THE METAPHYSICAL MAGICIAN
JUDITH WOOLCOCK COLOMBO
To a child the normal is the everyday, the environment in which they live. Growing up, I didn’t find it strange that our family doctor, Dr. Cook, was a psychiatrist. Nor did I find it strange when I spent every Friday afternoon from age eleven to fifteen in Dr. Cook’s office. It seemed natural that my temper tantrums and fantasies of torturing my physically abusive father should be weekly analyzed. These weekly visits to Dr. Cook’s office were just offshoots of the many family visits Dr. Cook paid to my grandmother’s house.
Dr. Cook was a friend to the family, talking to everyone, prescribing pills that had the marvelous effect of turning your urine blue and numbing your lips. He knew me well. It was he and his henchmen, who, in a Tolkensque like fantasy, I viewed as his shadow servants, who told my parents that at age ten I was not merely a bright child but a disturbed genius. I didn’t blame him for the endless lessons in every known subject that followed or Saturday afternoons lost to tutors, a regime he recommended. He still remained a superior being, a metaphysical magician, who with just a few quiet words could make you feel better. He was a godsend. He was the man whose many pills transformed my mother from a nervous, energetic, creative person, filled with passion and pain into a lethargic pain free zombie.
Still, I tried to believe. We spoke, Dr. Cook and I, of Aristotle, Milton, and Sartre, and the fact that each mind must travel from the dark into the light in order to be well.
I went with my mother the day she was to receive a special therapy. We were told it was a treatment that would change her and make her better. Dr. Cook waited for us. He smiled and escorted us into the University Hospital’s waiting room where he handed my mother over to two white clad nurses.
My brilliant mother, who’s stories lulled me to sleep at night, who created fantasy castles for me out of cardboard boxes and cellophane paper, and who played Beethoven, Strauss, and Chopin on an antique piano for my pleasure, clung to me like a child, mute and afraid. I placed my arms around her protectively and pulled her to me. But I was assured, as her fingers were pried from my arm, that this therapy would put new zing into her life.
Dr. Cook and I sat together in the waiting room, discussing Christ and Buddha and talking about Einstein’s Theory of Relativity and occasionally my fourteenth birthday, a week away. But, he left after awhile because I was not being grownup that day. I wanted to ask questions about my mother. Why was she in a room away from me? What was happening to her? When could I see her? Was he sure this treatment would work? He left, and I stayed, crying softly for my mother.
Three hours later, I was directed down a long narrow hospital corridor and told to open a nondescript door at the end. The woman, in the blue hospital gown who rose from a bed to greet me was not the red-haired lifeless woman I had arrived with, but a white haired mumbler.
Electricity, flowing through my mother’s head, had not only knocked the rinse right out of her hair but had scrambled the brain of the woman who introduced me at age four to Milton’s Paradise Lost. She had enthralled and excited me, flying around the room draped in a golden curtain as the Son of Man or hovering over me wearing a black cape on her shoulders as Satan surveying his domain.
Dr. Cook was disappointed by this treatment. It did not work, so he doubled the dose of pills. My mother now had a rainbow collection of pills to take every morning. Her urine was no longer blue but orange and green. Her lips were white and flaky, and her speech slurred.
She wasn’t silent anymore but screamed her hate and anger. She screamed her hate of me, crying out loud with pent up anger at my being a breech birth. She screamed her hate for herself. She read the bible and lived in fear of demonic possession. My mother, who first introduced me to Aristotle and Kant, who taught me about the pyramids of Egypt, and the Coptic Christian Art of Ethiopia, who planned one day to take me on a boat trip down the Amazon, now cried of roaming spirits, death, and suicide.
Dr. Cook, that marvelous magician, no longer understood. Instead, he prescribed stronger sedatives. He no longer spoke to me as an intelligent person but as an over anxious child. Of course my mother wouldn’t take her own life. She just wasn’t the type. He brought another doctor over and convinced my aunts that allowing my mother a vacation at the seashore with her children and a nurse was totally out of the question. She needed to be locked in the house and sedated until this manic phase passed.
The day my mother took her life, she used up all her rainbow collection of pills. Dr. Cook was mystified. This was not to be. He was perplexed. He blamed the era. He blamed the weather. He never blamed himself and his fellow magicians.
Judith Woolcock Colombo: Author of The Fablesinger & Night Crimes
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