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"Exhume" by Robert Warf

The connection I feel to my mother’s side I would not define as a connection. More a fantasy. There is no one to connect with. I have only ever met one besides my mother and that aunt died ten years before her body died. I think it’s easy to be told who someone is. To hear stories. Memories that became stories, descended from the mouth to another. But it is another entirely when there is nothing. Just little dots tempting you to connect them, spread across vast distances past the scope of the eye, barely visible before the vanishing point. 

There are few stories I can relate here in a family where no one talks. Perhaps none even. I suppose this is the pitfall of silence. Of the inability to communicate. Of not passing anything along. What you do is what you do. And when you are no longer, there are only vague mysteries no one seems to have answers to. 

Take for example my mother’s father. I could make up all sorts of things right now and no one would know any different. I’m not going to, but I could. You would know as much as I do and you wouldn’t know what to believe and what not to.

Before I get too ahead of myself and we’re past the point where context matters, I should provide some.

 This essay originally was titled, “REPEATER.” It was about dementia. About endings. The way the essay was designed to work involved numbered sections that repeated specific sections’ numbers, fragmented them, and circulated them around a breakdown of the history of the Winchester Repeater. This essay’s structure would have mimicked the effect of frontotemporal dementia and how this frontal part, once eaten away, will cause you, among many other symptoms, to repeat phrases and specific words without recollection they were ever uttered. This structure would have further replicated two things.

The first, the revolving, flipping motion of the repeater rifle itself. How the lever action part of the rifle controls the ejection port, so when you lever it down from the rifle the shell is ejected. There is a certain movement called the “flip cock,” where the rifle is held by the lever and with a small circular motion of the hand the rifle is flipped, the shell ejected, and another loaded. It is a circular repetitious motion. If you have seen Terminator 2, the scene where the terminator is on his motorcycle and shooting a rifle; this is a repeating rifle and the way he loads it is with a flip cock. This would have been intended to replicate the repeated loading of repeated memory. 

The second part is how I’m tying this all in to my tie-in. The more famous part of the Winchester Repeater is in fact the rifle designer’s wife. Sarah Winchester. Widow to designer and founder of Winchester Firearms, William Winchester. More specifically, the focus of this part and of these sections, her unfinished mansion, Llanada Villa. You have most likely heard of this. If not, it is the house with all the doors that lead to nowhere. It is said as well that Sarah Winchester had it under continuous construction for a substantial period bordering on 40 years. This is more of a tale. The point is that the mansion at its largest was 500 rooms, and after an earthquake, was reduced to its final form, 160 rooms. This damage to the mansion is the reason doors open to nowhere and with some of these doors, if you were to walk through you would find only 20 feet of air and the ground. This destruction created a labyrinthian maze devoid of logic and organized by damage. This would have been intended to replicate frontotemporal dementia.

And you’re probably wondering if you care, what is the connection of my family to Winchester Firearms? 

There is none. This, the connection.

The reason I had any interest in writing that essay, is that during the many years my aunt Diane was alive, but dead, my mother, being the lone remaining person in the family besides myself was tasked with taking care of her. My aunt consumed by dementia, eaten down to 70 pounds for her final years. Throughout the years my mother cared for her, she told me if she had dementia she would end herself before it got to the point where someone else needed to take over. I think, and maybe selfishly so, and my mother would agree with this also, that at a certain stage of dementia there are too many fragments of a person you once knew colliding with each other to form someone you only have a memory of, and this is not a healthy thing to put someone who knew the person through. This is not some fast-killing disease. It relishes in slowness. Extreme slowness in the case of my aunt. 

And when my mother first told me what she would do if this were the case, I believe it was off handedly, but I remember before we knew if it was dementia or Alzheimer’s, there was a serious concern about this latter possibility. A concern originating from the fact that not a single person on my mother’s side besides my aunt and now mother, have made it past 65 since 1888, and most make it to their early to mid-50s. Meaning there was really no way to tell if this was a genetic issue. My mother’s talk of this lessened after a neurologist consulted with my aunt and determined it to be dementia, meaning it was not hereditary, but the effects of the conversation stuck with me. Effects I’m not even sure what to call or make of, in the sense, I didn’t find the comment concerning. Possible even. I’m not saying under those circumstances either that’s the decision to make. Or even a decision fathomable until that is a moment you are in. I think too when she told me that I was thirteen or so. I don’t know. I was in middle school. 

I never heard this again uttered that way from my mother, but I was reminded of it when recently she went over a living will with me, and brought up the clause in it stating if something were to suddenly happen to her that a doctor will not go beyond extreme measures to resuscitate. Granted there is nothing in a medical database to tell a doctor that you have a living will, you just need a family member to tell the doctor that this is a clause and then, and I’m assuming now, you would fill out the DNR.

My mother several days ago, while talking over the phone, walked me through my other aunt’s death, and the DNR and the conditions specified that she signed off on. My aunt Erica, is who changed this essay. Railroaded it. This happened three days before I estimate I would’ve finished writing it.

See, another portion of the original essay hinged on describing a family name with one person remaining in it. My mother’s father was an only child and his only child was my mother. My mother’s mom, was one of three. She was the oldest and had my mother in her 40s after going to Duke for fertility treatment—mind you this was in the 50s. Her youngest sister, Diane, had one child, which she adopted after learning she could not have children in her forties. This child later killed outside her house in his thirties after being t-boned by a drunk driver in his doorless jeep. And then there was Erica, who before, I would have said, none.

My aunt Erica, I never met. She passed well before I was around. In the 70s. From amnesia induced by falling drunkenly in her shower. It was not just this that did her in though, but also heart irregularities discovered months after in the hospital. Before all of this she didn’t have a fair start in the world. Deprived of oxygen at birth, she dealt with a number of mental difficulties. These seamed to effect only her personality though, which never moved beyond the age of 16 or 17. Permanently naïve and also, I will clarify here this is my interpretation, but bullied by her own family. Mine.

Intellectually my mother tells me Erica was fine. She lived on her own working at a movie theater for thirty years up until her death, where she spent her free time partying and being alone. Refusing any assistance, whether financial or any other, from my family. My mother says she could have worked at “better” jobs, but intellectually seemed to think less of herself than the rest of her family did. And the rest is where I’m going with this. See, all of the women—and I could say men here too, there just aren’t any to choose from—have a lot of issues having children. It seems to take about 40 years to figure out if it’s going to happen or not. 

My aunt Erica though was apparently engaged at one point in her early twenties to a man who she dated for a number of years. This engagement ended suddenly. By letter. He said he couldn’t go through with it and provided no reasoning or anything other than a phrase indicating he loved her, but could not do it. She would never see him again and according to my mother, when Erica went to his apartment after receiving the letter he had moved or was in the process of doing so. Either way he was not at the apartment. It would take two or three years for anyone to learn what happened. That the man she was engaged with had, months prior, learned that he had a terminal and inoperable brain tumor, and had for whatever reason come to the conclusion that it would be best for him to break it off and not tell her he would be dead soon. 

I am not sure whether Erica ever learned this before she died. I would like to think she did, but according to my mother it seemed the information of his passing was relayed through a phone call to a number the man’s sister found. The number that of my Aunt Diane’s. 

Before this phone call and after the engagement was over, Erica had a child, who is younger than my mother by maybe five or six years. I’m not sure if she was seeing someone or what. It doesn’t matter either. She put the child up for adoption because my family had held a meeting with her where they conveyed how they didn’t think she was intellectually fit to raise a child as a single parent while also on the salary of a movie theater clerk, and Erica agreed with them, and put the child up for adoption. Something I did not know about until several days ago while talking with my mother about this essay.

She told me she doesn’t know anything about the child and was told by her mother never to mention or discuss it. My mother tells me it only ever came up once in conversation. This, in the late 70s when they were in Erica’s apartment after she had been moved to the hospital after a fall rendered her memory blank. Amnesia. My mother tells me she was in her twenties and helping her mother pack things from Erica’s apartment to take to the hospital. And that on Erica’s nightstand was a photograph of a child, maybe nine or so, and that my mother asked her’s if the girl in the photograph was Erica. A small blonde child my mother said resembled Erica. Her mother said it was not. They never spoke of it again. When my mother later returned to clean out the apartment the picture had been moved and she never saw it again.

Much how Erica never recognized anyone again after she fell in her bathroom. I suppose thankfully she was only around for several months in this state before previously unfound heart irregularities finished her. My mother, and this was when we were discussing DNRs, had told me that when Erica’s heart issues were discovered and surgery was all but definite, the doctor consulted with my mother about the specifications of the DNR. Erica’s DNR. And that she told them, they were dependent on Erica’s memory. If Erica, over the course of operations regained an understanding of who we were, they were to keep her alive by any means. If not, and something deathly were to happen, they were not.

Before this phone call with my mother where she told me all of this, I thought Erica only had her sisters and my mother and all of those people to forget. I did not know she had a lover dead of a brain tumor to forget. I do not know if this information she even had to forget since she may have never known. I did not know she had a child to forget as well. I don’t know either if you can remember something you never knew. Somebody you never knew. I would like to think that part never leaves. 

Never dies.

Erica, I would like to imagine it was your decision alone and that you did it because it was yours. 

In some ways it was yours to trash the previous version of this. Previously, you were another paragraph. Another aside about memory loss and amnesia. A woman who previously I only understood as mentally damaged and unfortunate in the circumstances of her death. Previously, I had written about all of these other people and their endings. How my mother’s father, went in for a heart operation and when they opened him up said, never mind, you have a week. Cancer. Asbestos. How when my mother’s father would come home from his metallurgical lab work, he would pick out asbestos shavings from his legs and do his laundry separately. This laundry covered in asbestos, which would later, five years after his death, kill my mother’s mother. All of these unfortunate events seemed so obvious to chain together through their early deaths and the lack of memory surrounding them all, but after, this is all the space I will give them now. For once it doesn’t really feel right to go about it like I was. I think I’ll give you some more space Erica, seems only right.

Robert Warf is from Portsmouth, Virginia and is a PhD student at Oklahoma State University. He has work in Necessary Fiction, Post Road, X-R-A-Y, HAD, and Variant.


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