Too Much Electricity
The day came when Papaw had a series of strokes that left him not quite himself, though we still thought of him as being there primarily to love us and entertain us. He could still communicate a bit with words and gestures, though that was a long way from the brio he had brought to every interaction with us—even the smallest interactions—in the past. And he was stuck with an utterance: “Too much electricity.” That’s what Papaw said about everything, in every situation, in the long decline that would take him to his grave several years later. I’ve heard of stroke victims left with only a word or phrase who manage somehow to deliver it with various pronunciations and emphases as if trying it out to see if it could somehow be made to mean various things.
But whatever had got at Papaw’s mind didn’t leave him with a repertoire of intonation and emphasis that might have allowed him to communicate more than he could, even if that would have been merely to communicate that he was trying to communicate, which we already knew, of course. No, he always said “too much electricity” in the same way—with a small, rueful, knowing smile and in a tone that said “there’s nothing to be done about it: there’s just too much electricity.” I suppose being left with “too much electricity” was better than being left with “cigarette, goddamn” like Maisie Darling’s old mother or “shit, shit” like the auntie of our sometime friend Connie Donner.
Molly and I found all utterances involving curse words thrilling as if they had the power to do something like bring the moon down and roll it around in the river. They were forbidden words, so for us hearing them or even thinking them had a kind of magic to it. We didn’t understand strokes and dementia, but we understood what it meant to disobey an imperative not to talk trash, and we were fascinated to discover the apparent ease with which some elderly people could repeat bad words or even launch into a kind of riff on them.
Sometimes as soon as we were out of sight of civilizing forces, we would saunter around the block in a kicking-the-can sort of way and then veer off to creep through neighbors’ backyards till we arrived at the house of the Monty family, whose poor old grandmother was in a bad way and had what seemed to us to be a vast vocabulary of cuss words. We’d snake up to the wall next to the screen porch where we could listen to the Monty granny having a conversation with herself that often sounded like a conversation between two already inarticulate and now zoned out dopeheads coming down off some drug in the wee hours of the morning, though, of course, I didn’t think of it that way then. Then it sounded to me like some strange song with shouting on one end and whispering on the other and all of it in such a variety of bad words that we couldn’t even remember them well when we got home later and tried saying them ourselves out of earshot of any adults or younger children who might be lolling about.
The Montys were perfectly nice people who just didn’t seem to be around much during the day. The forbidden word concert made us feel as if the house—and by extension, the family—were somehow set apart from the ordinary world we lived in. We assumed they left the old lady to her own devices all day, though we later learned that she had a nurse of sorts who mainly spent her time watching television and napping. But what we perceived as her abandonment only added to the mystique, and we imagined that at times some of the invective she was pouring forth might be directed to her absent family. Whatever it was, it seemed rebellious, and the giggling we stuffed down to release in exhaustive sessions when we got back home was not a response to the absurdity of revered, cherished parents and grandparents uttering obscenities, though that was certainly part of it. What we laughed at was our own thought that they were at heart like us, bucking the system of adulthood.
Then, of course, the miscellaneous calamities that would come to our bodies were very, very far away and we thought of elders and the elderly as if they were of a different species. Too much electricity, well, heck, we thought, maybe there is too much electricity, but why does he keep telling us that over and over. Even if someone had sat us down and tried to explain to us with visual aids what went on when the mind was ravaged by a stroke or disease, we would not have been able to understand a bit of it and would have chafed at being expected to understand it. Besides, we were young, so we would have been impatient with any information not pertaining directly to us and our own states of mind.
That is not to say, of course, that we didn’t know there was something wrong in going to the Monty’s house and basically thinking of their poor grandmother as a figure of fun. It wasn’t just that we shouldn’t have been spying on people in their houses but more that the act and the delight we took in it were not just disrespectful but downright perverse. One day we were on one of our cussword raids leaning against the house listening to a varied and marvelous stream of invective and pinching ourselves and each other to keep from screaming with laughter, when we saw Romana passing by. And she saw us. She carefully put her parcel down on the sidewalk and the next thing we knew she was dragging us by our collars out to the street and all the way home saying sometimes loudly and sometimes in whispers “for shame, for shame, for shame.”
When we got to the house and Romana told Matu that we were “up on the Monty house laughing at that poor old woman,” we knew we were in for it. Matu was livid. “How would you feel,” she said, “how would you feel if you were poor Miz Monty and one day you’re baking cakes and the next day most of your mind is just gone and your family just parks you on the porch all by yourself and then two, two, two jackasses are coming up on your house and laughing at you? Now how would you feel if that was you.” Molly said, “Well, it’s not us,” and then I thought Matu was just going to lose it.
“Love thy neighbor as thyself, Molly Rennie,” Matu said, pausing at the end of each word. And she went on from there, with Romana pitching her two-bits in like some kind of Greek chorus. We got the whole deal from “charity begins at home” on out to children just like ourselves who were starving halfway across the world and various wars going on at the time that stemmed also from a lack of fellow feeling. It didn’t take long for our irritation at having been found out to turn into tearful shame. In some half-hearted attempt to salvage some notion of myself as a little bit better than a demon, I tearfully proclaimed that Miz Monty never even knew we were there and Matu said, “But you were there, and Molly was there, and you knew what you were doing. It doesn’t matter if Miz Monty knows or not. It was wrong.”
Matu went on in that vein till it was time for the cocktail hour. She didn’t manage to talk us into the place she was trying to talk us into, but she did manage to shame us and in the days that followed we somewhat reluctantly tried to work backwards from the shame we felt to the reasons we should have felt it. True compassion was still a ways off for us and we wouldn’t even have been in its vicinity if Wolf hadn’t gotten sick. First there was the solemn visit to the vet and solemn reassurances that he would get better. But he moped and moaned and thrashed about in the doggy bed we had for him in our room, so we worried over him and gave him his medicine and tried to get him to eat his favorite things and spoke to him in gentle tones and loved on him. It broke our hearts to see him in distress.
Matu was rather displeased when we took pillows off her bed to try to make Wolf more comfortable, but Matu was not one to miss a teachable moment. She didn’t have to say much, just “what you are feeling for Wolf right now, the way you are imagining how Wolf feels, and the feeling for him that that gives you, that’s what you should feel for anyone who is sick or feeble or in some way weaker or less fortunate than you are right now. That’s just part of being a decent human being.” I’m not sure we were able to make the necessary connections then, but we did double up somewhat in our ministrations to Wolf and our wishes that he would be well.
I already had a somewhat morbid turn of mind, so it was no surprise that while Molly brightly recovered from our moral lessoning, I sank into befuddled meditations on loss. There were a lot of things to lose in this world, most of which we wouldn’t know about or experience ourselves until later on. I couldn’t imagine being crippled or deathly ill, I couldn’t imagine losing whole parts of myself and my life the way Papaw had or Miz Monty, but I could imagine quite vividly how I would feel if I lost Wolf, and from that vantage point, I could feel the sadnesses in other kinds of losses. It opened up something in me, not just deep sorrow but something else, something more like love.