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Angels and Irises

by Nicholas McIntire 9 months ago in grief · updated 9 months ago
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The Strangest Resolution Found in the Unlikeliest Place

My great-grandmother Colice Caulfield in a production of The Pirates of Penzance (1929)

A Poet Imprisoned

In the 1934, my great-grandmother Colice was placed in a mental hospital in Ogdensburg, New York against her will. She wasn’t mentally ill, only in the way, and today we’d just call her pre-menopausal.

But back then, all you needed to commit someone was the husband or son or brother and a doctor to go before a judge and say you were hysterical, and you were immediately imprisoned in a facility. She remained there until her death in 1977, having been institutionalized on false pretenses for 43 years.

My great uncle and his family tried repeatedly to get her out, to take her home with them, but the state refused each time, saying that the decision belonged to her husband, Edgar, who had committed her so he could have an affair.

As a result, he had no interest in letting her out. When he died, there was no mention of her in his will, so she became a ward of the state of New York. My family was never able to get her back.

She wrote amazing poetry in tiny notebooks pinned to the inside of her sleeve to keep them secret, passing them off to her family during their visits. Poems about acorn brownies and pansy dolls, about frozen lakes, and an eerie presence she referred to as the Shadow. Throughout her life and her work, the Shadow’s presence only grew in its power and menace.

When my mother wrote her dissertation for her PhD in Nursing in 1997, she explored my father’s grandmother’s institutionalization, and its effects on Colice’s four children, including my grandmother Judy, who lost their mother at ages ranging from 17 to 6.

As a result of my mother’s research, in 2003 at 20 years old, my parents and I travelled to the defunct mental hospital where my great-grandmother spent the majority of her life.

The entire place was abandoned. The hospital sat directly on the banks of the St. Lawrence River, and on the other side was Canada, though apparently no patients ever managed to swim across to freedom. The air was thick with giant mayflies, and the grounds overrun by nutria.

The red-brick buildings were all boarded up, and as we walked around them, my mother pointed out which were the dormitories, which one was the cafeteria. I came up to one of them, and it just…radiated darkness and pain. I don’t know how else to describe it.

I asked what it was used for, and she told me that it was the “treatment center”, where they used primitive electro-shock treatments, and forced the patients into extremely hot and cold baths over and over. Basically it was where they tortured people with primitive, misguided, and long-since debunked psychological “treatments”.

The Entity

Colice on her wedding day, June 22nd, 1914

After experiencing that, I decided to go back and wait in the car while my parents kept exploring. I got into the backseat of our rented sedan and just sat there, thinking about how awful this place was, and trying to imagine my great-grandmother, a writer like me and a sensitive soul, trying to survive in such an environment.

After a few minutes of sitting there, I felt something unusual. Someone was standing just outside the car door. I didn’t feel anything malicious from them, but I could somehow tell that they wanted me to follow them.

They had something to show me.

I can’t say what I saw, because I’m not sure I necessarily saw anything. At most, it looked like a distortion in the air that was roughly person-shaped, but I didn’t want to jump to conclusions and immediately decide that it was Colice’s shade, guiding me to an unknown location.

I got out of the car, didn’t say a word to this…entity, and then I followed it as it started moving. It took an odd, circuitous path through the grass. We didn’t go far, but it took many twists and turns on our way to our final destination. When it stopped, we were in the corner of one of the buildings. It was deep in the shade, a space that sunlight likely never touched.

I reached the wall, placing my hand on it, not sure what this being was trying to show me. And then it seemed to pull my focus downwards.

There, in a high crack in the brick, perhaps two and a half feet off the ground, was a purple and gold iris blooming from the wall.

My great-grandmother’s favorite flower, blossoming in the shadows, in her two favorite colors.

Shaken, I thanked the being, though I can’t pinpoint the moment it faded away. I walked back to the car in what I can only call a trance state, my mind at once blank, and yet racing to make logical sense of what had just happened.

When my parents returned, I explained my...experience, and took them to the flower. My mother started to cry, a rare occurrence. We carefully removed the iris from the red brick, and took it back to Texas. As it proliferated in my mother’s garden, she split the bulbs, giving one to my aunt, a writer who was named after Colice, and one to my grandmother, as a token or memory of her mother.

I have all of her poetry, and as poet myself, I’m currently working on a book combining my work with her own. A sort of call and response piece, presenting her work as she slowly went mad during her incarceration, whilst seeking hope in the Shadows.

It’s the only way I, as her great-grandson, can truly connect with her now, and let the world see the beauty she had within her. The only way I can find any small amount of justice for her.

And, if that was her, guiding me to that flower, it’s my way of thanking her.

grief

About the author

Nicholas McIntire

Nicholas McIntire has been writing fantasy his entire life. His debut novel, The Hunter's Gambit (Book 1 of the Archanium Codex) was released in 2019 to critical acclaim, and Book 2, A Wicked Wind, is coming September 20, 2021!

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