Out of Dublin

You kept a photo of my sisters and me, with my face torn out, which I never understood — just as I'll never forget the day you opened your arms to me

Dad called the family doctor to the house because for days running you wouldn’t get out of bed, because you could see monsters coming out of the walls. The doctor said we had to make you feel useful, needed. Said you didn’t see any point to being here.

You lying so still on your side of the bed, so stuck, gave me the same cold, sickening flutter in my stomach as the day when I closed the car door on your hand. A flutter that felt like something inside me was trying to take off, to get away.

I made up things for your idle hands to do, so you could feel, like the doctor said, that you had purpose. I didn’t take the antibiotics for those repeated bouts of tonsillitis so my high fevers would get your attention and make you bring me ice cream and damp face cloths and, later, when the worst of the infection was over, you would bring me tea and toast in bed until I returned to school, supposedly mended.

At school, I slammed my hands into the walls of the bathroom, often spraining and twice fracturing my wrists, for the attention, for time off school, to give you things to fix. Once, at 14, I ran away overnight, to give you a taste of what you’d miss if you weren’t here, if you gave up on us, on yourself.

I also rode passenger on motorbikes, holding hard to older, long-haired, leather-clad boys, and speeding deep into the countryside. Those misdeeds were mostly just for me, though, to make me feel alive and free and scared in another way, a way I could make stop.

That day I came home after school, your tired, shaky, blue-veined hands serving up bowls of the steaming chicken soup to my sisters and me, and as we’d finished eating, sopping up the last of our meal with wads of buttered bread, you said you’d put poison in the soup, that we’d all be better off dead, that Dad was trying to kill you, and my waiting through the rest of the day and night and the next day and night for the poison to take effect and the dying sensations to start.

The money I stole from your handbag and Dad’s pockets, and one time the Wheelchair Association’s collection box, to buy comics and chocolate, and later books and makeup and clothes and alcohol. These things brought pleasure, took me someplace else, and you and I were hitting and hating on each other anyway, so why not be wholly bad, give your hands more beatings and hair-pulling to do?

That time, the worst you’d ever leathered me with Dad’s trousers belt, leaving red-purple welts on my arms and legs and back. After, alone, I stared at the throbbing marks, recalling the similar mess I’d made of your fingers in the car door and marveling that a father’s belt could make the blood come so close to the surface of the skin, so precisely to the point just shy of cutting and bleeding. My fingers traced and pressed the welts, playing around with how much pain I could take, as I filled with the fizz and pop of rage and betrayal and awe.

When I was 15, you disappeared for two days, wandering Dublin city alone and insane and almost blind. You hated to be alone, and especially outside. We never, ever left you alone outside, one of us always your white cane. Waiting through the days and nights for you to come home, for you to be found, I shook so hard I felt sure my skeleton would come undone, terrified you would kill yourself or would get run over on the road.

The police found you at last and, as advised, Dad committed you to the mental hospital. With rare mention of your madness, he said putting you away was the hardest thing he had ever done.

You spent months inside Grange Gorman. Close to the time of your hospital release, I was the last member of our family you agreed to see. I never understood why I was last. I never understood why, either, when I found the unframed photograph of my two sisters and me inside your blue hospital case, with my face torn out.

When I entered the visitors’ room, with its scatter of gray, plastic chairs and two tall, dull windows draped in yellow curtains, you cried out, a sound like your heart was ripping, and opened your arms to me.

There was no one else in the room, just you and me, and during those moments when you held me and we rocked and cried together, your skin powdered in lavender and your mind quieted by medication and shock treatments, I felt nothing between us but pure love.

Ethel Rohan is the author of two story collections and the winner of the 2013 Bryan MacMahon Short Story Award. This story was excerpted from "Out of Dublin," an original memoir for Shebooks, a new publisher of short e-books by and for women.