If most lives proceed in a straight line from birth to death, Nana’s drug-addled final years zig-zag. Gifty’s mother realized that he was hooked after two months, when he asked for a second refill and she found pills hidden in his room. Gifty didn’t understand how her dynamic brother had become so still, and she tried to buy and make him instant coffee to perk him up. She asked her teacher if someone could die from sleeping, and the teacher said no. Gifty still doesn’t understand why she believed the teacher.
As Nana sinks into addiction and his life ceases to run in a straight path, Gifty and her mother must also shift and change to accommodate this new traumatic upheaval in their family. Gifty fully switches into the role of caretaker for Nana, trying to rouse him from his intoxicated stupor even though it’s clear that she doesn’t understand fully what is happening. It’s important to keep in mind the fact that she is only in 4th grade as she’s learning to contend with her brother’s illness.
Gifty remembers Nana going through withdrawal, sweating so much that he drenched all his shirts, threw up constantly, and “shit himself more than once.” Their mother, unfazed by bodily fluids after years as a health aide, would put him in the bathtub and clean him. Gifty intuited the shame Nana felt and would tactfully avoid the subject. But her mother never seemed ashamed.
Nana’s painful and traumatic attempt to quit drugs on his own shows the power that addiction can hold over the brain. It’s clear that willpower and self-control alone couldn’t touch Nana’s addiction, no matter how stringently Gifty believes that safety lies in following the rules. Her memories also demonstrate the infantilizing horror of withdrawal, which not only makes Nana sick but reduces him to a state of infant-like dependence on his mother, just at the point in life when he was preparing to go off to college and become an independent adult. Caretaking in this family, it seems, happens only at the most extreme moments, which might explain Gifty’s resistance to allowing others to take care of her. In her experience, people only accept caretaking when they have become physically incapable of caring for themselves, like Nana in his addiction or her mother in her depression.
Gifty’s mother was comfortable around death. She’d been there when one of her clients died, reading scriptures to her. The client had been given morphine to ease her pain, and this was the purpose of drugs, their mother told Nana and Gifty. Gifty remembers her mother imitating a death rattle and telling her that she shouldn’t fear death. But Gifty did fear it, despite the comfort she found in the words of scripture that promised the dying that they were not alone. Gifty feared death because she understood, on some level, that she was really listening for Nana’s death.
Part of the trauma of Nana’s addiction for Gifty seems to be her sense that, while she felt fearful and out of control, her mother appeared to have command of herself and the situation. She wasn’t bothered by Nana’s vomit and excrement, and she spoke about death matter-of-factly. In contrast, rules-oriented Gifty feels that her life is spiraling out of control, and she intuitively understands that her family will never resume its old shape.
While Nana was detoxing, their mother convinced him to go to church with her and Gifty. Gifty couldn’t stop staring at her brother; he looked better, and she was waiting for him to be reborn. The idea of rebirth was important in her church, and as a child, Gifty believed in its power. Ryan Green said hello to Nana as he entered the church, asking him when he would be back to playing. But Gifty’s mother shouted for him to leave Nana alone.
In the early phases of Nana’s addiction, it’s still possible for Gifty to imagine a religious, transcendent cure for his illness. She clings to the idea of rebirth for Nana, which is especially clear to her given her own recent spiritual experience. But, by his very presence, Ryan Green calls into question rebirth—he himself has been allegedly reborn but it doesn’t mean that he has necessarily become a good person.