Microsoft word - hunger tower.doc
Gregory F. Tague, Ph.D. [email protected]
Here in the psychiatric ward of a Brooklyn hospital, hunched and shapeless figures quiver
as slumps in wheelchairs. A young woman approaches me provocatively, bumps me, and begs
me to adopt her. Doctors hush her as I grip the wall for balance and security in my confused and
disoriented condition. One elderly patient strikes the most anguish in my heart, her bleared eyes
and smeared expression depleted and exhausted. Lustrous smell of urine. Each strand of silver-
greasy hair is a discernable layer in the monotonous evolution of her life.
Here in the barbican her hand trembles and rises above her head in the artificial light.
Dirty fingers reach out, yawning to grasp some imaginary figure, ages deceased, whom she can
still touch and enliven, perfume and smell, feed and taste. His voice yet tingles the spine of her
memory as she dispatches sentences from his letters folded in the secrets of her soiled gown,
buried in the tomb of her wheelchair. April 25, 1942. Fort Jackson, S.C. “You mustn’t feel as
you do about the future honey. Good Lord woman I’m in the Army in the midst of all this damn
mess and still there’s a future to me.”
Alkana is an octogenarian who suffers from dementia: de-mens
, out of mind. If without
sense, therefore without sensibilité
? One conjures an unrelated word, demons. Lucid and happy
weeks are interrupted by rusty and sharp days of rancor, emotions unwillingly stifled. She
hungers, but the food is unpalatable; she hungers, but will not eat. Amber twilight. Meantime
others exhibit behavior that ranges from violence, punching and spitting, to self-enclosure,
weeping oneself into a sealed, undeliverable carton. Hungry for the outside world, ravenous for
the company of others unlike her, desperately angry to eat her past, Alkana is fed medications
with names such as clonazepam and stelazine; remeron and tramadol; risperdal, lorazepam,
diazepam, and lexapro. These grains nourish emptiness.
May 17, 1942. Fort Jackson, S.C. “I took your advice and looked into the mirror, sort of
made me feel like Snow White for a while, but then you appeared in it and I took to my heels
thinking perhaps it was bewitched.” At what point does the past cease; where does the future
begin; like a burning candle, when, if at all, is the flame new? Alkana was admitted to the
hospital by her family, consulting first with the family medical doctor and then with the chief
psychiatrist. Is she severely demented, or have the side effects from the various medications
altered her body and mind? Where does dementia begin and how can it be contained? Alkana
suffers from cognitive impairment, memory loss the doctors say. She no longer walks, since
there is nowhere to go in the ward. The psychiatrist says her cerebellum is damaged and that
there is atrophy from such inactivity in her turret. What is the cause, what the effect? A nurse
accusingly declares that Alkana is losing her mind.
Alana’s distinguishing characteristic, however, is that she cannot and will not forget,
fighting to maintain the past as her present. Each and every new medication proves feckless,
rendering the medical professionals frustrated and effete. Doctors want her to forget, to starve
her memory on a diet of expensive pills. Different medications, better brands. Alkana, like
many her age, rides a carousel of the memory of her spouse alive, dead thirty years ago. A
hunger tower: medieval sliver building, a window-less spire hinged to a castle but set apart; a
dark place where prisoners are entrapped and starved to death. Soldiers and warriors ensnared
and isolated. What gray thoughts have they to feed on in their stone-cold slow demise?
How to apprehend and to understand the conundrum of Alkana but through scripture:
Abide in me as I abide in you (John 15:4). Memory is an abode. Who bides time there? The
imagined past flowers hope and desire but withers the present. July 29, 1942, 7:55 p.m., Fort
Jackson, S.C. “Well darling, I’ll probably buy your gift next week, so you can expect your bale
of cotton. You’d look sweet tugging a bale of cotton into the house. You should have pearls, but
right now I guess you’d better forget it. Darling, don’t reminisce; just keep on looking towards
the future. Matter of fact, you’re too darn sweet and nice to let the past haunt you.”
After her husband died, Alkana’s brother and sister-in-law advised her to forget and
move forward. Follow me; and let the dead bury their dead. The doctor characterizes Alkana’s
interior as glimmering flashbacks. No: years of yesterdays like crenulated gems on one gray
strand, prickly rosary to cull images and sensations. Why extinguish the light? Pictures of such-
ness: the handsome chevalier, noble and debonair, gentle and intelligent, virile and controlled.
August 27, 1942, 6:45 p.m., Fort Jackson, S.C. “Too bad you can’t see me while I’m writing this
letter. I’ve got a helmet on and a mosquito covering over that. Your picture is lying on my field
desk surrounded by truck dispatches and other transportation paraphernalia. Sorry I’ve got you
in the midst of the mess, but I’ve got to have you around someplace.”
The castellan psychiatrist comes softly and goes quietly, a BMW car key whispers from
his hand softened in his Armani suit, invisibly silent is he in soft-leather shoes. Diagnosis: there
is no prognosis. Negations. Nothing physically wrong with Alkana. She is not profoundly
: mining the firmament of one’s emotions profoundly, indeed, is her
debilitating strength. She labors over her past and weakens, to enjoy its noble fruits, which then
rot sweetly. April 27, 1943, Desert Training Center, California. “The letter you wrote me before
last seemed very, very moody and blue. You women are crazy as all hell and how well I know
that.” Between the psychiatrist and Alkana a fortified barrier; she asserts that if her husband
were here she’d kill him again. Alert! Change diagnosis and medications.
Anger like a stone; hunger like an oak. Anger sinks one in its long fall into the deep sea;
hope pivots one slowly for generations toward ethereal heaven. November 18, 1943, Camp
Forrest, Tennessee. “You’re a very charming enigma, but don’t feel too flattered.” How does
one pocket thirty years of life while simultaneously wearing the quickened memory?
Permanence of granite, sanus
mind as castle; estrangement from life, dementia as hunger tower.
Where to reside: safely inside square forgetfulness with everyone else, or outside within
amorphous remembrance, alone? Memory paradox.
A smooth sapling becomes a bark-wrinkled oak; internally and externally, past and
present, one tree. Yeats in the memory cave of age ponders stilled youth, “Are you the leaf, the
blossom or the bole?” Alkana savors salty tears and so gains life in loss. What more can we
give her? Prognosis: cure the present with the past.
Copyright(c) 2008 by Gregory F. Tague
Author Bio: Gregory F. Tague, Ph.D., is an associate professor of English at St.
Francis College (NY). In addition to his scholarship on reader-response ethical
criticism (two books and articles), Gregory's literary non-fiction, on subjects from adoption
to medical care, has appeared in journals such as Lituanus, Mars Hill Review, The
Midwest Quarterly, The Healing Muse, The Arabesques Review, and Cezanne's Carrot.
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