We met in a shadowed hallway, both of us discarded on a wooden bench outside of Doctor Langdon’s office, white knuckles clasped on our laps, skirts bunched about our cold feet. As the doctor had asked to speak first with my parents, I’d taken the seat next to a woman who immediately turned to me. She declared, all in one breath, that she had to see the doctor today, that something felt amiss. With eyes wide and unblinking, she said she had questions. Since her arrival three weeks ago, twenty-six teeth and her tonsils and sinuses had been extracted. Tomorrow, April 7, 1908, would be her fourth wedding anniversary, and the day that the doctor would root out her internal womanly organs, the true source of her madness.
I had some difficulty understanding the woman at first but soon became accustomed to her moist slurring, her carefully enunciated mouthing. Adept with a lavender-scented handkerchief, Elizabeth Granger caught driblets from her pale lips before they soiled the bodice of her pretty silk dress. I am quite sure she had once been beautiful, before her bruised mouth had crumpled, before her bloodless cheeks had withered. Before the bridge of her nose had collapsed.
“I wish that Doctor Langdon would have spoken to me before scheduling the operation,” Elizabeth slurred, “but he does know best.” Her eyes grew large. “Do you know how famous he is? He’s cured so many people and only 34 years old.”
She paused to apply the handkerchief to her weeping mouth. “He assured me that, this time, I would positively be cured of my silliness.” As her shoulders fell, she disappeared in the shadow of the wide stairway near our bench. “I call it silliness, but my husband has decided that I am mad. Mad as a hatter.”
“That’s what my parents say about me, though I, too, am not crazy. Surely, there is no harm in hearing voices and dancing in the moonlight.”
“There is not,” Elizabeth said. “I myself have angels that protect me from harm.” She took my hand, her cheeks tugging her ghastly mouth into what may have been a smile. I didn’t tell her how uncomfortable I felt with her sodden handkerchief pressed to my palm.
“I apologize if this offends you, but I feel that I may speak openly. When my husband drinks, he takes advantage of his marital privileges.” She dropped my hand and fussed about with her skirt, then looked back at me. “It is at these times that the angels wrap me in their wings to keep me safe, and I no longer have to abide his crudeness.”
She honored me with another grimace. “I don’t know what he will say when he learns that I cannot bear him a child. He has wanted a son for so long.” Her gaze sought the dark hallway. “I hope that my sanity will be sufficient for him. I must trust in the doctor’s treatment.”
What could I say to my new friend? I knew nothing of husbands and married life. “Friends can always confide in each other,” I offered.
I don’t believe she heard me. Her thoughts appeared to be elsewhere. “Have no fears for me. By tomorrow, I will be cured and can return to my husband, my silliness eradicated, once and forever.”
This last surgery would cure Elizabeth of her lunacy. Doctor Langdon had promised.
I was introduced to the doctor ten days after my 19th birthday. Ten days after my mother explained that she, my father, and I would be making a short journey from our farm outside Bordentown to the New Jersey State Hospital in Trenton to meet the celebrated Charles R. Langdon, the doctor who would cure me of my visions and fairy friends.
I understood that my parents would never acknowledge my fantasies and midnight revels. In their world, young women did not converse with imaginary beings or remove their clothing to leap about in the moonlight. Likewise, I appreciated that some gentlemen and their fastidious mothers might perceive my behavior as odd, and this was not to my liking. A young man, a neighbor of sorts, had recently expressed an interest in visiting me on a future Sunday afternoon, and I had no wish to alienate his attention. I agreed to visit with Doctor Langdon.
At a summons from the doctor, I sprang from the bench and walked into his office, abandoning Elizabeth to her solitary vigil. Doctor Langdon introduced himself while I gathered my skirt about me and took a chair in front of his desk. I smiled politely and refused to notice that my mother held a handkerchief to her eyes while my father patted her arm.
It was quite touching the way my elderly parents, James and Sarah Miller, begged the doctor to accept me as his patient. My very large father fell to his knees, a difficult place for him to be. My mother sobbed and pleaded as she hammered her fists on top of the desk. With much patience, Doctor Langdon assured them that I could stay until he’d had a chance to observe my behavior. Until he had cured me. Simply a matter of locating the seat of madness in my body and removing it.
After he led my parents from the office, the doctor settled behind his desk and, with fingers interlocked over his black waistcoat, described his state-of-the-art cure for my insanity. He informed me that he’d studied infection-based psychological disorders in Europe with all of the finest doctors and was well regarded. There was, therefore, no doubt about his ability to cure me. He talked at length but asked no questions.
At last I found an opportunity to speak. “Thank you, Doctor. I am very grateful for your attention.” My mother had implored me to be polite. “Don’t always act the fool, Gracie,” she’d scolded.
Doctor Langdon came from behind his desk to take the chair next to me. “I will take good care of you, Miss Miller,” he said, reaching for my hand.
Green, his eyes were green.
“May I call you Grace?” Beneath his thick mustache, so like Teddy Roosevelt’s, his lip was plump and red.
I licked my own lips, which felt unexpectedly dry. “Of course, Doctor.”
“Well, Grace, one little extraction, and you’ll be cured. Doesn’t that sound wonderful?”
I inhaled his odor of tobacco and mint. “Oh, yes, Doctor,” but I recalled Elizabeth’s face and added, “though I am concerned about how I might look like afterward.”
He leaned close. “You’ll be fine, my dear. No harm will come to you, I promise.” As we stood, his gaze swept over me, from my carefully-pinned hair, down the puffed bodice of my new mauve blouse to my belted waist, and at last to the tips of my boots. With one side of his mouth curled under his moustache, he gave me a crooked smile. “I will see you soon, Grace.”
A nurse the measure of my father conducted me up a wide stairway sun-bright with ranks of tall windows and onto a dimly-lit floor with numerous closed doorways, our heel-taps echoing in the empty corridor. As we passed the wooden doors, I heard muffled thumps and once a sharp bang, and then something that sounded like “hello” but may have been “help.” I paused and looked to the nurse, but she maintained her stride, pulling me along in her wake.
Near the end of the hall, she jangled a collection of keys held at her waist by a heavy leather belt. Choosing a large key, she unlocked the door in front of us, and we entered a room that was smaller and darker than my pretty bedroom at home. I felt the chill and dampness and hesitated before stepping to the middle. The room held an iron bed with coarse-looking linens, a dresser that had seen use, a small desk missing its drawer, and a chair near the only window.
As she settled my valise by the dresser, the nurse said, “Here we are then, miss. Now rest a bit and someone will come at 6:00 to show you to the women’s dining room.” She grinned, displaying widely-spaced teeth, and walked out, closing the door firmly behind her.
My heart clanged. The room was dismal and smelled like a washroom. Where was this odor coming from? I wanted my own bedroom and my mother and laughing father. Why had they left me? How could I stay here? I allowed tears to come for a minute or so, but then, taking charge of myself, dragged my chair to the window.
With elbows spread wide on the sill, I observed the park-like setting below. The hospital grounds were beautiful and much care had been taken. In addition to fertile blossoms and softly flowering cherries, I saw a generous garden, raked open, waiting to be seeded, and laundry exhibiting itself in heaving lines spread wide in the spring sun. And scores of budding sycamores and elms and maples on whose waltzing tops I would twirl. When I turned back, I was pleased to find that my books had been stacked upon the desk. I would see how things progressed and whether I would decide to stay.
Then shouts from the hallway and someone baaing, like a lamb, and much frenzied laughter. I was frightened. Where were my fairies? Why had they not come to make me feel better? I sat on the creaking bed and rocked back and forth, calling my fairy folk to me. And they came! They came and joined me in a celebration of this new venture. Falling back on the bed, I slept until summoned by loud raps upon my door.
She was a different nurse, boney and small, and I raced her quick steps down another stairway. As we hurried through a long green hall, a girl, younger than I, glided soundlessly toward us on delicate bare feet, her head nodding as if in perfect agreement with a companion. She was quite pretty, with fine features and a graceful manner, and passed without a word, her head nodding still. I was embarrassed to notice that she smelled strongly of her monthlies.
The nurse gave the girl no attention. As I followed her, she explained that this part of the hospital contained the kitchen and dining rooms and the separate floors for men and women. Two other wings, spread wide to catch fresh air and sunshine, held the operating theatres and doctors’ offices. With almost 400 patients, the hospital was full. “You’re a lucky girl to see Doctor Langdon. He’s our youngest physician, won’t be 35 ‘til November.” She giggled. “Ain’t he a looker?”
Noise burst from the cavernous dining room as we stepped inside, and I surveyed a commotion of women of various ages and appearance. The room, heaving with chatter and squeals, sounded, if I am truthful, like pigs at a trough, and smelled of boiled meats and something not unlike our barnyard after the fall slaughter. I couldn’t stay here, much less eat amidst this calamity.
As I turned to walk from the room, the nurse, stronger than she looked, took my elbow. “Here you are, miss.” She sat me abruptly next to a portly lady of approximately my mother’s age with ferociously dyed red hair and an immoderate barrage of lavender about her satiny evening frock. She ate with a great deal of enjoyment and attention, only turning to me after she’d exhausted her bowl of oxtail soup.
She introduced herself as Mrs. Lavinia Howard from far off Newark. Scratching her scalp with a crooked finger, she told me that she’d arrived at this fine hotel only two days ago. And wasn’t it a grand and lively place, she insisted. She was enjoying her visit, thought the food lovely, and had danced last evening with every handsome captain at the ball given in her honor. In fact, she whispered, she had been asked for her hand in marriage by no fewer than four of the young gentlemen! Wouldn’t Mr. Howard and her daughters be surprised, she laughed, and what was I wearing for tonight’s ball?
Elizabeth, the woman I’d met that afternoon, took a seat to my left. When I looked to her, something fluttered in my throat as I raised my hand to cover my lips. Her swollen, bruised mouth was exaggerated by her pale complexion, and she appeared older than she had a few hours ago. What was happening to her? She explained, slowly and carefully, that she wouldn’t be eating that evening, her appetite was so little, and that she was somewhat uneasy about tomorrow’s operation. Before I had a chance to ask about her visit with the doctor, she admitted to a slight headache and left the dining room.
I longed for a quiet dinner, but, as I reached for my fork, something struck my cheek. Startled, I looked up. “Got you,” garbled a slender woman. She threw back her head and, laughing delightedly, readied herself to throw another piece of bread when an attentive nurse caught her arm. I brushed my burning cheek and prayed to my fairies for deliverance.
Did I want to be cured? Did I seek sanity to find a husband, as my mother hoped? Was that reason enough to lose my beautiful visions, my lovely fairies, my celestial choirs?
I was beginning to find that I would like to be married. My sister was not unduly sad or prodigiously beaten, and my brothers’ wives appeared happy enough, although often looked weary with four children apiece. I considered how happy I’d be to have a man to love me, comfort me. A baby would be wonderful, too, I’d come to believe, and I could almost feel that blissful weight in my expectant arms. Yes, I very much wanted to be healed and decided to give Doctor Langdon’s theory a test. After all, what was one tooth?
I did not expect to see Elizabeth at breakfast the next morning as she was scheduled for her final surgery. The one that would cure her. Of course, she could no longer bear a child, but I was sure that her husband, once he had his wife back home, sane and happy, would forgive her for the sinful state of her womb. She was still a beautiful woman if you viewed her from an angle, and, when she had a visit to the hairdresser, her blonde curls would shine again.
Elizabeth also missed lunch, but Mrs. Howard inquired, as she speared a boiled potato on her fork, whether I had enjoyed last night’s ball. Before I could reply, a starched nurse touched my elbow. “Miss Miller? Doctor Langdon will see you now.”
His office was dark and less cheerful that afternoon. Heavy clouds obscured the sun, and I keenly felt the lack of warmth. As I took my accustomed seat and straightened my skirt, I smiled politely. “I’m sorry, Doctor Langton, but I am feeling a little unsure about my surgery.”
“Think nothing of it, my dear.” He smiled back. “It is hardly surgery, after all. One simple extraction. We have discussed this.”
I studied my intertwined fingers and fumbled for words. “Yes, of course, doctor. As you say.” I thought again about Elizabeth. “But, about Mrs. Granger,” I said, then stopped as his lips pursed.
“Mrs. Granger is doing very well, although I should not be talking about other patients.” He stroked his moustache and continued. “I can tell you that she is now completely cured and ready to go home.” I clapped my hands, as I thought he would expect.
Our meeting went on for perhaps an hour. Doctor Langdon, his voice captivating, told me that he would start with an examination. As he explained how my physical examination would be undertaken, I began perspiring. My heart beat extravagantly, and I felt a bloom creep up my chest and over my face, something that didn’t happen unless I danced with my fairies. Under his intense gaze, I grew quite heated and rocked back and forth at the edge of my chair, my breath rapid. I began to hum, waiting for the celestial choir to join me in my celebration. I rocked faster.
Doctor Langdon’s head jerked back. “Grace, you forget yourself.”
I stopped, and my gaze cleared as I blinked. It would not do. I pretended to faint.
Once in my room, I shut the window against the cold rain sleeting the panes. I ached with the chill, and my heart bled for the fragile petals and blossoms crushed and battered in the garden below. What had I done in the doctor’s office? I didn’t often rock like that. My mother said it wasn’t seemly, that good girls didn’t do such things, but sometimes my feelings overcame me. With numbed fingers, I wrapped myself in blankets and slept, waking only at dawn.
Amidst the raucous crush at breakfast, an ashen specter that looked like Elizabeth was carried into the dining room in a wheelchair. Her back rounded, her shoulders huddled over her waist, she appeared to be in pain. “Dear, how are you?” I asked, although I needn’t have. I could see. There was nothing wrong with my eyesight.
As she adjusted a blanket over my friend’s lap, the nurse reported that Elizabeth needed only one small colonic surgery in order to realize a perfect cure. It was guaranteed. Elizabeth bowed her head, looking like one of the tulips beaten by yesterday’s sleet. She did not speak while I massaged her lifeless hands.
“Elizabeth? Elizabeth, dear?” I said as the nurse walked away.
She raised her head. “They’re gone.” She slipped her hands from my clasp and brought her fingers to cover her face. “My angels are gone,” she mumbled. “I am not well.”
“What’s wrong, Elizabeth? Why are you not better?”
My surgery, a small tooth extraction, would be my first and only surgery. Doctor Langston was positive. I was so close to a cure that the one tooth extraction would eliminate my madness. I was apprehensive, especially after what I’d seen of Elizabeth, and troubled by her words, unsure what I should make of them. My breakfast curdled and rose to my mouth.
After the surgery, there was a tender gap in my lower jaw where the doctor had had to perform not only an extraction but an entire root canal. I was in some pain, though Doctor Langdon proclaimed me quite sane and ready to go home.
“Doctor, are you quite sure? My jaw aches, and I don’t feel at all well. The voices and my fairies are crying for me.”
He rose, squeezing my shoulder. “Ah, my dear. I now believe that the source of your infected brain rests in a different tooth. But, no matter,” he huffed. “Tomorrow I will address this with another simple extraction, and you will be cured.”
I thought to protest but could only smile. My second operation took place before Elizabeth’s colonic extraction, and I came away fatigued. My jaw and mouth throbbed after the extraction, this time the third molar on the top left side of my mouth.
By evening, I had a temperature. While freshening my pillowslip, a rather brash nurse told me that this was normal. “Why, Mrs. Granger is also running quite a temperature, let me tell you, but we’ve packed her in ice. She’ll be fine.” I must have looked distressed because she stopped her prattling. “Now, don’t fret, dear,” she soothed. “It’s to bring down her fever. Happens all the time.”
Such information was too much for my fevered brain. Throughout the night, my dreams ran violently with scarlet explosions and screams that must have been mine, although to that I could not attest. I woke frequently, the smell of copper rich in my nostrils, and again slept most of that day, taking only watery soups and teas.
I entered the dining hall the next morning feeling as though my head had been thumped about. I hurt all over and wished only for the comfort of my home. Why was I not feeling like myself? Why couldn’t I speak to Doctor Langdon? Ask him questions? I’d never been afraid to speak up to my mother or father. Why was I allowing this to go on?
As I walked to my accustomed seat, I realized that the normally riotous dining room was quiet. Three nurses whispered near the coffee urn, their hands buzzing through the air, and the other women bent over their oatmeal and eggs, eating softly, barely talking. As I took up a spoon, one of the nurses noticed me and put her hand to her lips, as if to catch her words. She came to my chair.
Thus I learned that my friend had passed on. She’d been 23-years-old. The nurse told me that Elizabeth’s infected brain had spread its poison overnight to her colon. Amidst the smell of eggs and toast, I choked on my oatmeal and threw down my spoon. It clattered in the dish, alarming the women who sat near, but I felt nothing for them. Elizabeth had died. Her husband would be bereft. I wrenched myself from the nurse’s solicitous hand.
Again in my room, I sat by the window and mourned my friend, though I hadn’t known her for more than a few days. Why had she died? Why hadn’t the doctor’s cure worked for her? I cried and rocked, but nothing eased my sorrow. Poor Elizabeth, I whispered, holding myself tight, hunched over on my chair. Then I was struck by a thought. Would this be my fate? Would I look like Elizabeth? No, surely that could not happen. After all, I was only 19 years old and would soon be going home. I wouldn’t die here alone, not like Elizabeth. Would I?
The day stretched long, enlivened only at night by a full moon, and my dancing feet soon allowed me to forget my troubles. But, as I slipped into my room through the window at daybreak, I remembered that I had another surgery scheduled in the afternoon. This time, Doctor Langdon had promised, he would absolutely find the infected tooth, and I would be cured. Guaranteed. I had asked the attending nurse to find me a lace handkerchief.
Doctor Langdon found the source of my illness in my top left canine tooth. “Mad as a dog,” he laughed, “but now completely cured!” Although my jaw ached, I mustered a polite smile but couldn’t form a query about Elizabeth. The words would not come. I’d seen how she looked, remembered what she’d said. The doctor must have understood because he said that her death had been such a misfortune, especially since he’d discovered the infected organ and she’d been cured. “Right at the second of her expiration, when it no longer mattered.”
It mattered to Elizabeth, I wanted to say. It mattered to me. But I kept my sore mouth closed, lace handkerchief to my lips. He was the doctor.
The next morning, he shook his head. I’d just explained how I’d been up again until dawn, dancing on the treetops, and was too exhausted to get up. I wanted to discuss things with him, but, again, something prevented me. I found it strange that he wouldn’t want to know more about me. What I thought or felt. For a medical man, he seemed to be more interested in finding a cure than in discovering why I dreamed so fancifully.
Then I had a fourth, fifth, and sixth extraction, and somehow I lost count of the surgeries. With my tongue, however, I could still number my remaining teeth. Eighteen. Of the 32 teeth I had when entering the hospital, I now had only 18 straggling throughout my hollow mouth. In distress, I took my meals in my room. Turning my mirror to the wall, I refused to open my mouth and talked to no one but Doctor Langdon and a few of the more charitable nurses who were patient with my mumbling tongue.
The following Monday afternoon, Doctor Langdon came into my room and told me that he’d written to my parents to explain that he’d finally discovered the source of my malady. It was in my tonsils, of course, and he’d be taking them out tomorrow morning. Now, wasn’t that a happy surprise. He said he was sorry that he’d misdiagnosed some of my teeth. “Some!” I gasped but he went on. This time he promised complete success. By tomorrow afternoon, if not the following morning, I would be cured.
“Isn’t that how Elizabeth’s cure progressed? Didn’t she lose many of her teeth and then her tonsils and sinuses?” I carefully dabbed my mouth. “Doctor, I’m frightened. I’d like to go home, please.”
“Now, Grace. You know I possess the most thorough and up-to-date knowledge. We have discussed this, my dear. I am an expert.”
I began rocking. Something I couldn’t name was wrong.
“Stop this at once,” he called as he walked from my room. “It is settled. Tomorrow is your tonsillectomy.”
It felt as if the doctor had scratched out my tonsils with his fingernails. Every breath stung, and my throat and my nose throbbed. When I closed my eyes, I saw pulsing flashes of red and purple, and when I opened them, all was obscured by a bloody veil. Even my eyelashes ached.
“You’re looking well today, Grace,” Doctor Langdon boomed.
I tried to nod but only managed to rustle the pillowslip.
“You will be most happy to hear that I found the source of your illness.” His chest appeared to broaden. He’d certainly gotten taller. “As I suspected, it was your tonsils. But I removed them, along with your sinuses, of course, just to make sure. You, my dear, are now completely well and sane.” His smile could not have shone brighter.
He waited for me to speak, but I would not open my mouth. I was cured, but at what cost? I’d turned my mirror right side around and knew how I looked. I’d once been a pretty girl, I’m bold enough to say, but was now not that same young woman. After the tonsillectomy and the removal of my sinuses, I resembled my deceased friend Elizabeth. The bridge of my nose, red and swollen, would no longer have that proud Miller Bump, and my mouth was an inflamed sore that concealed my shrunken gums.
I sent away my fairy friends and the celestial voices that had seen me through years of sadness. I was alone. No man would look at me except in pity or disgust, and I could not abide the thought of either their kindness or their repugnance.
Most days I kept to my room, reading or sewing, staring out the window at our dull barnyard, existing on soups and watery grains. I’d grown thin. After much thought, I considered sending a letter to Doctor Langdon to explain my feelings, but I never wrote. After all, how does one calculate the loss of a husband? A baby, a family? A life?
At times throughout the cold, stormy winter, I contemplated taking my life, especially during that blizzardy February. It would have been easy to do, living on a farm, but I didn’t. My parents had done what they believed was right. Neither said a word about my appearance
In three weeks, I’d be 20 years old. I was cured, the rest of my life before me.
Born in Brooklyn, Edna McNamara grew up near the Delaware River and has chosen to spend most of her life along its banks. She spent too many years writing only in her head but eventually put fingers to her keyboard. She credits two of her teachers at Gotham Writers’ Workshop and all of the many writers whose work she admires.