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In the Event of Contact by Ethel Rohan

Writing.ie | Magazine | Interviews | Literary Fiction
In the Event of contact

By Ethel Rohan

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The Prophet

With the exception of my teachers at St. Columba’s National School, Glasnevin, I have no recollection of ever talking to anyone about my childhood learning disability, not even to my parents, siblings, or friends. It was something that went largely unacknowledged, which was my family and the culture’s way. I was eightish when my teacher gently told me that she couldn’t make sense of what I had written into my blue-lined copybook, even though, as instructed, I’d painstakingly laid down my name, date of birth, and home address. I thought, How can Mrs. Demitri not be able to read? Until that late afternoon, I wasn’t aware that I jumbled my letters and numbers when I wrote, and saw information inside the mess I’d made that wasn’t there. It was also the dawning of my understanding why, when I tried to read words elsewhere, I couldn’t decipher the scramble. I could only ‘read’ my own particular pengirlship.

There was no label put on me that I can recall. Just a prescription for “remedial” classes with silver-haired Sister Gerethy, who walked with a faithful cane. I took those classes that everyone referred to in a whisper inside a long, narrow room at the end of the school corridor among a group of five or six other students who also made their own meaning out of transposed numbers and letters, or who saw codes and language straight and still couldn’t understand them. I don’t remember how long I took those classes for—a year, two, more? I also don’t remember any of the moments of breakthrough where I went from illiteracy to comprehension. The only cracks of light I can recall inside that classroom came from Sister Gerethy’s smile, the many-paned window over our bowed heads, and the polish of Sister’s brown-black cane. Typing this, my chest softened with deep thanks, thinking how Sister brought me from the shame of feeling stupid and inferior to the heights of understanding the magic of words, and wishing she knew that I’d gone on to adore stories and books and the worlds they opened up to me, the ways they moved my mind and heart.

I can’t ask my dead parents about the full details and arc of my learning struggles, and I suspect if I queried my two older brothers they would say, “I don’t remember any of that.” Memory, it’s a slippery, highly personal thing. My five siblings and I have never competed for the title, but I’m fairly certain I have the worst memory among us. Much of my childhood, where I felt largely unlovable, is a blank. Erasure was how I coped with such burning struggles as my learning disability, my mother’s psychosis, and my keeping secret that a middle-aged family friend repeatedly molested me. To survive, I allowed my mind to fragment and my memories to scatter, and for much of my life it was a coping skill that served me well. Until it didn’t, and I suffered a near nervous breakdown in my mid-thirties. A large part of my recovery required me to shine light in the dark corners of my mind, and my past, so as to reclaim myself. As painful as remembering, and telling, proved to be, it was ultimately cathartic and healing. I swore I would never again bury and hide parts of myself.

In recent months, however, my brain has fogged like the condensation on my glasses when wearing a facemask, and it’s as annoying as it is worrying. Unlike my past selective amnesia, this cloudiness feels outside of my control, and a thread of family history has stuck on repeat in my thoughts: My mother and maternal grandmother suffered from Alzheimer’s. I’m eager to escape making that statistic a generational trifecta. I reassure myself that the culprit for my brain haze is most likely the culmination of fifteen months of pandemic isolation, burnout, and way too much screen time. Other saboteurs include stress, age, perimenopause, insomnia, and the grind of publishing a new book. Thankfully, so far, my doctor agrees. Aside from the inability to focus, my largest complaint in the midst of this mind fog is the amount of errors I make when I write—in everything from an email to a greeting card to my novel-in-progress. I’ve long prided myself on my proofreading skills and attention to detail. Yet I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had to reread and revise this essay for typos, clunky sentences, and muddled thoughts. It hit me that perhaps some form of my childhood learning disability had returned. My entire adulthood, I’d considered those challenges long gone.

Yes, I’ve always struggled with distraction and a short attention span (the sole exception being when I write—I can stay inside each writing stint for hours on end). I also never immediately know right and left—there’s a second of delay where I need to mentally check in with my writing hand, to confirm it’s my right side. It’s no surprise then that I’m terrible with directions, and am a wholly disoriented driver. I cannot compute north, south, east, or west. I just can’t. On highways and freeways, I can’t determine which lanes the cars barrelling close behind me are in—the lane immediately next to me, or two lanes over? Hence my changing lanes is a game of Russian roulette. Likewise, dance and exercise classes are uncoordinated chaos where I can’t follow the chain of manoeuvres and keep crashing into the other participants, or force them to swerve to avoid me. It’s like a horror version of bumper cars, only with humans. I’ve spent my life making the best of these limitations, always grateful that I overcame the lacks around my reading and writing abilities. For books are my spine. Writing is my power. What, then, if I’m regressing? Losing my tight grip on language?

For the first time (to the best of my memory!), I recently researched dyslexia online, asking the Internet if it ever goes away. It does not. I typed again into the search bar, asking if learning disability can return or worsen in adulthood, particularly during times of stress and exhaustion. Those results were much less conclusive. After another consultation with my doctor, we’ve agreed that if my symptoms persist I will undergo tests. He recommended I relax and rest as much as possible, and better nourish my mind, body, and spirit. As part of that wellness plan, I sat outside in my garden earlier, letting the sun’s full force find me. This one full-throated crow in our neighbour’s giant palm tree cawed like he was delivering a decree from God Himself. What are you saying? I asked beneath my breath with a mix of annoyance, amusement, and curiosity. The crow’s caws kept cracking the air. A believer in signs and synchronicity, I sat mulling over the serenade’s possible meanings. I decided I could take whatever message I wanted out of the blue-black bird’s noises. Just as how as a child with a learning disability I had made my own meaning from my handwriting. Had seen and understood beyond where everyone else’s knowledge stopped. I smiled up at the crow, still squawking on about how there are no limits to what a person can do with that kind of an outsider’s mind; that wild of an imagination.

(c) Ethel Rohan

Website: ethelrohan.com

Twitter: @ethelrohan

Facebook: @EthelRohanAuthor

Author photograph (c) Justin Yee

About In the Event of Contact:

In the Event of Contact chronicles characters profoundly affected by physical connection, or its lack. Among them, a scrappy teen vies to be the next Sherlock Holmes; an immigrant daughter must defend her decision to remain childless; a guilt-ridden woman is haunted by the disappearance of her childhood friend; a cantankerous crossing guard celebrates getting run over by a truck; an embattled priest with dementia determines to perform a heroic, redemptive act, if he can only remember how; and a young girl navigates crippling aversion to touch, even from her sisters.

Amidst backgrounds of trespass and absence, the indelible characters of In the Event of Contact seek renewed belief in themselves, recovery, and humanity.

Order your copy online here.

About the author

Ethel Rohan’s debut novel The Weight of Him (St. Martin’s Press and Atlantic Books, 2017) was an Amazon, Bustle, KOBO, and San Francisco Chronicle Best Book. The Weight of Him won a Plumeri Fellowship, Silver Nautilus Award, the Northern California Publishers and Authors’ Award, and was shortlisted for the Reading Women Award.

She is also the author of two story collections, Goodnight Nobody and Cut Through the Bone, the former longlisted for The Edge Hill Prize and the latter longlisted for The Story Prize. She wrote, too, the award-winning chapbook Hard to Say (PANK, Editor Roxane Gay) and the award-winning e-memoir single, Out of Dublin (Shebooks, Editor Laura Fraser).

Born and raised in Dublin, Ireland, Rohan lives in San Francisco where she received her MFA in fiction from Mills College and is a member of The Writers Grotto.

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