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Tuesday, September 5, 2017

Dottie’s Loss

This is based on a true story about people who may still be living, so I have changed the names and used my imagination. I mean no disrespect. I am chilled and so very sorry.

In the second week of February the weather had warmed a bit, and it was nearly 44ᐤ F. when Dorothy Sanders walked out of the big brick junior high school that afternoon and started home. She took the path through the woods so that she could stop at her older sister’s apartment. Her mother liked her to visit Kellie after all the trouble, which seemed to be clearing up, but you never knew.

Kellie had been a photographer’s model when she was at university and had had some claim to glamour and attention by the ripe old age of nineteen. But then at twenty she had surprised everyone by marrying a very plain man with a very plain job, and, perhaps inspired by Kellie’s air of glamour, her new husband had taken her to Europe for an extended honeymoon.

They had returned home and gotten jobs again to pay off the expenses of the honeymoon. They were very happy, and life seemed golden for the couple in those first years. Then Kellie had become pregnant, and she had to quit working before their debts were paid off. The pregnancy was not easy. She had severe morning sickness, sometimes fainting from dehydration. After the birth of their first child, a black cloud settled over her.

Postpartum depression had been recognized within the medical community for some decades, but out in society it wasn’t discussed at all. Kellie didn’t know what was wrong with her, but she couldn’t sleep, couldn’t seem to eat, and was afraid to be left alone with the baby. Eventually she figured out how to cope with her anxiety and guilt, and then she had another baby.

It was a lot worse this time around. Two months after his birth, she scared her husband and family so much with her wild talk of killing herself and the boys that her husband took her to the psychiatric unit of the hospital. She was subjected to electroshock therapy, a horrible experience in which she was made to have seizure after seizure, supposed to cure the neurosis in her brain. All it seemed to do was to produce episodes of amnesia and incredibly horrible nightmares afterwards. She became somewhat catatonic toward the close of the third week of treatment and remained docile for the next five weeks of her residence there. She was released the week before Christmas.

The family seemed relieved. While Kellie was in the hospital, Kellie’s husband had moved himself and the children to an apartment close to her parents’ house, and Kellie’s mother and sisters took care of the children while he was gone to his job in the big city on the river to the south. He came home every weekend. Now that Kellie was home again, the family expected her to take over her duties once again. Kellie managed to come out of her unmotivated state and take care of the children, the apartment, her husband, and her own life to some degree. But her mother was uneasy.

Dorothy, who was called Dottie, had never heard Kellie speak about what had happened to her, nor did their mother discuss the situation with Dottie. Mother had simply told Dottie after the Christmas break, when school started again, that it would be helpful if she would stop at Kellie’s on her way home every day. Dottie wasn’t surprised.

It had been a very strange Christmas. Everybody had tried to be merry, especially for little Sammy’s sake. He was just old enough at almost-three to understand that Santa Claus was coming with presents for him, and he was very excited about it. He had been strangely unexcited to have his mother come home, enough so that everybody noticed. Nobody said anything though. Sammy was thrilled with Christmas morning. He and his parents and baby brother had spent the night at his grandparents’ house, and he was up early to see what had happened in the night. Dottie got up with him and let him have his stocking, full of nuts and fruit and candy and tiny toys. When the family got up and breakfasted, Sammy was thrilled again to be given more gifts from under the Christmas tree. He had gotten his heart’s desire, a big metal dump truck, and he had raced it all around the house, banging it into the furniture and incurring a reprimand from his grandfather, overheard by his mother who had yelled at him until he cried.

The girls were expected to help get the big, ceremonial Christmas dinner, but Dottie had been let off to watch Sammy, and Kellie lay on the sofa and said and did nothing further. There were two other sisters between Dottie and Kellie. Harriet, nicknamed Harrie, was in her second year of college and had come home for the Christmas break. Lottie, whose name was Charlotte, was a senior in high school and full of self-importance for her role as the school newspaper senior student editor. (Kellie’s full name was Kathleen. Somehow everybody’s nickname had to end with “ie” and they had made a joke about the grammar rule being unbroken in their family.)

The dinner was strained. Conversation that entire week with Kellie there was stilted, and never more so than their first big dinner together. What did one talk about when it was obviously the rule that one could not mention the elephant in the room?

When the first day back to school had arrived, Dottie was secretly relieved. But she found out immediately that she was expected to take on the brunt of the work of supporting Kellie in her apartment every afternoon until they brought the children over to their grandparents’ for the night. With her husband away at work, Kellie had been encouraged and had settled into the habit of sleeping over at her parents’ home with the children until Friday, when her husband came home on the train, arriving late in the evening. Dottie began to resent the situation fiercely.

She resented Harrie for getting out of everything by going off to college. She fumed about Lottie not sharing the childcare duties, but Lottie was full of her editorial responsibilities and keeping her grades up. Lottie was determined to be rewarded with a full scholarship to the college of her choice, and nothing, certainly not her sisters’ situations, could be allowed to get in the way of her ambitions. Dottie was certain her own future was soon going to be filled with failing grades. She never had time to get her homework done the way she wished. She usually ended up having to rise at 5 a.m. and do it before everyone else got up. She was getting more and more exhausted.

By the second week of February, Dottie sometimes felt like a sleepwalker. Her brain felt fuzzy, and she kept falling asleep in classes. Her test scores were terrible. She walked along through the woods, kicking viciously at chunks of ice and snow still in the hollows on the north sides of the trees. If it weren’t for Sammy, she wouldn’t go to Kellie’s at all, she thought. She wished for an instant that there were no Sammy making her go to Kellie’s. But Sammy loved her and was always wild with happiness to see her come. He even seemed somehow relieved, and she felt guiltily that she couldn’t skip her duty, no matter how much she wanted to.

She came out of the woods and onto the street where the apartment building was. Tiredly she climbed the stairs and knocked on the door. No answer. Well, Kellie didn’t always answer the door; she was too lazy, thought Dottie angrily. She shifted her schoolbooks and put her hand to the knob. Unlocked, as usual. She went in. Something was horribly wrong. Kellie? The baby? Sammy! Dottie could hear herself screaming and screaming. She couldn’t seem to stop. People came running. Then there were police, and her mother, and then Lottie with a shocked, white face and no competing responsibilities, and finally, her father, more white and shocked than Lottie.

Dottie drifted through a period of months that turned into years, unable to focus, unable to sleep much, unable to eat, with the horrible nightmares of that day recurring. So much blood, and the knife in her dead sister’s hand multiplying and coming at Dottie as a dozen knives, evilly slashing. A few months after the deaths of Kellie and the children, a movie hit the theaters that started everybody talking about multiple personalities. Dottie, like the woman in the movie, increasingly unable to function as herself, became two different girls by the time she turned 15.

Through Dottie’s increasing disintegration, her parents tried to manage her and deal with the horror themselves. Two and half years passed, and Dottie, sent to call her father to the dinner table, found him dead on his bed. He apparently had had a heart attack, though he was only 52. But the sight of him lying there shocked Dottie into reliving the sight of her sister on the bathroom floor and the baby in his crib and her beloved little Sammy face down on the bed, all of their throats cut by her sister and that horrible knife she’d held. The shock spurred Dottie’s personality split.

Dottie tried to manage things. She tried to go to school, study hard, get good grades, and obey her mother. She cried a lot. She had nightmares and headaches that left her not knowing what had happened for hours at a time. Her sisters were both gone to college. She thought there might have been another sister, but she wasn’t sure any more. She didn’t want to think about it.

Dorothy was quiet and shy. She didn’t like talking to people. She wanted to be left alone. She ran away often. She had no sisters, no father, just her mother.

DeeDee appeared a year later, when Dottie turned 16. DeeDee liked boys. She was funny and smart, sly and sexy. She wanted to be known as the wild, fun girl of the high school, the direct opposite of silly, staid Dorothy, about whom she knew everything. But Dorothy did not know DeeDee, and DeeDee did not know Dottie. Within six months DeeDee had become promiscuous. She did everything she could to get boys to have sex with her.

Dottie disappeared as the other two gained dominance.

There were a number of extremely awkward scenes for Dorothy, when a boy would try to talk to her and said amazingly inappropriate things. She didn’t like boys. She became rude to them. Well, that was not unusual. Dorothy was rude to everybody, and at home she was especially angry when those older girls came from their colleges and pretended to be her sisters. She had no sisters.

Then a third personality appeared, named just Dot. Dot knew Dorothy and DeeDee, but neither of them knew her. Dot managed the awkward scenes and helped to protect Dorothy from DeeDee. She managed school. She remembered Dottie, who seemed like a distant cousin or something, and she knew somehow that Lottie and Harrie were related to her. She managed things at home and tried not to allow the other two to wreck their life. Dot managed to get the others to graduate from high school, but it was no longer the public school.

Mother had arranged for private tutoring and there were long hospital stays in various psychiatric wards where doctors kept trying to integrate the three young women. They did not seem to have the success that had been depicted in the films and television shows about multiple personalities.

DeeDee became a prostitute and was proud of it. Dorothy wanted to be a librarian, but somehow she kept being thwarted and was extremely angry and frustrated about it. Dot continued to try to manage things. She allowed Mother to call her “Dottie” and she remembered her sisters, Harrie and Lottie. She didn’t remember Kellie and Mother didn’t talk about her.

Mother always locked all the doors and windows around the house at night after Dottie went to bed, using a different key for each door and another for all the window locks. More than once DeeDee had awakened and tried to get out, screaming at Mother in frustration when she couldn’t. Mother took to giving Dottie a strong sedative at night in her milk, and she locked Dottie’s bedroom door. DeeDee trashed the bedroom several times and broke the window, but she couldn’t climb out because there was nothing outside that window to hang onto and the drop was too far.

Whenever DeeDee seemed to become the dominant person, Mother sent her away to the hospital again for another round of treatment. The exhausting round of management continued for most of a decade.

Then Dottie began to reappear, the real Dottie, the old one who knew everything. She came for longer and longer periods of time, and finally she seemed to be back. She became a librarian in her little town, where the library was in an old house, three floors of books in every room. She was responsible and competent in her job. She went to church with her mother, and there one day she met a nice man who began calling on her at home with greater frequency. She found she could be witty and funny with him, and she could control it so that it never became improper. They had great times together.

He asked her to marry him one afternoon at the park, where she stood with her back to the woods and her head bowed, looking down at her lover with happiness as he knelt with her hand in his, looking up for her answer. She didn’t know her mother had taken him aside and told him about everything, warning him that if his intentions were serious, he must know what he was getting into. He had replied with confidence that he would take care of her. The young who are in love are always supremely confident that love conquers all.

Their wedding was the occasion of a gathering of all the family, including cousins, aunts, and uncles on both sides, as well as their siblings, in-laws, and nieces and nephews. Dottie’s two sisters had both married well and were happy and stable women with three children each.

But when Dottie’s second child was born, she didn’t know what hit her. The world turned black, she had terrible headaches and nightmares and amnesia . . . and Harrie came and took her two children home with her. Her husband sent her away to a hospital, and then another, and another. The years passed and the personalities kept changing. Harrie raised the children with her own. They stopped coming to see her. Her husband divorced her, seeing no hope left for a normal life. Mother took her back home and locked her in.

It didn’t matter anymore. The world outside was gone, and she wanted no part of it.
Interstate 80, January 2016

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