Patsy Cline Sings Songs Of Love

dedicated to the inspiring women and men at 
F.A.M.E (Family Association For Mental Health Everywhere)

I was on my way to a doctor's appointment this afternoon when I saw her through the pharmacy window. I recognized her at once by the oversized headphones wrapped around her neck. She was sitting on the floor and pumping her fists at the ceiling. The pharmacist is used to these mock protests against the heavens, these not-so-private antics of calling forth presences that the less imaginative cannot see; they put a smile on his face as he fills out her monthly prescription. It is the January People, slumped in their bucket seats against the wall, impatiently waiting for their cold formulas and asthma inhalers, who see only dementia being acted out in this ritual. They avert their eyes, refusing to acknowledge her or the cast of characters descending from the ceiling tiles for fear of catching whatever she is carrying. I turn away from the window and proceed to my doctor’s office. I, too, have become a January Person.
There is a photograph of her running down Bay Street stark naked. It is a weekday afternoon in the summer of 1984, and she is headed in the direction of the downtown business district. The picture is taken by a passing tourist and published in one of the city tabloid newspapers. It is snapped post factum, the subject already twenty or so meters away from the photographer. You can see the outline of her spine through the thin membrane of skin, her buttocks like a pair of perfectly synchronized Salvation Army bells swinging to the right. Her startled black hair cut just below her shoulders brings Medusa to mind. In the foreground, to her left, an elderly couple are huddled up against the door of the Fox & Turtle Pub--- a Kodak moment if you ignored the look of terror on their faces. There is something of the Sasquatch feeling to this picture, of a fugitive knowing it is being watched, possibly photographed, but going about the business of eluding capture. 
Earliest memory: I am almost five years old and I am being carried on the back of my aunt, the youngest of eight girls and only five years my senior, who is taking me to the outhouse. It is night, the moon has passed behind the clouds, and I am yawning. The straw thatched hut is located fifty yards behind the farmhouse, just close enough to make the trip not feel like a burden and just far enough to keep the stench away from the dining area during the dog days of summer. My aunt gropes in the dark with her free hand. The hut is made of straw and mud, and month-old newspapers are used for toilet paper. Two wooden planks are suspended over a ditch six feet wide and four feet deep. My aunt’s responsibility: to act as my guardian when Nature calls, at any time of the day or night, and to ensure that I do not die in humiliating fashion; that the first-born son of her oldest sister, the crown prince of the family, is not allowed to drown in that cauldron of human excrement and urine. She swats at the flies and re-arranges the planks by bringing the closer ends together so that they touch and form a V. I pull down my pajamas pants and crouch at the intersected end. My aunt has to go too, so she plants herself where the planks widen, her back to me. I yawn again and, here, the memory is strobe-like, blinking in and out focus. My head hits something hard…a white tiger sits on its haunches at the entrance of the outhouse, speaking to me…my chest is hot…a black rabbit springs on my face, blinding me…From later accounts: my aunt runs screaming into the house. There are no words exchanged, no questions asked, just my grandfather in his bare feet and underwear, hurtling himself between the clay kimchi jars and across the cabbage patch toward the outhouse. I had not gone fully under for very long, if at all, I am told later, because the cooler temperatures in those waning weeks of summer, had made the ditch “less like soup, more like stew”. I am carried into a house of tittering females, relieved to see that I am alive, but pinching their noses just the same. They are armed with pitchers of soapy water, scrub brushes, and towels. I am changed into a clean set of pajamas, and tucked snuggly into my grandmother's arms. There is the vague sound of someone being lashed with a stick in the yard and more screaming before I finally doze off.
I returned to the farming village where I spent my childhood, raised by my maternal grandparents and my seven aunts; and where my parents, who worked and lived in Seoul, came to visit me once a month. It was 1987, and the whole country was in a state of frenzy, eagerly preparing to host the Summer Olympics the following year. The village had been razed and replaced with highways cutting across what was, once, fertile cabbage and radish fields. The route would allow quicker access to “authentic” Korean villages for the thousands of expected tourists. Near where the outhouse once stood, a uniformed man sat in a tollbooth along an empty stretch of road, rehearsing for the coming congestion.
I came here to Korea to visit my aunt who was a patient in an insane asylum just outside of Seoul. She had been sent there the previous year from Toronto, after the many failed attempts to exorcise the devil from her. The Korean Catholic Church had some of its older female members routinely--- and clandestinely--- perform exorcisms in congregant’s homes. These elders were naturally predisposed to the rituals of spirit-banishment because of the powerful grip shamanism had over Koreans for millennia. For many who converted and immigrated to Canada, Roman Catholicism was just a modern day manifestation of a religion practiced by their forebears, and exorcism just another way to perform guut- a common rite of purification. My grandmother comes from a long tradition of mudangs- shaman priestesses whose role in Korean life as spiritual healer, doctor and fortune-teller made them indispensable for keeping order between the realm of spirits and the human.  After my aunt’s daring escape from the second-floor Bay Street condominium, where my grandmother was also one of the participants, the church moved these practices to less accessible areas of the city, far away from camera-carrying tourists, and where doors were reinforced with double-locks.
The asylum was a medium-security facility, separated into a men’s and women’s ward. It housed the entire spectrum of “sick people” in Korean society: criminals and sociopaths; epileptics and political dissidents; schizophrenics and artists indulging the mildest forms of melancholy. Even law-abiding citizens, suspected of threatening the image of a chaste and orderly Korea that the government worked so hard to cultivate for the Olympic audience, were indiscriminately thrown into its cells. But many others, like my aunt who suffered from serious, but treatable, illnesses, were confined there without even the slightest pretext of a medical diagnosis. The asylum was tucked away in a valley surrounded by rumpled stone hills with swelling streams furrowing between the few islands of trees. These hills, once home to Buddhist temples, were now dotted with neon red crosses. Once the hub of Buddhist culture in the Far East, Korea was now in a golden age of Christian evangelism, which also meant that atheists were the overwhelming majority of the asylum’s inmate population. In the cab I had hired from Seoul, organ hymns played softly in the background. It was when we passed under the gates of the asylum that the driver sat ramrod straight in his seat and cranked up the volume. He could hear the cries of the devil coming from the building windows, he shouted to me through his rearview mirror. At the entrance to the reception building, he murmured something about praying for my soul, took my money, and quickly drove off. You could hear the deep groan of a church organ issuing from his car and echoing off the hills.
I was led into a large white room with small rectangular windows barred from outside. The odor of disinfectant and fake pine trees hung in the air. My aunt was already waiting for me, sitting on the other side of a metal table. She was dressed in a baby blue gown, tied with a string at the back, and a pair of Minnie Mouse slippers. The room was empty at this time of day, except for a few patients arguing over a television in the adjacent room. One woman was at the window, babbling quietly to herself. A noise like the rattling of bars and some moaning could be heard coming dully from the back of the building. She got up and walked slowly around the table, looking at me the whole time. Her hair sagged on her head as though she had just walked out of a shower, thick oily strands falling over her pale round face. She had aged considerably and was much heavier than when I saw her off at the Toronto airport the year before. Her eyes had a noticeable droop to them; when she attempted a smile, it only made her look sadder. She touched my face like a blind person, tentatively with one hand at first, then with both hands while she looked away with her eyes closed. For my aunt, touch was a brazen act of memory. It had been over six months since one of my aunts from Seoul had paid her a visit.  She was desperate for companionship and neurotically self-conscious.
"Look how fat I am,” she said. “They just keep feeding me here all day, eat eat eat, like I'm a cow or something. I forget how slim and beautiful I used to be." She went on to describe life in the asylum: one of her friends was recently rehabilitated and sent back to her hometown; Doctor Cho, who was madly in love with her, was going to leave his bitch of a wife any day now; the two cruel nurses whom everyone referred to as "Kim Jong-il" and "Stalin"; the cocktail of drugs she took everyday.
“They start talking to me,” she said, pointing to her temple, “when I don’t take them.” About her romantic life, she said, “I make love to myself everyday when he’s not around.” By he, she meant Doctor Cho.
We were interrupted by another patient, a friend of my aunt’s who had come to pay her respects to the crown prince of the family. Hae-gyoung was tall and gaunt, of indecipherable age, her face in a permanent state of unfocused remembering. She had been a patient here for nine years and the few remaining family members left to her--- one older brother and two younger sisters--- had stopped visiting eight years, two hundred and ninety-four days ago. She laid a crinkled sepia photograph on the table. It was a picture of a much younger and livelier version of her self and of a boy the same age. They are standing at attention in their black school uniforms, hats clenched nervously against their stomachs and blushing, as though the photographer had just given a name to what was, until that moment, unspoken mutual longing between the subjects.
"My boyfriend," she said, smiling to reveal her crooked and stained teeth.
"Okay enough enough enough, you little slut!" My aunt snatched the picture from off the table and tossed it behind her to the floor.
"My nephew is visiting me not you. Go somewhere else and wait for your own nephew to visit." Hae-gyoung scurried to pick her picture up from off the floor and, like a kicked dog, scampered sideways out of the room. My aunt turned back to me, twirling her hair with her fingers, and smiling innocently.
She had begun writing me immediately after she arrived at this asylum in Korea. The first series of letters were full of the anguish of separation and the fear of loneliness. These emotions quickly turned to despair and depression. With no more than an elementary school education in Canada, her English was a collision of run-on sentences, lacking coherence or linear development of thoughts. But you could count on moments of astonishing atavistic power, like a mental plunge in arctic waters, with nothing to buffer the impulse from the expression.
“I hate tis plas Im goin crazy heer Plees com take me.” Through the chicken scratch of her last letter, I was able to extract one request. She wanted her Panasonic tape recorder and collection of cassettes. There was “nuting gud” to listen to at the asylum, she wrote. To hear her favourite songs again would bring joy back into her life, would remind her of being together with family. So I scoured through her bedroom in my grandparents' apartment, turning over the mattress and emptying every box and plastic container. I packed everything I could find into my bag, including a pair of large headphones. When I passed the bag over to her, she went giddy with excitement, dumping the contents onto the table and sorting through the cassettes like they were heirlooms passed down to her from her ancestors. She held one up and waved it in the air triumphantly. Then, looking around for nurses, she slipped the cassette into the player. It was Patsy Cline’s Greatest Hits album. She sang along to “Faded Love” as if she had been listening to it everyday, not missing a beat. 

As I look at the letters that you wrote to me,
It's you that I am thinking of.
As I read the lines, that to me were so dear,
I remember our faded love.

Her voice was so vibrant, the clarity of enunciation so unexpected, that it brought me back to a time before her unraveling, when she used to sing while working the fields with my grandfather and my other aunts. I used to sit under a poplar tree and listen to her for hours on end until I fell asleep and she had to carry me on her back to the farmhouse. Even the cicada in my jar would go quiet when my aunt began to sing. A nurse came to our table and shut off the player. She reminded my aunt of the hospital rules: she could listen to music only with headphones on when she was in public spaces or else it would be taken away from her.
“I’m sorry, Ohn-nee,” my aunt said, holding up the headphones. “My nephew brought me headphones. I just wanted to share the song with him.”  The nurse frowned at my aunt, then looked over at me. It was time for me to leave.
“Beesiting our ober,” she said in English.
"Stalin," my aunt whispered as the nurse walked away. We looked at each other and giggled. I gave my aunt a long hug and promised her that I would do everything I could to bring her back home.
“I know you will,” she said, not quite believing me. “You are a good nephew.” At the door, I turned around to say goodbye to her one last time, but she was too busy looking through the pile of cassette tapes on the table to bother looking up. When my cab arrived, I heard a tapping on the window behind me. My aunt was standing on the other side of the barred windows, wearing the headphones I had bought her and smiling like I had never seen her smile before.  I waved at her as the cab drove away.
Three years later, at the Queen Street Mental Health Center where she was committed, I volunteered there and asked to be assigned to my aunt’s ward. My official title was librarian, but it would have been more accurate to describe my job as janitor. I spent more time cleaning out toilets for the patients than checking books out for them. It was there that I began to undertake the study of schizophrenia, the disease my aunt was suffering from, and inquired about her condition with her doctors. I had learned that my aunt’s case was not as severe as many others and that her condition had only worsened during her stay in Korea. They also believed that she would soon be ready to go out on her own; with the proper drugs and social support, she could move into a halfway house within months. It took less than six months before she was registered at Progress Place and offered her own government-subsidized apartment. I went to see her often and took her out for dinner or bought her favourite carton of cigarettes when I had some money on my hands. She cherished her freedom, held it close to her at all times, talked about it the way a starving woman might talk about food. Stepping out of the elevator on the fifteenth floor, I would often hear her singing at the top of her lungs off her apartment balcony. I imagined people walking along the sidewalk below, looking up momentarily with their hand over their eyes and wondering who let this raving lunatic into their neighbourhood.
It was just a question of time before the exorcisms and the time she spent in the asylum in Korea were relegated to a shelf in her mind that she could no longer reach. Her face would go blank when I asked her to talk about those experiences. She would shrug her shoulders and change the subject. Basking in the sun of her present freedom, she felt no need to delve into the dark past.
After a year of this, I stopped dropping by to see her. Less important, but more pressing issues began to consume my life. I missed her, but knowing she lived so close, that she was within reach, took away the longing and the guilt. Even her phone messages, increasingly less frequent and urgent over time, were left unanswered for days, then weeks…then not answered at all.
Following my doctor's appointment this afternoon, I walked by the pharmacy again and stole a peek through the window. It was almost closing time, empty except for the pharmacist chatting with his assistant at the counter and my aunt slumped in a chair with her back to the door. The headphones were on  and she was swaying slowly from side to side. When I entered, the bell tinkled and the pharmacist and his assistant looked up at me. They recognized me immediately as my aunt’s nephew and went back to talking amongst themselves. I was uncertain about walking up and saying hello to her. It was nearly impossible to satisfy her insatiable need for attention even at the best of times, and in my current condition it would have been too much for me. I took a seat by the door. She was singing quietly, but you could hear her clearly even from where I was sitting. It hit me then just how much I had missed her singing. 
"You know," she said to nobody in particular, "Patsy Cline sings songs of love."
The pharmacist and his assistant did not pay attention; they had learned, over the years, how best to tune her out. My aunt reset her ancient Panasonic tape recorder, cleared her throat, and began to sing again.

Crazy… I'm crazy for feeling so lonely…
I'm crazy… crazy for feelin' so blue...
I knew…you'd love me for long as you wanted,
And then someday, you'd leave me for somebody new.

I pulled the hood back from my parka and leaned my head back against the cold window. I closed my eyes and imagined that I was propped up against the trunk of a poplar tree with a jar on my lap, inside of which was a respectfully silent cicada. The display shelves to my left and right stacked neatly with medicines were rows of radishes in a field. And that voice I was now hearing was one that I knew I had heard before in some distant and almost retrievable past.

Worry…why do I let myself worry?
Wonderin'… what in the world did I do?
Oh, crazy, for thinking that my love could hold you...
I'm crazy for tryin' and crazy for cryin'
And I'm crazy for lovin' you...


  1. Beautiful. Very moved. It would be a great short story if you could flesh it out a bit.

  2. A very emotional, touching story beautifully told. Thanks for sharing.

  3. You are a very brave an amazing writer... I hope your stories get passed down through the generations.

  4. It's indescribable what I'm feeling after reading this story. My eyes are teary at the end of the last paragraph but I can't actually cry. It feels like mix of dull chest pain and the sweet warm feeling in one basket not knowing what to do with each other. It makes me feel weird like this when I read your stories. I don' t know what it is exactly...but then I guess I don't always need to name the feelings that I feel. All I know is that it made me feel lots of things at the same time and I took me away to so many remote places that I like to visit but never dare myself to go. Thank you, thank you, thank you.