Along the Highway

On Sending Marianne Away
By Maria McDowell

Marianne's nose was pink and plump from her mother's hand. She loved those chicken noodles but combined with laughter, they would sometimes pop right out of her nostrils. June, her mother, was quick with the tissue but hard with the wipe. A slurping noise came from Marianne as she watched her mother toss it into the kitchen trash.

"You know she can't watch that damn Mary Poppins and eat at the same time! Would'ya turn it off, Rose?" June would holler.

While Marianne clapped her hands, Rose walked over to the television and turned it off, making Marianne moan. It had been a difficult year for the three of them. After their father had died eight months ago, June evolved into a callous and bitter woman. She had always sworn that she made the right decision in keeping Marianne at home. But this year made them both question that decision. For June, her interest in Marianne dwindled slightly each day. Rose doubted it ever occurred to her mother that their father might leave them one day. She remembers the day she was sat down and the meanings of cerebral palsy and mental retardation were explained to her. She had no idea at the time but slowly over the years, she began to see her mother's words reveal themselves. All she knew was that she had a new baby sister, and that the baby wasn't normal in many ways. It took until she was about nine for Rose to understand just how many things were wrong with Marianne, and just how much time and patience would be expected to help care for her.

Rose was twelve when she began to harbor feelings of embarrassment for Marianne. Her goofy, babbling sister had frustrated her to tears more than once. She began making up lies that Mama had to get up real early so sleepovers would be held elsewhere. When boys started asking her out, she'd meet them at the movies instead of having them catch a glimpse of Marianne.

"I don't quite remember how I kept David Gringer, my first real boyfriend, from ever coming inside. He must've thought something illegal was going on, the way I made up those flagrant excuses each time he tried to come in," Rose said.

Now, she was twenty-six, a high school graduate and head secretary a local real estate office, a position she held for almost eight years. Her relationship with Marianne had developed over the years, and though Marianne couldn't say her name, she could definitely recognize her, and was comforted by her presence. In a weird way, Rose was also comforted by hers: the familiar slope of the right side of her face, the constant drool and the infectious laugh that always greeted her when she walked in the door.

"It was easy to be with Marianne. She never asked any intruding questions and never posed a threat," said Rose.

Marianne would just silently listen and unconsciously believe every word. Company was enough for Marianne, and just including her in their everyday lives was really all she ever asked. Or implied. As she grew up, Rose would sometimes force herself to remain happy, if only for the sake of Marianne.

But, this year was particularly hard, for them all. Not that anything was ever easy when it came to Marianne. When she was younger, it was almost like constantly having a baby around: changing endless amounts of diapers, baths and dressings. But when she got to be around ten, and weighed almost ninety pounds, the daily care she required grew more complicated. Rose and her mother would take turns — her mother holding her up while Rose muscled each leg into her not-so-dainty underwear, and Rose cradling her legs while her mother slid the diaper under her not-so-clean bottom. But the older Marianne got, the longer these tasks took, and the more sleep deprived they became.

"Although I never dreaded the mornings because that toothy grin of Marianne's never ceased to reflect on my face, I did come to dread the stench of hour old urine, and the inevitable pressure my arms wold take. Feedings would take hours, because straining and grinding food enough for a growing girl was some task, and even lifting Marianne to and from her bed came to be truly overwhelming for either Mama or myself," said Rose.

But Marianne still seemed happy, so Rose tried to ignore her fatigued body and mind to keep up with the girl she silently admired.

It was the middle of May when June came home from work, giddy and carrying a brand new handbag. She ran around the house like a cat chasing a squirrel, picking up and putting back down all the things she was hurriedly telling Rose she wanted to replace. Her mother had earned a promotion at her job at the factory, and would get a substantial raise as a result of her new position. Rose was excited at the time; the idea of more money coming in was sure an appealing one, but she soon came to realize that the promotion meant much more than a few extra dollars.

As the weeks slowly dripped by, and her mother kept longer and longer hours at the factory, Rose's care taking of Marianne became more and more involved. June never thought to mention that this great mew promotion would cut her time at home almost in half.

"Thinking back, I doubt if it would have mattered anyway. So I kept on … tired and slow, as I watched Mama distance herself from us."

Rose would try and explain to Marianne why it was important for Mama to be away, but aside from the fact that she didn't understand the words, all she ever did understand was the lack of Mama's presence that saddened her more each day.

"There wasn't much I didn't question at the time … why Mama had left me almost entirely by myself to care for Marianne, why Mama seemed to have lost interest in Marianne almost completely, why Daddy had to die and leave me with all this, why my body wouldn't seem to let me lift Marianne from her bed anymore, and sometimes, just sometimes, why my sister couldn't just be normal, and leave me to go on with my life," said Rose.

Marianne gleefully made it to her twentieth birthday, and also made it to one hundred forty pounds. Rose bought her a pretty little wooden music box that, when opened, played "Send in the Clowns." She would watch her sit for what seemed like hours, rocking gently back and forth to the music. Until inevitably the wire would unwind, and she'd howl until Rose came to re-twist the brass knob. For months and months, while doing the dishes and other chores around the house, she was serenaded by that haunting song, and the occasional sound of what she knew as Marianne's muffled giggles.

It was an excruciatingly hot day in August when June came home from work. She was escorted by a homely middle-aged woman, wearing what was intended to be a business suit, carrying a tattered briefcase and a handful of brochures.

"Rose, I'd like you to meet Mrs. Chamberlain. She's the Administration Manager at the East Hill Institute," said June.

"Pleased to meet you," Rose lied. "East Hill … that's the mental institute down by the levee, right?"

"Yes ma'am! Finest institute east of the Mississippi!"

The woman answered Rose's question snide and proud, and seemed to get considerable pleasure from the look of confusion plastered on her face.

"Rose, fix us some tea. Mrs. Chamberlain and I have some business to discuss," said June.

Rose was appalled at her mother's indifference to what was obviously going on, but she did as she asked and retreated into her room.

"Now, I won't lie and say that the thought of institutionalizing Marianne had never occurred to me, but it was certainly a thought I entertained often. Mama had always seemed so steadfast against the idea, and I guess I had always figured that if she had any intentions of putting Marianne in an institution she would have done it long ago," Rose said.

But soon Rose realized how long ago the original decision had been made, and just how much had really changed since then. The thought of life without Marianne changed everything.

"The smell of the house would be different …I could turn up my radio as loud as I wanted … Mama could leave the TV on all night … I'd have no one to love me unconditionally. My muscles wouldn't ache anymore … "Send in the Clowns would eventually fade from my memory … so would Marianne's giggles. I could have men spend the night without embarrassment … Food would always be eaten whole … There would be no more relentless moans to answer …There would be no more crooked smile to consistently brighten my days … I'd have to live a lifetime with Mama's guilt," said Rose.

It wasn't long before she realized that what she thought about Marianne's leaving didn't really matter. Her mother would make her decision based on her own needs, and the fact that Rose had devoted what felt like her entire life caring for her sister held no weight in June's mind. Weeks passed and there was no other mention of Marianne's possible departure, but late at night, Rose would see her mother hunched over her tiny writing table, dreamily leafing through the East Hill brochures. Once she actually asked if her mother had made a decision about Marianne, and her reply was simple.

"Rose, I know you want to put your own two cents in about this, but the fact of the matter is this is not your decision to make," said June.

In one brief sentence her mother made it clear that her opinion was not wanted, and that no explanation of this life changing decision would ever be given. So she went on … caring for Marianne as she always had, and tried to pretend that life could go on as usual. At least Marianne's could. She didn't seem to notice that anything strange was going on, and rocked, and drooled, and giggled, just like she always had. Sometimes, while changing her clothes or feeding her breakfast, Rose honestly thought she might look at her and say, "Rose, you seem upset. Is there something wrong that I should know about?"

But though her smile always seemed knowing, no words escaped her lips, and no true understanding ever entered her damaged mind. Her life continued as it had, and Rose made it her goal to give her the normalcy that she knew deep down her life would soon lack.

It was the third of September when Rose came home to find homely-old Mrs. Chamberlain seated with her mother at the dining room table. As she walked in the room their heads snapped to look at her, as if they were conspiring a murder and scared she might ruin their plan. Mrs. Chamberlain was as cocky as ever, and seemed considerably more pleased with herself than she had been the last time Rose saw her. June seemed a little tired, but there was an intense seriousness that stared back at Rose from behind her eyes.

"Rose, you remember Mrs. Chamberlain …" June said.

"Sure, you're from that rickety old mental institute down by the levee, right?" Rose replied.

Mrs. Chamberlain seemed momentarily wounded, but piped right up with, "You made such nice tea last time I was here, do you think I could trouble you for a cup?"

Instead of causing a scene, Rose did as she asked and then walked silently into her room. After watching TV for a half-hour, she dozed off, but it wasn't long before she awoke to her mother knocking on her door and insisting that she come into the kitchen to talk.

"Rose, I've made my decision. Marianne is going to be admitted to the East Hill Institute two weeks from Tuesday. It's a real nice place — I went to see it a few days ago — and Mrs. Chamberlain says that they'll take real good care of her," said her mother.

"Mama, I thought you said Marianne belonged here with her home and family. The people she knows and loves!" exclaimed Rose.

"Well, anyway, I've worked out the budget, and with this new promotion I can afford to keep her there without a loan. And Mrs. Chamberlain says Marianne will get great care for the amount I'll be paying," said her mother.

"But Mama, this just doesn't-"

"Now you listen here, Rose, I've been dealing with this and trying to do the right thing for twenty years, and this is what's best."

"But that's the thing, I've been the one caring for her …" said Rose.

"I'm sorry Rose, but the decision has been made. You'll be glad to know that I can't miss work that Tuesday, so you'll be the one dropping her off. Don't worry Rose, everything will work out fine," her mother replied.

Rose wasn't surprised at her mother's refusal to take her feelings into account. She was aware this day would come, but it didn't make it any easier when it did. She couldn't imagine that Marianne would really be happy in a place like East Hill, and she certainly couldn't imagine what her life would be like without her. How could her mother do this to her?!

"I tried to imagine Marianne there … lost, confused, with strange people changing her clothes and unfamiliar faces feeding her breakfast. Would they let her listen to her music box? Who would be there to re-twist the tiny knob? Would other people's company be enough fun for her? What strange person would be willing to let her in their everyday life? What else in the world could brighten my days? Who would be completely for Marianne?" said Rose.

She spent the next two weeks in a confused, saddened daze. She went on about my daily business like she always had, floating through her work day then coming home to care for and spend time with Marianne, considerably more then she did in the past. She thought about trying to sabotage her mother's position at her job, thinking that maybe if she got fired she wouldn't be able to send Marianne away. But she never followed through with any plan, and couldn't seem to shake the horrible image of a lonely, frightened Marianne from her mind.

Finally Tuesday came. She was to drop off Marianne at noon, then go see Mrs. Chamberlain to finalize her admittance. She woke up early, wanting to spend a little extra time with Marianne before she had to leave her at that dreadful place. Rose dressed her in her prettiest pink flowered dress and packed all her things, leaving the music box on top so it would be the first thing she saw. She stopped and looked at Marianne, and using only her eyes, told her how much she loved her.

"A look of peacefulness came over her face, and I knew that her heart understood mine," said Rose.

She carefully brushed her sandy-blonde hair, while trying to explain where she was going, and that sending her away didn't mean they didn't love her. Even though Rose knew Marianne couldn't understand her, it was still hard to lie, when all she kept thinking was that her mother just didn't want her anymore. Finally they were ready to leave, and June helped Rose carry her to the car.

"Bye-bye darlin'. Now you're going to be just fine. Mrs. Chamberlain will take good care of you, and I'll be by in a few days to visit," said June.

As they pulled away from the house Marianne began to moan, but Rose gently put her hand on Marianne's knee and her moaning stopped. She drove slowly, as if they could just drive on forever. She watched as they passed by the familiar houses and wondered if she should do it. The job offer was still there for her in Florida, but it would mean going against her mother's wishes, something Rose wasn't accustomed to. It also meant giving up the completely free life she had always dreamed of.

They passed the institution about a mile and a half ago and Marianne was trying to sing along with the radio. Rose had rolled the windows down and was both scared and wonderfully relaxed at the same time. She always knew deep down keeping Marianne was something she had to do. Getting around June wasn't easy to do. At least, this way she would be a couple of states away. Rose knew her mother wouldn't object if Rose took on the burden. But it was no burden to Rose. It was a labor of love.

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