Vultures’ Wake by Karen Marker


They’d seen it all, their wings tips touching
like piano keys played together –
so many suicides born from the house
where Nana’s china dolls sat on lace doilies,
on the arms of the sofas, blue eyes unblinking,
suffocated by plastic covers. For display only.
The curtains drawn, Nana itching with eczema.
Vultures had feasted upon her husband Doc,
son Bill , then her second son, Keith,
another doctor, had taken his life
at a park in Denver, after he’d signed
himself out for the day from Menninger’s
months before his daughter’s marriage.
Top psychiatrist in the state of Colorado,
did he see as clearly as the vultures did
when he wrote up his Rorschach studies
of soldiers back from war? The illness
of his family they called schizophrenia
had no treatment.


Nana had no warm bones about her.
She called her only grandchild
by her full name – Susan Lynn.
Harbingers of death circled about
that girl with the dark eyes who felt
their presence in the absence of a father.
Her only memory of Keith: the day he took her hand,
wire rim glasses glinting as he lifted her up and over
the sidewalk, her mother on her other side.
She was told he was a trombone player
who loved chewing juicy fruit gum
and boysenberries. She was told he was
the most beautiful whistler and dancer –
he and her mother had been the dreamed of couple
until his illness when he said to his wife she must,
for her own sake, leave him.


Beautiful Susan. Black Eyed Susan.
At nine she took the last name of the man
her mother had married. Our father became her father
before we were born. We called our sister Susie,
knew she once had a doll named Joannie
who was more real than her first father.
They dressed in the same clothes our mother
had sewed them. All three, mother, doll and daughter
dressed alike and then she had us – two new sisters.
Our half-sister cut from the same cloth,
we three linked like paper dolls to one paper
mother. Did we see the spread wings in the thermals
circling over our house in Hamden? We knew
she was boy crazy. Her boyfriend Bob came on Fridays
to eat baked beans. She was so cheerful and then
she was consumed. Possessed. Her speech became less than
a whisper. A mute mouth. Her body stopped moving.
This almost death a shroud that covered her head
where the vultures clearly hovered. That was our sister gone.
But not yet in their clutch.


Our half-sister broke into pieces –her brain
electroshocked into our sadness, and then our shock
seeing her walk out into a foster home and later
into a catholic college, then into the arms
of a waiting husband. She was 22 when Barry
became the father she’d lost and she became
the lucky maiden, plucking up lines of poetry,
growing hollyhocks, African violets. An English teacher,
her every period perfectly placed along with the fruit tree
blossoms in vases that filled her house. Tulips, iris,
June roses, a big living room with all new
Scandinavian Design furniture, sleek wood lines.
Curtains flung open to the garden.
The chances of her coming home faded.
She typed in a letter the words her psychiatrist once told her:
How she was the lucky one. The best thing she could do for us,
her sisters, was to make it on her own away from the family.
You will function better that way, he told her.
What family did he mean?
Who were we without each other?


In Rochester over the Mayo Clinic, in Edina
the nesting vultures had a family. They stayed at rest,
wings hung out to dry after the long updrafts.
There was no way they’d see her unhoused
so fiercely she was rooted into everything
she’d put in place, her medical records long ago forgotten.
Still these birds had the longer view, their eyes pierced,
scoped out the scene from their perch.
They could work with what they already had –
the family bones with their fragments of meat.
Her psychiatrist husband was determined to tell
another story, until he couldn’t and when it came,
her shutting down had a name—bipolar disorder.
That’s why she was always so high and happy.
But none of his training prepared him
for when she turned into someone else, stopped
talking, walking. Frightened. How much this looked like
some evil death angels hungered for her taste.
Then more miracle happened. Wires in her brain, lithium
in her kidneys, Susie was back to herself, he wrote.
Again the vultures left her alone.


All those words lost on a slip of paper the sand blew away
like her mind. They waited until her husband was dead
a year already, when she would fall on the floor and be found.
They were waiting when she stopped moving and feeding
herself. It was not death, not yet, but not really fully life.
These birds prey on what is gone already, they come
when they can smell its stench. Her life had been
a gift they granted twice and now there was nothing
her memory could confirm. No doctor understood the scan.
The only thing for certain –she was not going back
to the grand piano, the furniture, all her painting so carefully
collected, that kept her in place. Vultures know how to work
together, their kettle ready for the feast. She will be going
into hospice. And now we, her sisters, see she was always
like them, waiting. Drying out her folded wings after flying
on thermals. Wanting to go home to her family.

This poem tells a generational tale of mental illness and it’s treatment. Even when a family member is a psychiatrist mistakes with long lasting repercussions are made. And sometimes despite it all there are successes.


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Mad in America hosts blogs by a diverse group of writers. These posts are designed to serve as a public forum for a discussion—broadly speaking—of psychiatry and its treatments. The opinions expressed are the writers’ own.


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