The incessant whirring started the night my cousin Pearl was born, her brain a humming circuit of electricity, random spikes and valleys on the fetal monitors mirroring the crescendos and dead spaces of the seizures within. Almost at once, Pearl understood that the world she had arrived in would never march for her in an orderly way. Instead it would lurch and spin and tumble with dizzying irregularity, her whole consciousness coiling finally into an overwhelming desire for an end to the vertigo.
Her mother Ruby, nuzzling the top of her squirming head in the days after her birth, knew only that her late-in-life child was a restless one, bad-tempered and colicky. Ruby tried to soothe her with rocking and soft kisses and, when that failed, her own impatient chile-jus’-stop-yuh-nonsense-now love. Ruby was forty-nine the year Pearl was born. The baby had been a complete surprise to her and her husband Jackson. Ruby’s doctors called Pearl a menopausal miracle, a child who tucked herself into a still-fertile corner of Ruby’s womb and held on for dear life.
Ruby almost miscarried several times during the early months. The doctors gave her drugs to keep baby Pearl in, and Pearl curled up in the warm watery place inside her mother, and drank in the medications that seemed to calm her jangled wires somewhat. She drifted for months in that sedated twilight world, her hair shriveling to tiny kinks that would never quite grow, her nerves and sinews making frail, uncertain connections, and when she at last pushed her way into the bright florescent light of the delivery room, the shock of separation was almost too much for her. The sudden snap and whir of her brain simply couldn’t be quieted, and she couldn’t understand why no one else in this whirling cacophony she had landed in seemed to realize her turmoil.
Later on, they did realize it. “Epilepsy,” the doctors told her mother when Pearl was only eighteen months old. The child had been falling down several times a week, her pupils rolling up behind her eyelids, her jaws clattering, her limbs stuttering without consciousness. “We could give her phenobarbitol to slow down the electrical impulses in her brain,” the doctors said, and Ruby, wanting only what was best for her child, let herself be convinced.
Doctors know better than to give phenobarbitol to children now. They know how it pathologically alters the developing brain. So you could say modern medicine helped make Pearl who she became, a narrow-eyed woman still chasing those electrical impulses, still trying to throttle them back and start them up again, swallowing or sniffing or smoking whatever she could find, year after year, to quiet the buzzing in her brain.
*Names have been changed.