by James Allen Hall
James Allen Hall’s first book of poems, Now You’re the Enemy, won awards from the Lambda Literary Foundation, the Texas Institute of Letters, and the Fellowship of Southern Writers. His collection of personal lyric essays, I Liked You Better Before I Knew You So Well, was selected for Cleveland State University Press’s Essay Collection Award by Chris Kraus and then won the Devil’s Kitchen Prose Nonfiction award in 2018. He is the recipient of fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, the New York Foundation of the Arts, the Sewanee Writers’ Conference, the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, and the University of Arizona Poetry Center. His work has appeared recently in Copper Nickel, New England Review, A Public Space, and is forthcoming in Ploughshares. He directs the Rose O’Neill Literary House at Washington College, where he teaches courses in creative writing and literature.
Hall was interviewed by Texas Review assistant editor Stephanie Savell.
SS: What is your approach to writing creative nonfiction in regards to using personal or private details of real peoples’ lives?
JAH: Every writer wrestles with this ethical line. The struggle comes because we are artists first. I try not to be a jerk. I think about motive: does it cause me relish to write this about this person? Or (and this is where I always land) does what I reveal advance the shape of the essay, does it augment thematic or tonal concern, does it reveal character? And then I ask, Would I reveal this about myself? Have I risked more personal revelation about the persona? Have I been as/more rigorously personal about the persona in the essay? Do I implicate the fallibility of the first person? Do I allow for the failure of my own interpretation? Have I layered in some complexity about the people about whom I’m writing?
And then, I remember: I was there as well. This happened to me, too. I have the right to tell my story. I am an artist, and I am given these materials, and I make with them what I can. I can’t change how people acted, though I can try to treat them with compassion in my life and in my art.
SS: While “Hemispheres” tells a story, we also felt it partakes of elements of the lyric essay. What were your creative inspirations or influences while writing?
JAH: The essay needed me to stop quite a lot, it needed silences. Because it required me to reexamine some very difficult personal material, I needed to take breaks to touch living things. Literally, I would touch flowers in the house, or my roommate’s plants. I needed to lift myself out of the world that “Hemispheres” inhabits (hospitals, suicidal ideation, family dysfunction).
Otherwise, I’m a writer always looking for connection, and the more associative the better. It makes the leaps between the parts of metaphor more formidable, and thus more satisfying to close. That feeling can graduate from impassive or neutral to impassioned and intense—all through examination and the use of metaphor—really fascinates me.
SS: The title “Hemispheres” frames the essay by referring to physical places in the world, parts of the brain, or areas of knowledge, all themes that feature prominently. How did you arrive at that particular title?
JAH: So much of art is making the world of feeling more present, more tangible. The felt world is where we really live. When I began to experience suicidal ideation, it felt like I was transported to an alternate reality that was as vivid as it was vicious. I wanted a title that could imply duality, kinship, physical space, and interior space, that could locate the imagination’s power to perceive and to color perception: to shade and shape the real realms in which we live.
SS: In the essay, you employ an unusual but compelling technique in which some sections are enclosed entirely within parentheses. Can you explain your process and reasoning for doing so?
JAH: Don’t you love an aside in a play? Where the narrator sidles up downstage and nearly whispers to the audience, so that we have the inside track on what’s happening? I always loved those moments of intimacy, where I was being taken into the narrator’s confidence, where I was being singled out, made more present, where the art spoke so closely, I could almost feel the breath on my ear.
My heart almost leaps at a “(” —it signals to me that something has opened, that something will need to be closed, but as the sentences press on, they put a pressure on the reader’s need and expectation for that closure. Every word in the next sentence, marching dutifully on, keeping their eyes forward, refusing to make eye contact with the onlooking audience—every word and every sentence that doesn’t end with a “(” increases the pressure.
I think this is how my grandmother’s brain felt when she was dying.
But there is also the freedom of inhabiting the hushed world, the imagined space, the place where nothing is visible, nothing seeming to happen. Under that skin: a whole world of feeling churning and deciding: live or die.
James Allen Hall
We are brought into proximity only by holiday or by tragedy, my family.
My older brother, CJ, texts me that our grandmother has suffered a stroke, then follows with, Don’t call. Going to bed. It is early on a Saturday morning; my nocturnal older brother has lived his part of the tragedy. I shouldn’t be surprised my calls go unanswered—the house phone just gives a busy signal. I picture it off the hook on the counter in the cramped kitchen as he sleeps downstairs in the basement, wrapped in blankets. Now it is someone else’s turn to dread. My older brother and I might live worlds apart, we think so differently. Don’t call, and I call. Going to bed, and I am wondering if I should cancel my classes for the week, if I should get on a plane to Indiana, if it will be death or life I’ll be crossing that distance to face.
My car: dead. My friends: out of town. I enlist the town’s only cabbie to deliver me to the depot Sunday morning, so that I can catch the 7:50 bus down to Syracuse, the nearest airport, three hours away.
And so it is that I find myself waiting in the dark and October cold at 6:00 am for an 8:00 bus, rolling cigarette after cigarette, leaning against a building that could not protect me from the whipping wind, within view of the railroad tracks where last spring a drunk college kid was struck by a courier train and died, his body fished out of the river next to the tracks.
A dead boy who had his whole life ahead of him. My grandmother was comatose and ninety-three. And me, suspended in between, the desire to die lodged somewhere inside me. Maybe dormant. Maybe not.
(Just now, I had to walk away from this, turn from the fact of my brokenness. I wanted to die. It is seven years later and still I do not know if I can touch this story without it pricking me open, as if suicidal ideation were a lurking virus, waiting to leap from the open air into my warm blood.
In the kitchen, I took the flowers out of their vase. I’d bought them for a party. Red and yellow chrysanthemums for the beginning of fall. I pulled them out of the vase and pruned off the dry leaves, delicately and precisely. Let my thoughts soak up only the action in which I was engaged.
Turned on the faucet. Let the cold water run, bracing, over my wrist.
Angled down the lip of the dimpled green vase. Righted it.
Tore the packet of powdered nutrient and poured it into the water.
Waited for clouds to clear. Replaced the stems. Returned the vase to its ledge.
Thinking in steps. First. Then. Fine. Now. Return.
That’s how I got myself back to life.)
The first bus breaks down halfway to Syracuse. Another comes to our rescue. Would that it were always this way. Then I take a plane from Syracuse to Cleveland, Cleveland to Pittsburgh. Then my younger brother, Dustin, is collecting me curbside. I add my suitcase to his in the trunk, and he begins driving the six hours to southeast Indiana where we were born, where my parents live again. I am glad to see Dustin, his usually impish face slightly haggard, sleep-deprived from what I think is grief.
I trust the world to face me fair; I take the world at face value. At the least, I am gullible, at most, a fool. I fall asleep on the way, waking somewhere in Ohio bleary-eyed, blinking, bringing into focus the endless cornfields, stalk after desiccated stalk. Rubbing my eyes to bring them closer. Not thinking they belong to symbol or sign, to dreamworld and divination.
In 2003, my father had a heart attack and then an interhemispheric stroke. The night the hospital took him, I went home and lay in the bed beside my boyfriend and prayed for God to bring my father back. And he did return. Changed. Meaner, racist, and willing to curse up a storm if it meant a visitor would leave him to watch television in peace.
On the way to Indiana, I do not pray for God to bring anyone back. I’ve learned: they don’t come back whole, you only get to grieve them in pieces. Something gets lost in translation from this sphere to the divine’s. Or maybe it is that something gets taken in exchange.
I do not pray. But I hope so hard that I can almost feel the outlines of my aorta swell, as if fitting a foreign object..
We get in late to the hotel, the one we always stay at when we visit for Christmas, but we’re at the emergency room at Schneck Medical Center for visiting hours the minute the clock strikes 8:00 am.
She isn’t in her body.
It’s my first thought when I see her, comatose in the ER bed. She can’t smell the antiseptic assailing her. She can’t see the neon sign for Hildreth’s Liquor Mart pulsing iambic through the dawn fog out her window. Her body is failing her, though her heartbeat is strong.
Her face: skin slumped against cheekbones in surrender. Her hair is curled perfectly; she’d just had a new permanent before traveling from Miami. It is a shock of white on top of her Homestead tan, befuddled, out of place, as if asking, What is a do like me doing in a don’t like this?
She came to see my dad, her eldest son. She came because my mother wanted her to sign some papers to transfer the house from my grandmother’s to my father’s name. She came wearing her pink and white pinstriped suit, her imitation-pearl clip-on earrings.
She isn’t in her body. She is ninety-three years old and she is my grandmother, witty and alert and active and full of accidental innuendo, and if anything in the world should provide a shield against mortality, surely those charms should stay the scythe. Outside, the growing morning light obscures the flashing neon sign:
It syncs with my heartbeat, then falls out of time.
Dustin opens up the newspaper he’s brought from the hotel, going immediately to the sports section, reading out loud to her body a story about LeBron James’s recent move to Miami. His voice is more up than beat, reading down the columns, half-expecting that she might perk up or turn toward him to hear more about her beloved Miami Heat.
She isn’t in her body. And she doesn’t return by the afternoon: Monday, October 25, 2010, the day before the NBA starts its regular season, a day she always looks forward to, the day she dies.
Later that morning, the doctor comes by to speak to Dustin and me. He tells us one hemisphere of her brain is swelling, shoving against the other side. I ask if she’s in pain. He lifts her eyelid and shines a light into the socket, then touches her pupil with a tool he produces and sterilizes. There is no flinch.
I want to punch the doctor for touching her so casually, for showing me the shell her body has become.
One side is pushing on the other, he tells us, and eventually one side will win out, will pulverize its other half. He makes it sound like a wrestling match, a fight for dominance between two twins. The right side—the musical side—is swelling into, diminishing the part of the brain that controls logic and language. At some point, the left hemisphere will burst. If she isn’t in pain now, he says, pausing at the threshold, she might be soon.
I can tell it gives him no pleasure to say these things.
(Peel back his eyelid, blow on his pupil.)
Nor does it give him sting.
Saturday night, the night after my grandmother’s stroke, the night of CJ’s tossed-off text message, I am emailing my students and canceling a week of class, and at that same moment, Dustin is at a party getting high for the first time on crystal methamphetamine, after happening upon two musclebears smoking it in a back bedroom, telling him, It’s not for you, pretty boy, and so to prove them wrong, he raises the pipe to his lips and lays fire to the bed, and as he’s inhaling of his own volition, holding the smoke in his lungs as if it were precious, as his lungs almost ache with the possession, CJ is entering Schneck Medical Center and taking the elevator up to the second floor, pretending he can’t hear the night nurse tell him visiting hours are almost over, entering my grandmother’s vestibule, drawing the curtain, pulling up a chair next to her, leaning down to list for her all the wrong she’s done him, all the slights that sliced him down, all the ways she deprived him, made him feel his distance.
The sound of oxygen being pushed into a human chest. The choking click of the valve, shutting off. And the body, which is made to take in too much, lets out what it has changed by holding, however briefly, lets out what it wasn’t made to hold.
What is it to want to die?
Hard to remember when this was—years before? or after, when he is in the middle of his getting sober?—but I’m with Dustin in his apartment in Pittsburgh. We’ve watched a bunch of Golden Girls episodes. It’s Saturday night, the evening feels endless and slow.
I don’t know how we get onto the subject, but I remember Dustin telling me how he’d do it—the plan involves pills, a plastic bag, a rubber band to gather it at his neck.
How utterly ordinary it sounded in his voice. First, this. Then, that. And finally.
I had been stopped at wanting—paused, parsing out the desire. But Dustin had gone further, had progressed from what to how.
(I have to put distance between us. I wish I were sorry.
When me-now speaks to me-then, I sometimes don’t know which preposition to use. I am afraid of you. I am afraid in you. I am afraid for you.
Where is the past? Underneath? Behind? What does it, lurking, want? To be inside of the moment, to be present?
To push into, against the other hemisphere until it is the only voice, the only story that survives?)
After the afternoon update—after another MRI—we know improvement is impossible. She will die. It is a matter of time. We believe if we do not act, she may die an excruciating death. There is no brain function except the pushing, the swelling, the injury becoming larger, uncontainable, unhealable. The doctor says we should bring anyone who wants to say goodbye to the hospital.
How is it mercy is given to some of us to mete out to those we love? Is mercy even the right word? Would it be selfish to keep some for myself?
My mother rides to the hospital with her sister, my aunt Karen. I go with Dustin. CJ stays behind because someone has to stay with my father, from whom we are keeping this news. He’s demented. We don’t want to upset him continually. (When it’s over, my mother will sit him down and say, Larry, your mother passed away, and he will say, Really? as if it could be a lie.)
Karen decides to come in, just to say goodbye, quickly. She and my grandmother, fellow flower enthusiasts, exchanged seeds and advice through the mail. But an hour later, Karen is still there, because the doctor says we should terminate life support as soon as possible, and the nurses nod their heads, and my uncle in Miami agrees by phone, and so we are excused from the room while my grandmother is terminally extubated. (A loud gurgling sound is not muffled by the thin blue curtain with stars and half-moons on it.) And then we’re let back in and we stand around my grandmother supine in her bed and we wait for her heart to stop. And it takes and takes and keeps taking a long time. I am aware of my feet aching. I want to sit down. Guilt, a sense of obligation, shame of my overweight body all keep me upright. We can see her jugular jumping, tympanic against her over-tan skin. At first we are tearful and sad. We hold each other’s hands.
And then I look up and notice my brother smiling. My mom and my aunt, too. And I realize I am smiling as well—not an ear-to-ear grin, but the smile one sends to another, tinged with sadness and relief, an unafraid smile, some kind of joy bringing us closer, a smile streaming through us from the woman dying in the bed below, some kind of last rite, her body giving us its benediction, saying, It doesn’t hurt like you think.
And then the jugular stops. The machine lets out a high-pitched whistle that is softer than I thought it would be to hear. A nurse comes in. She lays a stethoscope against the chest. What must it be to hear that loud nothing. To send an invitation into the body, and for the body to refuse to answer, the body taking the phone off the hook, saying, Don’t call, going to bed.
The nurse jots down the time: 5:48 pm. She tells us it’s time to go. We leave the body she’s not in there in the room that we leave. I do not turn, I do not look over my shoulder, I only never see her again.
It is dangerous to have felt such intrepid joy, radiating in that room from my grandmother’s dying. For months afterward, I am afraid to think about my grandmother, to feel again that simple happiness, afraid it will only spur me, turning the dreams I am having about dying into reality.
The pleasure of lucid dreaming is that it cloaks itself in the textiles of the real. I sometimes lose myself in that fabric, imagining myself walking out to the field behind my house in the most comfortable clothes I own, weeds poking up through the snow and brushing against my unshaven legs, the sun on my throat, rubbing the gun I’ve brought against my face, parting my lips with its barrel, tasting the gun’s cold heft on my tongue, tilting it toward the roof of my mouth, the fear churning, the thought that I can get this wrong straightening my spine, the field growing more still as I calm my breathing, wiping my sweaty hands against the hem of my shirt, the whizzing cars going by, turning from them, my fingertip at the trigger, massaging it lightly, and harder, then
—And when I come back to myself, the show I’ve been watching has gone off, or the sun has flung itself down the sky. It can take almost an hour to get back to my body, the one I’m not in when these fantasies play themselves out, each detail of this desire pressing into my body so that I can feel it. Give it shelter.
Wanting to die doesn’t feel like dying. It feels like sharing my body, halving and freeing up space inside it, so that the nouns of the world can possess it. Gun, grass, snow. Field, frozen creek. Sound of cars taking sound of gunshot with them down the road, scattering the sound of my falling. Light, then dark, settling on my body, lounging in between my unmoving legs, cuddling in the crook of my bent and outstretched arm.
And some part of me—the dispossessed, the free—already inhabiting a different sphere, walking away but wanting to do something, filled with humiliation: I’ll be dirty when I’m found. But filled with relief, too. In life my body has been a burden I bore, and now in death it will become someone else’s—and then I think of whomever has to lift it from snow and dirt, lift it into some waiting car, lift it onto a gurney and into a morgue, and as I stumble backward from the rising and chasing shame, I wish as hard as I can that the succession of hands in blue gloves will forgive me, wash me clean, bless me. I hope that the living will consider what I’ve left tenderly—at least patiently.
My mother tells me that when my grandmother arrived in Indiana she was very dirty. Left dead skin cells everywhere she sat. When my mother tells me this, I suddenly recall Grandma ten years back, a visit she made to where I lived in Pennsylvania, how I had to brush away from my couch what I thought was sand when she wasn’t looking. I didn’t want to embarrass her. I thought of her like the mummy from the movies, always leaving behind a bit of the ruined pyramids, some bit of stone crumbled to remnant, to dust.
My mother asked Grandma if she’d like a bath, and Grandma admitted she would but said, I can’t stand up in the shower. She was dirty because she did not have the strength. She was afraid she’d fall.
The home health aide who was there to take care of my dad said she’d help. She and my mother sat Grandma on the bench in the bathtub—the one my disabled father used—and washed her. My mother spent an hour alone on my grandmother’s feet, filing down the thick and yellowed toenails, buffing them until they gleamed.
And afterward, everyone was too tired and too full of good cheer—vulnerability had been vanquished, shame had been scrubbed down to its microbes. No one wanted to ruin that kind of joy by entering the sterile air of a bank, with its cordoned-off lines and May I help who’s next’s. After the bath, my mom called the branch, and the manager confirmed the paperwork could be done by mail. That settled it: they stayed home.
Later that night, my mother heard my grandmother emit a sound, a loud Oh!, a half-call, perhaps of surprise or refusal, and when my mother rushed to check on her, she found my grandmother unresponsive.
I do not believe in a merciful God. But maybe it was quick. Let it have been quick, over before the surprise browned around its edges and saturated itself with knowledge.
Maybe there was more than Oh!, but the language hemisphere was already rising to a swell, rising toward its inevitable crescendo, my grandmother silenced before she’d had the chance to say everything she wanted to say.
I want the bathing story to be the last thing I tell you—I want you to picture my grandmother’s body enjoying being clean, being ministered to.
She tended herself so badly, I wonder if she felt the shame first of being naked in front of my mother and a perfect stranger. But if so, it must have dissolved pretty quickly, with my mother’s characteristic ability to make anything seem normal—the way she did with my father. Pleasure dissolves shame, giving way to relief and perhaps, I hope, to pride again in her body, and then in the aftermath of fresh soap and good warm water, to renewal.
Six days after the stroke devastated her brain to the point that she had no measurable neurological responses, four days after I left my home in upstate New York, and two days after she died, a card she penned is postmarked in Miami. October 27, 2010. It must have been my uncle or her renter who found the unmailed but stamped and addressed card. Surely, one of them dropped it in the mail. It is not a mystery I care to solve.
Two days after I watched her body stop, her cursive hand moves through time and space to upstate New York. I get home at night, saying thank you to my colleague Jim who has picked me up from the bus depot and has deposited an exhausted and unshaven me at my door. He brings me my mail before he leaves—a gesture I find impossibly kind in its simplicity. Here is the world again. Almost immediately I see the colorful square of a birthday card among the Pricechopper coupons and bills.
Happy birthday, says the flimsy card. I can’t tell you this in person. But I will be with you all day.
It’s next to me, all around me, in my head and in my life: her sturdy voice, which might as well be her body, delivered, crossing out space, pulverizing time, her body become indestructible.
I am no longer afraid to die.