Were you concerned that people would be put off by the story you were telling? It’s difficult material, your family with its two lobotomies.

I was worried all the time. I knew that life had given me an incredible story to tell—six siblings, two lobotomies: one third of my mother’s family.


Incredible, yes. But who would want to read that?

I’d tell people what I was writing and watch as they turned green when they heard the word lobotomy. But it turned out that there was a story behind the story. People have since come forward to tell me they too come from families with mental illness. Allen Ginsberg, whose mother was lobotomized, wrote: “It would seem odd to others…that is to say, familiar—everybody has crazy cousins and aunts and brothers.’ What I first thought was strange turned out to be a universal story.

My father died on November 12, 2012. The date matters. My mind clenches the details, hugging tight the hairpin curves of my memory. I am the cartographer of this map. November 12, 2012.

Though it was a heart attack that ultimately killed him, my father was facing terminal cancer, and so our grief had been underway for weeks before his death. As the grim test results piled up, I shuttled my father to and from doctor’s appointments, picked up his medicines, stocked his fridge with the foods he needed to cleanse and strengthen his body. I did this mostly on autopilot and very little sleep. When I did occasionally break down—in the car, in my office behind closed doors—the ferocity of my keening frightened me. The pitch of it. The way it overtook and then left me, a funnel cloud suddenly curling back into the sky.

Like in a classroom film, I see the mass
of blood cells scything through your membranes, parted
like curtains by an ingénue. They pass
onto the main stage; from there some black-hearted
director flicks them, spinning, at my brain.
I smash the cup, and lose my words again.

Every heart, they told me, has a hole—
mine, enlarged by pregnancy and birth,
just more permissive. Meanwhile, hormones stole
the water from my blood. For what it’s worth
this was coincidence: a mini-stroke,
neither God’s justice nor the Devil’s joke.

Still, I wanted you gone. I wouldn’t join
their long term studies, chose to have them worm
a plastic cap toward you from my groin,
key holed into place, and then closed firm.
By now it should be overgrown with tissue,
and don’t think for one moment that I miss you,

but you belonged to me, unlucky flaw.
I had a gorgeous heart, the surgeon said—
more beautiful, I think, for having your
asymmetry. Now plugged and pulsing red,
you’re blameless, while, although I’m going to live,
love still falls through me like a rusty sieve.

Nigeria’s 50th birthday was a fortnight ago. On October 1, 1960, the British officially turned over sovereignty of the country to the Speaker of the newly independent Nigerian Parliament, Jaja Wachuku, in the form of the Freedom Charter. The new nation nearly convulsed apart within ten years, and in many ways, it’s amazing such an entity has survived intact, an agglomeration of hundreds of ethnic groups (and indigenous languages), many of which were so recently colonized by Britannia that they were not very warm to the idea of sharing political commonwealth with a bunch of circumstantial peers.

The holiday got me thinking of what it means to me to be a Nigerian, born in Nigeria, educated in Nigeria and abroad, living (and naturalized) in the USA, but with a very strong sense of rootedness off the Bight of Bonny. Nigeria is enormous. I’ve read estimates that a quarter of all black people in the world are of recent Nigerian origin. Among such multitudes there is so much to say that I’ve just begged off to a series of vignettes in a number that suits the occasion, and I’ve broken the expansive result into three parts. Please do join me in this sampler from our enormous platter.

Gwenn and Shawn Decker. Photo by Jeffrey Pillow

Two years ago, I walked into Shenandoah Joe’s on Preston Ave. in Charlottesville. Postured on a tall-legged, wooden barstool, a young man in his early 30’s busily dashed off letters on the keys of his laptop. White steam swayed side to side from the rim of his coffee mug, and then cut capers skyward. The vapors vanished but the rich, warm aroma of the roasting coffee beans lingered.

Turns out that the resolution I’ve made for the New Year is the #1 most common resolution made among Americans, the coveted 18-34 demographic, and comedy writers named Rob. That’s right; this year I resolve to never again let a man pin me to a table and violently twist my head around in circles so I end up looking like the girl from “The Exorcist.”

“But Rob,” you say, “You’ve made this resolution before. What are you going to do to actually keep it this year?” Simple: I’m not going to fly. That’s how this whole mess started anyway. See, a few weeks ago, my wife Julie and I spent way too long at Atlanta’s Hartsfield Airport. Now the airline will tell you that this was due to a problem with the plane’s ice shield thingamabob thingie. Of course, I know the real reason I wound up sleeping on the floor at Gate 31, which is that the Gods of Air Travel absolutely hate Rob Bloom and therefore take every opportunity to keep him at airports for ridiculously long periods of time, thus ensuring he’ll contract more germs than he would by French kissing a toilet seat at Grand Central Station.

Hence my sore throat or, as I liked to refer to it, “OOOOOOW!” This was easily the world’s worst sore throat. Ever. Imagine for a moment that you just gargled razor blades and grapefruit juice and then scraped the inside of your throat with sandpaper. Get the picture? Yeah, you’d be lucky to get off that easy.

So with a sore throat that hurt every time I was foolish enough to swallow, or do something really boneheaded like breathe, I decided to take action. I placed my throat in the “ignore it and it will go away” department—right beside our broken heater and the red Tupperware container in the fridge that’s been there so long that neither Julie or I can remember what’s in it—and went on my way.

Shockingly, ignoring it didn’t make my throat feel better. In fact, the pain, like a Jean Claude Van Damme movie, only got worse as time went on. So after a week, I buckled down and called my doctor…who couldn’t see me for four days. Desperate for help, I logged on to my insurance company’s website and found another provider in the area. They could see me that afternoon (WARNING SIGN 1).

The doctor’s office looked less like a medical suite and more like the set of a bad (as opposed to a good) porno film. Jazz muzak was playing, there were a half dozen of those little Zen sand boxes with the tiny rakes, and, sniff, sniff, was that incense burning? A female patient walked up to the receptionist and said, “see you next week.” Then two other patients did the same thing (WARNING SIGN 2).

After a few minutes, the nurse called my name and I followed her down a long hallway to the exam room. Along the way I saw three people—three very healthy-looking people—sitting side by side, with IVs hooked up to their arms. (WARNING SIGN 3). But that was nothing compared to what happened next.

I swear what you are about to read is true.

NURSE: What brings you here today?
ME: I think I might have strep.
NURSE: Take off your shoes.
ME: Do you want to look at my throat?
NURSE: We don’t have the tools for that. The doctor doesn’t believe in them. Now take off your shoes.

And, for some reason, I did. She asked me to lie down on the table and again, for some reason, I did. Then she began massaging my feet. And then my legs. Then my thighs. She must’ve noticed the look on my face (you know, the “whatinthehell are you doing?” look) and said, “you seem tense. Didn’t you get a cleanse last time?” (WARNING SIGN 4).

“Last time? I’ve never been here before.”
“How did you find us?”
“My insurance company’s website.”
“Do you know what type of doctor’s office this is?”
“Family practice, right?”
“I’ll be right back.”

As I lay there on table, my shoes off, I tried to make sense of not only what had just happened but also wondering what was going to happen next. I didn’t have too much time to think. The door flung open and in walked the doctor. Standing well over 6 feet and weighing at least five Mary-Kate Olsens, he looked down at me.

“You’ve got a low grade fever. 99 or 100.”
“You can tell that just be looking at me?”
“I’m a doctor. Stay still.”

Then Giant Doctor sprung into action. He flipped me over, jabbed his elbow into my back, and pressed down with all his weight. My spine popped like it was bubble wrap. Then he flipped me over and snapped my neck, all the while telling me that my clogged auras had caused my sore throat and this cleansing would heal me by releasing my auras (WARNING SIGNS 4-85).

A long 30 seconds later, the aura cleansing was over; as was my self-respect. “You’ll be feeling better tomorrow,” he said as he left the room. I didn’t. But I did feel better a few days after that when I went to a different doctor and got a prescription for an antibiotic.

And that’s why I’ve made the resolution to avoid doctors who pound my body the way Rocky Balboa pounds a dead cow. I know it’s a lofty one but I’m optimistic I can keep it. Just as long as I stay away from this doctor. And airports.

Everyone in Germany talks constantly of illness.  It is a country of hypochondriacs and a country of contradictions.  The same person afraid of a drafty house will sit outside in winter, wrapped in a blanket and drink beer.  Fresh air is good for you, you see.   The person who rides his bike for exercise will do so while smoking a cigarette.  Explain that one.  And while a healthy lifestyle includes ample exercise, vegetables and bio-grown food, that exercise is tempered with plenty of smoking and drinking and veggies that are more often than not deep-fried and/or covered in cheese.  The aversion to actual medicine seems to come from a real distrust of the unnatural.  Herbs rule the day and are always the first line of attack.  No wonder everyone’s sick all the time!