have begged for money. Gone down blind alleys. Prostituted my skill to the drug industry. Pushed genetic and biological nano-chemistry’s frontier. And now, I’ve got it. I know I’ve got it. But… I can’t test it.
Naturally occurring alexithmia does not happen in any animal except humans. Traumatic alexithmia can be created, but it is different. Its very nature requires different treatment. This cannot be the end. It’s not right. This demands a test. A “yes” or “no” answer.
I’m going home tomorrow. To mother’s funeral. I wanted to be able to feel her loss when the cancer finally took her.
Jenny was sad-mad at me for not feeling Mom’s death. I recognize what it means. I’ll not see her again. I’ll not have her support anymore. I might not have understood her love, but I know it is gone.
I will not live this way anymore. Tomorrow, I’ll inject myself with the lab serum. The nanites encapsulate the genetic material and when the blood chemistry tells them they have arrived at the corpus callosum, the gene adjustment will be released. New nerve endings will grow from the corpus callosum into each brain hemisphere. With the new connections will come transfer of information… and emotion? And, if I’m wrong — I will not live this way anymore.
Day One: No change. I didn’t expect anything noticeable right away. I followed the Serum C-41 injection with a sedative and slept for eighteen hours to prevent blood pressure variations from affecting blood flow to my brain. The camera I used to record the experiment did not show any stress reactions.
Day Two: No change.
Day Three: No change. Went to the coffee shop to watch people. Didn’t feel anything.
Day Four: No change. Jenny called to say she was sorry she got mad at the funeral. She said she loved me. She asked me to visit her and the kids. I said I would.
Day Five: No change. What am I going to do now? My life’s work has been for nothing. It doesn’t work and I’ve burnt all my bridges to the industry. No one will hire me now. I’m at a loss for what I’ll do next. Tomorrow I’ll go see Jenny.
Day Six: Change? I went to Jenny’s. Her six-year-old son took a toy from his little sister and I remembered doing the same thing to Jenny when we were small. And — I understood why the little girl cried. I could never understand why Jenny cried. Is this change or is it training?
Day Seven: Jenny mentioned a “chick flick” she had gone to see. Today, I went to watch it. I laughed — it sounded horrible. I cried — it hurt. I thought people were looking at me and I left because I didn’t want them to think I was strange.
Day Nine: I’ve been reading, watching TV, seeing movies. Yesterday, I sat at a table in the mall’s food court and watched people as they hurried, shuffled, pranced and paraded past.
I laughed. I cried. I got angry. After six hours, security asked if I needed help and “suggested” I leave.
Jenny, my dearest sister,
How do you live this way? Whipsawed from one way to the other. Happy. Sad. Hurt. Lonely. In Love. Loss. Joy. Anger. It is all so chaotic.
Do you know there have been women who loved me? I know that now. I didn’t recognize it. I hurt them deeply.
I am so angry the company didn’t support me in my research.
I miss Mom. I want her to hold me like she did when I was little.
It’s all jumbled up together. How do you sort it out? How do you make sense of it? I have no control over it. It is not even a little logical. Why doesn’t it drive you crazy? Does it drive you crazy?
Love hurts. Loss hurts. Joy hurts when it leaves. Anger makes you hurt others. I wish I could look at the world the way I used to.
It will drive me insane.
I have destroyed all my notes and journals. Cleared the memory off the computer. I mixed the last of the serum with lighter fluid and burned it. I pray to the evil God who created emotions that no one else ever follows me in this research. I would never wish this upon anyone.
I love you. And, I’m sorry, I wish I didn’t.
Header photograph: By Rainis Venta (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons