Her dark eyes glistened in the sterile isolation room at the state mental hospital. Callie, my new friend, in trouble again, was tied to her wheelchair in a padded cell. When I walked in to give her her meds, I started singing,
“When I was a little bitty baby, my momma would rock me in the cradle,
in them ole cotton fields back home….”
As Callie’s eyes met mine, her toothless grin wide with recognition, she sang along with me. Each time I spent one-on-one time with her she told me her story after our song.
It was the same story, but I loved her and didn’t care.
I imagined her without schizophrenia, skipping through the cotton fields with the other laborers, thinking little girl thoughts and dreaming of a different future.
Callie was an eighty- three- year- old black woman, a survivor of hot, hard labor, not many years after all slaves were freed. My favorite patient on a ward of forty- five other women, living a half-life as medicated zombies, Callie had moments of mental clarity when we sang that song.
I was a twenty-one year old psychology student at the university, working for some extra money, and to gain some experience with the mentally ill.
We were an unlikely couple, and it was a fluke when I discovered the pathway to her unusual lucidity. The cotton field song was going through my mind one day, as I hummed it unconsciously. When Callie recognized the tune, she lit up and sang the words with me. From that moment on, we became friends.
My job as an attendant, giving out meds to the women, was not really supervised. I could steal away a few minutes a day to spend with Callie. When her sickness took over, she could be violent, and would be confined in a cell. It saddened me to see her tied up, treated like a criminal for being ill, but that was reality in the late sixties.
The first time she told me her story, I pulled up a chair and just listened. Her recollections often brought me to tears.
“Child, I remember it like it was yesterdee. My brother, George and me getten up for grits and milk. George was a gripin about havin to work the fields agin, and momma scolded him as usual. One day he never came home agin.
I didn’t know it was a rattler. He screaming in the fields, and I jus getin mad at him fer it. I told him to shush up, so the master don’t hear it, but George just kept screamin. We found out later it was a bad snake..the poison kind.. that killed him. Momma was never the same, in fact none of us was. Those fields, as much as I hated them too.. those were my memories.
I don’t member nuthin else bout growin up. Nothin."
I couldn't wait to tell her doctor the first time Callie came to her senses and talked clearly.
She usually had a lost, crazy look, not seeing anyone, but living somewhere in her private, safe place. Her doctor didn’t roll his eyes at my discovery, but he may as well have.
I don’t know. I wanted to think that my love for her was making her well. I wanted her out of that awful place, and at least have a few more years at home with her family.
I wondered about George, what he looked like, and how hot and hard it must have been to be working the fields as children. Our song woke up her past, and even in the midst of the grief and trauma, her eyes told me she had some warm, and fond memories of a simpler happier life.
What caused her sickness? Was it guilt over George? Did she tune out after that?
When her sisters came to visit her on Sundays, I told them the good news about her temporary lucidity, but she never awoke from her fog to them.
I was the only one who was allowed in.
The song was my bridge.
The song was her key to a clear mind, for a short but sweet fragment of time. And a forever friendship was sealed for eternity.
It was down in Louisiana,
Just about a mile from Texarkana,
In them ole cotton fields back home.
This was a true story. Lyrics from the song "Cotton Fields" by Creedence Clearwater Revival
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