“I can spell crazy,” I said to no one in particular. I was in the car with my mom, my brother-in-law, my nephew, and my niece. We were returning from a visit with my sister at Sheppard Pratt, a relatively spa-like mental institution.
“How?” my nephew asked.
“C-A-R-Z-Y,” I answered, proudly.
“Carzy?” My brother-in-law laughed from the driver’s seat. His booming laughter was contagious, and so an inside joke was born. For years, we all used the word carzy to describe whatever was beyond crazy, things that were hilariously weird.
I remember that drive home well; we made the trip more times than I like to admit. The steadily repeating patterns of light and dark from oncoming highway traffic mimicked the waves of sadness at leaving my sister behind — again. My baby niece slept in her car seat between my nephew and me. I used to sing to her, making up the words as I went along. I imagine that the grownups would have been annoyed at my little girl voice intruding on their thoughts, but I don’t remember anyone ever telling me to be quiet.
I remember those trips to the hospital so clearly: eating cafeteria meals in the fancy dining room among other patients and their families, lounging on wingback chairs in the parlor accompanied by piano music from the corner, running on the immense lawn outside, chasing my nephew. And always my sister, who seemed so happy in spite of her increasing girth and the increasing frequency of her stays. I remember it feeling almost, but never completely, normal.
I remember the cold steel fear of my sister’s craziness rubbing off on me. I remember being afraid of losing her at the same time that I was afraid to know her. I remember wanting desperately to protect my nephew, just a few years younger, from the pain of letting go of his mom after each visit. I remember the sadness that pervaded all of us like a damp winter chill.
So the laughter in the car that night is clear and bright in my memory. It was joyful. Carzy. It was the good beating out the bad. It was sanity speaking up for itself. It was an eight-year-old girl telling anyone willing to listen that she would never, ever be crazy. It was my secret code.