"Now come on and move your arm out the way, hear? It's cold out there, baby."
"I ain't cold, Sister. I ain't cold."
"You ain't felt that hawk jump on you yet, neither. Trust me, you'll be thanking me for making you wear this coat. Come on here."
Two sisters facing one another. One already bundled in her own coat and hat, fumbling to get her older sister zipped into hers, too. First, the zipper . . . all the way up to the chin where it stopped. Next, a ski hat was pulled into place, swallowing her silvery curls. The older sister squirmed to move away.
"Sis-terrrrr!" Her protestations were child-like. It was fitting considering their interaction.
They weren't strangers to our clinic at all. Ms. Lolita and her younger sister--whom she always referred to affectionately as "Sister"--had been coming to Grady for years. In all that time, I don't remember a single time that Sister wasn't with Ms. Lolita at a visit. She kept tabs on every medication, appointment, and recommendation and always took care of those things Ms. Lolita could not.
This time, it was getting into a coat on a wintry Georgia morning.
"Uh uh, Lo. Don't get to fighting me, now. Let me fasten these buttons, baby."
Sister dutifully slipped each toggle into its respective loop, pausing only once to pull her own gloves off of her hands with her teeth to help make her fingers more nimble. One by one she marched up the front of her coat until Ms. Lolita was enveloped in a cocoon of wool and microfiber.
"There you go, baby." Sister stepped back and surveyed her handiwork. "See, Lolita? Now you nice and warm, see? Snug as a bug in a rug."
"I ain't cold, Sister."
"I know, baby. But outside it's real cool, okay. Trust Sister, okay?"
I'd left that room five minutes or so before. The nurse had finished discharging them and I was in a nearby doorway watching them from a few feet away. They had just exited into the hallway and were preparing to leave.
The visit was simple enough. One sister with hypertension and diabetes here for a follow up. Brought in by the other sister, her caregiver.
They were nearly a decade apart in age. Growing up, it was Ms. Lolita who was responsible for seeing about Sister. Her mother had given her the charge of making sure her baby sister was clothed, fed, and bathed. And that is exactly what Lolita did, too. She washed out diapers and rocked her in her arms. When she was older, she cooked Sister oatmeal before school in the mornings and packed her lunches, too. She plaited her hair in tight squares and covered Sister's face with petroleum jelly on cold days to keep it from chafing.
But one day, something changed.
Things were fine at first. Lolita got married and had a baby shortly after finishing high school. That was when she was around eighteen or so. It was fine because, by then, Sister was a little bit older and didn't require as much of Lolita. Ms. Lolita could still manage to help out while her mother was working, even with a family of her own. Then, after her second baby came, that's when the voices started.
She wasn't even twenty one.
"I remember it like it was yesterday," Sister told us one day during one of our visits. "I came home from grammar school and went over to Lolita's like always. I couldn't get the door to open. She had blocked it with a couch because she thought aliens was coming from outer space. I looked in her eyes and she meant it, too."
"Wow," I responded. And actually, that was such a long time ago that we had that conversation that I don't fully recall exactly what I said. But I'm guessing that's really close to it.
Wow is what I always think when it comes to schizophrenia. I liken it to a perfectly knit garment with one loose string that has been hanging for twenty years. And then--just like that--right on the edge of adulthood's awakening, that yarn gets tugged and an entire life unravels into a big, disorganized pile.
Wow in that scary way. In that extra, extra fucked up way that you can only say with a whisper. Because it's too awful to say with anything other than your inside voice. Wow.
Schizophrenia and disabling drug addictions have always triggered that for me. That anemic wow, so helpless and confusing and anger-inducing. You stand in front of the broken pieces wishing you knew how or where to start putting it all back together but you know you can't. Like a prized piece of hand-blown glass that you've super-glued and placed back onto a shelf.
Lolita was hospitalized several times in those early years. No one understood all of this or knew how to even start. But over time, the doctors found medications that quieted the voices and took away the paranoia. In exchange for the silence, the beautiful and vibrant Lolita had become a twitching, lip-licking shell of herself. She was gone.
Sister had children of her own and even a few grandchildren now. Their mother had passed on some years back and for all of her adulthood, Lolita had become her responsibility, too. Sister even took on caring for Lolita's kids from as early as when she was in fifth grade. And never once, did she seem to be bitter. In fact, Sister seemed happy to be caring for her older sister.
"I love how you call her 'baby,'" I said to Sister in the hallway. They both swung their heads in my direction and smiled.
Sister chuckled as she pulled her pocket book onto her shoulder. "That is funny, ain't it? What I look like calling you baby and you my big sister?" She cocked her head playfully and looked at Ms. Lolita. She was met with a blank stare by her older sister but it didn't seem to bother her at all.
"I love the way you love your sister." That was a rather loaded thing to say but it was true. I loved the way she cared for every detail and never seemed like she was even thinking of uttering a complaint.
"She raised me. Wasn't even old enough to cook on the stove without a milk crate, but you best believe she cooked me hot meals every single day. Mama worked long hours and had to 'cause our daddy passed in a accident and left her by herself. But Lolita always saw about me, you know, up until she couldn't no more."
"It ain't never bothered me none. I wouldn't be who I am if it wasn't for her. She was like a mama to me and I learned from her that seeing about your kinfolks is what you 'sposed to do. 'Specially in your 'mediate family. Ain't that right, baby?"
"Alright then, Miss Manning. We'll see you next time, okay?"
"Take care, hear? And make sure you dress them boys warm."
"Yes, ma'am, I will."
I headed down the hall but still watched them as they headed out. Sister was walking with an arthritic limp that I hadn't even noticed before then. Just as they reached the swinging doors out of the clinic, I saw Sister stop to fish something out of her purse--I travel-sized jar of Vaseline. She scooped a bit out with her finger, quickly emulsified it into her palms and wiped them over Ms. Lolita's cheeks and forehead. Then she popped it back into her bag, held the door open for her sister and followed her out.
Out toward the reality that continues well after the mornings at Grady Hospital.
Now playing on my mental iPod. . . ."Come to My Window" by Melissa Etheridge. Juliette Lewis' haunting portrayal of the ruthless thief, schizophrenia, in this video has always grabbed me by the neck. Her youth and her beauty, so lonely and wasted. . . .all against Melissa Etheridge's throaty voice. . . .makes this one of my favorite videos ever.