First, Don’t Panic: Three Views of My Brain

This story was selected as a finalist in the annual Stanford Fiction Contest.

First, Don’t Panic: Three Views of My Brain
copyright 2010 by Mariah Burton Nelson

January 8, 2007

This morning in my mailbox I find a birthday card from my daughter:

“Age doesn’t matter unless you are cheese.

Happy Birthday to the Big Cheese from your Little Girl.”

We all have daughters. That’s why we’re in the institution. Our daughters live nearby. You don’t need to remember a man’s name, or whether he was a judge or dentist. You just say, “How’s your daughter?”

The women have hard, bony backs. They walk bent over, like turtles. We’re all elderly.

My daughter has a wife. I don’t know her name. Sometimes I do. Andrea. There it is. When I forget, my daughter laughs and I laugh. What a relief. Good thing I’m retired.

Andrea’s family invites me to their house for turkey. There are kids who play musical instruments for us. Very charming, very bright. The piano, for one.

My disease was discovered by a German doctor. My brain cells got all tangled up like fishing lines. As a result, my brain is going downhill. When I was in medical school, it was called something else.

If I can explain that, which brain cells am I using?

But did I explain it?

When my daughter told me she likes girls, we were on vacation. There was a girl on her sports team.

“Don’t worry, this is not a surprise,” I said. She was 24 and had never brought a boy home. Just girl basketball players with short hair. I’m not as sharp as I used to be but I used to be pretty sharp.

I was a doctor. Urologist.

“Why urology?”

Everyone asked that.

“Oh, I enjoy handling the genitals of strangers,” I’d say.

Actually, I enjoyed my patients. And I enjoyed surgery – especially testicular cancer. Surgeons can solve big problems fairly easily. If you want to inspire love and gratitude, remove someone’s painful kidney stone.

People will pay a lot for that, too.

Now I suffer from incompetence. Not sure why. Enlarged prostate, pressing on the bladder? Funny, because I used to be a doctor. Can’t fix it, though.

My daughter brings me diapers. She calls them something else to spare us the embarrassment. “Let me read you the package directions,” she says.

I can still read, but the words don’t make sense. Even menus confuse me.

My daughter says, “Let me just read what it says here.”


“Men should point the penis downward,” she reads.

I was a urologist. Still, I’d prefer to keep my penis private for as long as possible.

“Point the what?” I’m teasing her.

She looks down, blushing.

“Men should point the penis downward,” she reads again.

“I’ll point my penis wherever I damn well please,” I say.

She looks up and sees that I am joking. She throws the diaper at me.

The diaper is just a strip, like women wear for their period. It has two sides. One is sticky. I can’t tell which. There are arrows. They mean something, but what?

Later my daughter tells me, “Dad, you’re supposed to throw them away. I found them in the kitchen again. Put them in the trash can, okay?”

That’s annoying. Where does she think I would put them?

Her mother calls to wish me happy birthday. We have not spoken in a long time. She says, “When we were married I wasn’t very nice to you. I apologize.”

I say, “Oh, I don’t remember any of that.”

We talk about our kids when they were young: water balloons, birthday cakes. Fireflies. I used to create treasure hunts. Little clues that rhymed, each clue leading to another clue up in a tree fort or in the little graveyard where we buried all the dead goldfish and hamsters.

I say, “Our kids are successful because you used to read to them.”

She says, “Well, you’re the one who used to buy them books.”

Our son lives in California. He has two kids (three kids?) with funny names. If he had named them ordinary things like John or Mary it would have given me a better chance, but he gave them weird California names.

I tell my ex-wife that our kids are successful because she used to read to them when they were little.

She says, “Well, you bought them all the books they wanted.”

I never really understood why she left – except she used to call me an emotional retard. Or was that the other ex-wife?

I’m even dumber now.

At least I can still get myself shaved and dressed.

My mother used to say, “A place for everything, and everything in its place.” Then she died. I was about six or seven. I thought her words were a secret message to me, that she was hiding some place. Boy did I search that house, the yard, the woods out back. Where oh where was her place? Never did find her, of course.

My ex-wife is old too. She seems to be doing okay – still swimming. She tells me about her doctor and her diseases. That’s what it comes down to: doctors, diseases, kids you can be proud of. Life.

The other wife left me when my brain got the German disease.

“We’re moving into a retirement home,” she said. But she never showed up. “I’ll sell our house first,” she said. Then she sent over a skinny guy carrying divorce papers. I gave him a piece of my mind – but just a piece, unfortunately.

I didn’t like that place. It smelled like old people.

Now I live in an institution with trees. I’m not sure what state we’re in but it’s close to the house of the person at the very top of the whole country.

At the doctor’s, they ask you what state you live in, what day it is. I flunk the tests. It’s depressing. My daughter cries, sniffling and smiling and trying to make me think it’s allergies.

The doctor says I’m doing okay because I had more brain cells than most people to start with. She gives me an empty circle, and asks me to draw a clock. “Your picture looks like someone dropped the clock, Dad,” says my daughter. We laugh at everything, even when it’s not funny.

The last test is “write a sentence, any sentence.” My sentence is, “I hope to God I die of something else.”

I didn’t want to have three kids. I thought two was enough. But my wife wanted an “insurance child,” so in case one died, we would still have two. Now the insurance child lives near me and takes me out to lunch. She drives.

I gave up driving. One time I couldn’t find my house. Apparently I was looking right at it. A neighbor came out and asked me if I was having car trouble. “Brain trouble,” I said.

The other wife does not call me, and I do not call her. The machine has too many buttons. When it rings I pick it up. That part works okay.

Now my lady friend is Jane. (Joan? Jean?) We talk about the news – the new president trying to fix everything, or the weird singer who died, or the wars that go on and on. They are not like the war I was in, because no one is ever going to surrender.

Another woman eats dinner with us. Her grandchildren come visit — with her daughter. Everyone has a daughter; that’s why they’re here. You hear that a lot: Thank God for daughters.

Before I moved here Jean had another boyfriend. When he could not dress himself, he had to move down to the other floor. Then he died, I think. A lot of people die here.

I walk outside, around the building, but an alarm goes off when I leave. That’s because one time I walked down the street. Someone from the institution drove up: “Are you lost?”

“No,” I explained. “I’m wandering up and down!”

Still, I had to get in the car.

There were old people on the porch, watching me return, like a bad kid who skipped school. I bet they get lost too. We’re all in the same boat.

I used to love to read: military history, medical mysteries. Now when I turn a page it erases everything, like that red square toy the kids used to have, with the gray in the middle.

I still walk around the building, doing laps. “How can you remember how many laps you’ve walked?” a lady asked me. I can remember some things. All is not lost.

Also, “First, don’t panic.” That’s what I learned in the military.

They bring me my medicine. (How do they know it’s mine?) The nurse (or something like a nurse) watches me. I can’t tell you what a single pill is for, isn’t that funny?

I can actually feel my brain cells dying. It reminds me of when I was a boy. I used to lie on the field at night and listen to the chirpy insects and watch the sky. Clouds floated in front of the stars until there were no stars, just black.

January 8, 2010

Tonight we’re having a party tonight.

Excuse me, someone’s knocking at the – –

A doctor. I was a doctor.

I can still put on my pants. I can shave. I watch the radio, to keep up with what’s happening in the world.

Are we having a party tonight? What time? Should I go downstairs?

I live on Floor 4, near the little room that goes up and down.

I keep up with what’s happening in the world by watching the radio. There are hot red thingies in California, burning thingies, near where my son lives. How close is this commotion to him? What would he do if…? On the radio I see houses burning down. Next time he calls I will ask.

The phone rings. There’s a party tonight, I’m not sure why. She says, “Just stay put, Big Cheese, we’ll pick you up.”

“Is it written on my, you know?”

“Yes, but don’t worry about it, I’ll come get you.”

I think there might be a party. I’ll have to check on that. (How?)

The phone is ringing, but when I answered the door, no one was there.

Is she coming today?

I’m worried about my son because of the flames. Houses burn down – I watch them burn. What about his house?

I weigh about 1800, or 1803, I think.

I live on fourth floor, near that little room where you push the buttons to go up and down.

Last night I went to the show. It was about history: How things went, and then what happened. It was pretty good.

Tonight we have a party. I don’t know where to sit, but then I find a bouncy thing to put my behind on. My daughter says, “Dad, do you know how old you are?”

“Eighty and a half.” She laughs, so I laugh back.

A woman comes over and gives me a kiss. I don’t think we’ve met. She whispers, “Pam got into Stanford, Dad!”

Is “Dad” my real name, or…?

The party moves very fast: Why so many people? A whole group-dee-do. Too much food and talking. A whole group-dee-do. They keep passing me plates. I’m not sure what to do with them.

“Which one of these things should I use to eat this thing?” I point to a bowl.

A youngster with skinny arms kneels on his seat. He leans over, looking at me hard, then bursts out laughing. “Poppy, you can’t eat soup with a fork!”

We wear pointy hats with string. I’ve always liked hats.

My brother is there. He’s tall for his age. The ceiling fan knocks off his pointy hat. We all get a kick out of that.

He leans over and says, “Dad, would you like some help shaving?”

I don’t know what the party is for, but no one asks me. Fortunately, it is not a test.

January 8, 2011

The words: flying around in my mouth like bees or things with wings and can we fly over to you, because talking is happening? But talking is not really happening, because words cannot fly around if the little engine that could. I want to sing the song, the colors in the coat and tie, because the food is pretty good here. A place for everything. That’s what it comes down to.

Don’t panic. How’s your daughter?


copyright Mariah Burton Nelson 2010


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