I grew up hearing over and over again the same few stories about her. She died young—those three words end every tale. She possessed a French beauty that the family says I inherited. Although the three black and white photographs that hang on our living room wall make me wonder about the latter, the former remains forever set in stone in a New York cemetery. Beneath that stone lies the first Rachelle, the great-grandmother I never knew, the one who lost the fight with tuberculosis.
I thought of her last summer, but not while in that New York cemetery. Instead, I sat in a bus ambling down a Costa Rican mountain road. I stared down at a building that sprawled across half the valley. Crumbling golden stone refused to gleam in a futile protest to the sunless day. Square gaps in the stone resembled a checkerboard and echoed of long-gone windows. I leaned past the friend beside me as we jolted over the road paved decades ago, my eyes straining for a better look out the window—my first glimpse of the sanatorium.
For years, I dreamed of going on my first mission trip, of exercising daring, of leaving home and tacking brave onto my identity. I never dreamed of going to a sanatorium. Yet that afternoon forever linked the two experiences, because after spending a week in a small village, my mission team packed up our bus, journeyed halfway down the mountain, and parked in that valley. We needed to travel two more hours to arrive at the capital city, but we decided to stop anyway. Surely we could find some fun in the abandoned edifice turned tourist
I expected it to smell. I know that hospital scent, and I expected it to greet me when I climbed down from the bus. To my surprise, the century in which the sanatorium had remained closed had treated it well—only the scent of rain that descended from the clouds hung in the air.
We discovered the doctor’s house first. I zipped up my sweater as we approached the smaller building tucked beside the main one. Plopped at the foot of the mountain that kept back the sunrise and sped up the sunset, the three-story residence of the doctor who founded the sanatorium boasted one immediate draw: an exterior staircase of twisted black metal that appeared to lead to the roof. Three of us ventured to climb it. Three of us retraced our steps when we realized it led nowhere. I followed the others into the yawning doorway, but the plain walls and empty window casings failed to interest me. I wanted to see the roof.
Finally, I found the crumbling staircase that led me there. A gray sky stood as backdrop for the majesty of the mountain, as green and lush as July demands. Although the sanatorium’s valley boasted no trees, from the doctor’s roof, I saw towering trunks burdened with emerald branches. What a beautiful view for such an ugly place marked by death. What did the doctor believe when he founded this place—that the hope he could offer would outweigh the morbid statistics? Did he ever wonder if he would die here, too?
I failed to notice all my American friends leaving. Finally, the Costa Rican pastor who travelled with us called out to me in slow Spanish so I could understand—“Senorita, senorita”—and I broke free from my reverie. I spun, pouring the thought I couldn’t voice past our language divide into my smile. “Isn’t it glorious?”
By the answering grin he gave me, he got the message.
I laughed off the worried looks of the others when we rejoined the group just in time to follow the waving tour guide into the sanatorium. Immediately, I rued my empty sweater pockets. I had no pen or paper with which to capture the thoughts arching across my mind. For a nineteenth-century building, it loomed expansive on the inside, open, airy. Three of us could fit shoulder-to-shoulder in the long hallway, though I eliminated that option because I held back, too busy observing to measure the width or even the distance of the hall.
My friends kept a better eye on me; when my sneakers snuck too close to the edge of the winding stairway that lacked banisters, the man at my side yanked me to safety with a warning look. I just grinned at him.
As we passed room after room, the fictional potential I had sought to assign to the nebulous doctor cemented into something more solid. These rooms were not just rooms, these once were places where patients, people, coughed and wheezed and weakened. My fingers reached out to rotted-away doorframes. Someone once grasped this wood to steady themselves. I leaned my face over the planks of a room I wasn’t to enter lest I fall through the rotten wood. Someone once walked on that forbidden floor.
A writer could spend days in such a place. A writer whose great-grandmother came to Ellis Island from France in 1911, married an Irish steelworker, raised two boys to toddlerhood, succumbed to tuberculosis, and never knew her inkhearted namesake could spend years in such a place. I studied each scrap of yellow wallpaper left behind by the patients and each streak of graffiti left by less-respectful visitors—all of it rang with secrets and stories lost in time. I only half-listened to the translations our team leader gave of the tour guide’s speeches. I cared little for what he could tell me of the history of the place. I wanted to know the history of the people, but still they felt fictional, nebulous.
While we walked, the clouds parted. In the center of the sanatorium, the hallway broke in half to reveal, open to the sunlight, a round slab of stone with a faded design in the middle. Sunshine wafted over us as I heard the translation of what the tour guide said then. “The dying would walk in circles. Right here. For hours.”
I shuffled out and stayed to the side. No one ventured into the center of the circle. I squinted in the sun to see the tour guide’s face, to confirm he told the truth. His bearded frown bore an honest sadness. The tuberculosis patients who came here, he said, the ones still well enough to leave their beds, would come out to this open space where the sun shone down on their white gowns and pale faces. And they would walk in circles.
I could see them. Faces lifted to the sunlight that the mountain tried to block out, thin clothing clinging to emaciated forms, shaky breathing becoming a chorus. They came from all over the world to get well in this place where the air supposedly imbues weak lungs with strength. Some did—some came, got well, went home, and lived lives. But many more—many, many more—came, got worse, never left, and died.
I noticed a difference in the long walk down the hall in the second half of the sanatorium. The wallpaper, the graffiti, the holes in the floor looked much the same, but the potential that piqued the storyteller in me on the doctor’s balcony hardened into a longing for a time machine. Whereas at first, I marveled at what I could make up, now I wanted to travel back in time and gather the stories scattered in the rain-tinged air of this place like so many scraps of wallpaper on the wind. The fiction no longer outshone the devastatingly real.
They walked in circles in the only place they could feel the sunlight. They must have known that the walk stretched out in front of them, futile, in vain. No amount of walking could get them out, but they didn’t care. They walked anyways. They kept walking even though footstep after footstep only took them around the same old circle. Even on the threshold of death. There seems something so very human about clinging to the last vestiges of life, about straggling into a sunlit circle.
To leave, to step from the sanatorium into the courtyard, we had to duck down steep stairs and traverse a dark tunnel. I refused to go until someone turned around and took my hand. Cowardly, I know. I wonder, what kind of courage must the first Rachelle have possessed, as she watched herself waste away before either of her boys turned five, as she prepared herself to say goodbye? I caved to cowardice when it came to getting out of the sanatorium through a dark tunnel. They clung to courage when it came to never getting out and facing the darkness we all must face.
Maybe, I thought, brave is not so much leaving home for the unknown. Maybe brave is realizing that we must—and our reaction after we realize that truth.
I want to die walking, too.