Map Case

My brother Tennessee and I were closest when we shepherded our parents toward their deaths. Mom tumbled down her stairs and hit the landing’s wall so hard she left an indentation in the drywall. It was her second fall in a month. Both times, upon impact, her brain bounced within her skull. Both times, she lost consciousness and suffered a concussion. After the last spill, she woke confused and garbled words, so her doctor recommended an assisted-living facility. It was then my older brother and I started talking every day. Him driving the Bay Area’s I-280, me cooking dinner in Tucson, Arizona. We talked to Dad, too, who tried to live with Mom at the “Old Folks’ Home,” as he called the facility, near their home on an island north of Seattle. 

After a neighbor found Dad unconscious in his tub, wrists slit, blood soaking into the floor, Tennessee and I talked twice daily. Dad wouldn’t talk to us. He did talk to his doctor, complained of insomnia. Weeks later, the same neighbor found Dad passed out in his bedroom, overdosed on sleeping pills, and again, the following month in Mom’s art studio. Afterwards, the hospital wouldn’t send Dad home alone, and Dad refused to live with either of us or at the Old Folks Home, saying Mom’s nonsensical words sent him further into despair’s hellhole. He committed himself to a psychiatric facility on the mainland. 

When Tennessee and I arrived at their island home, we found his suicide note on the spotless Corian countertop in the kitchen my parents had renovated:

House uninhabitable. Deck rotten. Plumbing clogged. Roof needs repair. Rats in the attic. 

A reflection on Dad’s life rather than on the house. There were rats in the attic and moss grew on the shingles and the plumbing was clogged and the deck was rotten. But the deck had been rotten when my parents bought the house, and the rest of Dad’s complaints were fixable. Even at age ninety-one, he could have found a way, by hiring or fixing things himself. He had the tools and the know-how. He and Mom had previously built from scratch three family homes and renovated others. Dad could fix anything. Anything except Mom’s broken brain. 


The two wooden flat file cases each consisted of three sections, same-sized top and bottom sandwiching a thinner middle. Wooden, with patina appliqued by time and indifference, the sections nested with the precision of cranium bone sutures. Each case’s feet were attached to the bottom section. Each case’s middle section cradled three drawers. A polished-from-wear surface crowned each case’s top. The cases were four feet high, four deep, three wide, with nineteen drawers. They were identical, a His and a Hers. 

Dad carted them home from Swift & Company’s East St. Louis’s pork processing plant when I was twelve. He gave one to Tennessee, one to me. I was both surprised and thrilled. Dad had ignored our older sister. Granted, she didn’t live at home, but neither did Tennessee. The gift symbolized my rite-of-passage from child to young adult, as if I had transformed then and there from a pallet of jumbled construction materials to a square-edged building with mullioned windowpanes and shake roof. 


A concussion, according to the Center for Disease Control (CDC) is a type of traumatic brain injury (TBI). A jolt, blow, or bump causes the brain to twist or bounce against the hard skull. Loss of consciousness (LOC) may occur. Swelling and bleeding may occur, and these alterations cause chemical changes in the brain, including stretching and damaging brain cells.


Washington State’s Geriatric Psychiatric Hospital called to say Dad had died. 

While there, Dad had refused visitors. Tennessee and I called him daily, or tried to, then called each other. Dad was difficult to reach, partly for his hearing loss, partly because he didn’t want to talk to us. He did not return voice messages. We guessed his daily routine and called when we thought he’d be in his room. Talking to him required energy and empathy. Each call scrubbed both away, like sanding furniture to raw wood. 

“Heart attack,” Tennessee said, relaying the nurse’s news.

“A broken heart, yes, but heart failure? No way.” In the week leading up to Dad’s death, he had answered his phone more often, so we thought he was on the mend, and would be released soon, or so his therapist’s intimated. 

“He was an ox. You think he did himself in?” 

“He was never one for words,” I said. “Why would he sit in a group circle sharing, when he wouldn’t talk to us, unless it was a ploy to gain his therapist’s trust? Dad probably faked insomnia so he could hoard his pills. He was collateral damage from Mom’s falls.” 


Tennessee and I talked about their home. We would fix it. There was little discussion, renovation and construction strands in our DNA. We shingled the roof, rebuilt the deck, unclogged the septic, cleaned the blood-stained tile, crafted a vacation rental. For strangers. For friends. For us. 

In this house, my family would be together again, or at least part of my family. We hadn’t been together since the summer after first grade, when Tennessee left for college, a thousand miles away.

Eleven years older than I, he was the favored child. Mom had suggested he serve as maid of honor at my wedding. I had chosen a girlfriend instead, because asking my brother implied I had no friends. But I was closer to him than to my girlfriend. He and I talked. Not just, “How was your day?” or “What’s your weather?” or “How much is gas?” We talked. 

Big stuff. Small stuff. In-between stuff. Our older sister ditching us. My move to Arizona. First job. A baby girl. His girlfriend. His real estate deals. We talked more after doctors diagnosed my husband’s metastasized adenocarcinoma. More still after he died. Tennessee coached me on dating and spoke at my second wedding. We talked of his break-up and rebound jitters. Of his new girlfriend Erica and marriage at age fifty. He was the first person I called after my second daughter was born. We shared recipes, vacation suggestions. He raved about my holiday fruitcakes.


TBI symptoms include confusion, lack of coordination, headache, memory loss, nausea, vomiting, dizziness, fatigue, and sleepiness. Symptoms may be short-lived and resolve on their own, require rehab, or may be permanent. TBI can affect thinking, learning, speech, hearing, vision, memory, and emotions. It may affect many aspects of one’s life, including the ability to work, be employed, drive, and impact relationships with family and friends.


Like a skull, the flat file cases protected vital data. They were crafted to hold blueprints, diagrams printed on light-sensitive paper, white lines on blue field, negatives of original drawings. Engineers, such as Dad, slid out a drawer, thumbed oversized paper, studied schematics. Slapping the case’s oak top in an “aha” moment, they confidently strode in steel-toed boots to a wonky electrical circuit or stuck conveyor belt or clogged pork belly washing machine, to work miracles.

Owning the case connected me to Dad, to Tennessee.

Tennessee refinished his, lacquered the wood glossy and buffed brass pulls shiny. He filled his with maps, and christened his The Map Case. This was the ‘90s, when hardcopy schematics were necessary, roads crisscrossing, interweaving, connecting; running like neurons across a landscape of white matte paper.  

In mine, I chucked snake skins, hornet and bird nests, dried fungi; treasures from wandering through Illinois’ forests. Later, as a wildlife biologist, I added U.S. Geological Service topographical maps, with symbols and lines marking elevation, trails, roads, streams, lakes, rivers, mountains; drawers and drawers of maps laid flat, a case full of environmental wisdom. 


In a 2011 article in Medical Science Monitor, Pachalska et al. wrote that TBI injury often changes the way “the patient perceives reality, which often means a distortion of the perception of self and the world.”


Tennessee and I were easy together when we parsed sixty-five years of our parent’s marriage along with our childhoods. It was just the two of us clearing the house, Erica and my girls staying home. 

We stood in front of our grandfather’s WWII-era footlocker stored in the garage, acknowledged but no longer held close, like a shirt-tail relative invited to Thanksgiving dinner. I stilled my breath, folded my hands. I coveted the trunk; my parents had few possessions from Pater who died when I was an infant. But it was Tennessee’s turn to claim ownership or pass. 

He reached for the lid’s clasp. 

As the trunk creaked open, the stench of mothballs and old wool swirled with garage-dankness. Inside, army blankets, epaulets, discharge papers, Air Corps issued cap, framed photos. One of Pater and Dad, both in uniform. A thin Dad. A Dad with hair. A Dad before he was dad. Another of baby Dad and his toddler-aged sister both dressed in frilly white.

Tennessee fanned the air. “I’ll pass,” he said. “Goodwill pile?”

“Absolutely not.”  

He slapped a sticker with my initials on the trunk.  

Later, we sat on the refurbished deck of their home as the sun splashed the Olympic Mountains across Admiralty Inlet’s opposite shore, we clinked stemware, their contents frothy green. We were both into juicing—spinach, frozen bananas, pineapple, turmeric—Tennessee’s recipe. 

He said relieved, “That was easier than I’d hoped.” 

I glanced behind me, to my pile in the family room, visible through the sliding glass doors: Mom’s self-portrait watercolor, Dad-made mid-century era coffee-table, bear rug with a penny inside its head, a coin Tennessee had tucked into its gaping mouth as a child, a penny I had rattled around; Mom irritated with both of us. “What did you expect?” 

“Some of my friends went to war with their siblings over heirlooms. Spending tons on lawyers and accountants after their parents died.” 

“Mom’s not dead.” 

Although she hadn’t realized who I was as we sat side-by-side on the three-hour flight to Tucson, not until the plane landed and she had turned to me and said, “Lisa, what a coinky-dink! We’re on the same plane.” 


With the map case, Dad recognized me as a person. The case, too, symbolized lofty status in my profession. Wildlife biologists sized each other up based upon gear: precision optics, grippy boots, feather-light tents, he-man trucks with high suspension, a collection of topographical maps. We used topo maps to conduct backcountry surveys and the maps were stored flat in a case. Being a woman knocked me down a few pegs, but my case amped my credibility, conveyed I knew what I spoke of, that I could navigate wilderness. Because I hadn’t gotten around to refinishing it, its old-school condition further enhanced my outdoorsy persona, bestowing an Aldo Leopold-John Muir-Gifford Pinchot shellac. 


“We need to fire the yard girl,” I said to Tennessee during our daily call, except we hadn’t talked in two days. “She’s stolen stuff from the neighbor.” We had divvied chores. Tennessee paid bills, sourced repairmen. I managed guests.

“You. I’ve got a migraine.” He had been T-boned at an intersection two days prior and had totaled his Toyota Avalon, the same model and year as mine. Airbags. Loss of consciousness. Whiplash. Concussion. Erica falling to her knees at the impoundment lot when they gathered his things from the sedan.

“You sure you’re okay?”

“A headache, is all.”


I thought TBI affected only athletes in contact sports, boxers and football players, such as Aaron Hernandez and Muhammad Ali.


Mom’s journey into dementia’s abyss gut-punched me. She usually didn’t know me, and I was upset that she had morphed into a different person who looked like Mom, but was not Mom. In limbo, this Not-Mom and I remapped our relationship. 

Usually, I felt as though I wandered in thorny scrub without a compass, but sometimes we romped through sunflower-dotted meadows. Discovering beauty in Not-Mom’s tangled sentences required a heavy dose of imagination sprinkled with courage. One afternoon, though, the two of us nested in patio chairs at her Arizona facility and held hands. While I enjoyed southwestern sunshine, she turned her face to southern California rays, believing we lounged on side-by-side steamer deck chairs during a voyage along the coast to see Dad. Her words embroidered a picture of a younger adventurous self, a mom before Mom. 

She’d never told me the tale before, so she might have invented the sailing, but the veracity of her story didn’t matter. What mattered was Mom was Mom; she spoke with clarity and called me by name. Her brain’s distorted architecture, with its twisted pathways thick with plaque, was for a bit, straight, true, and sound. The story so poignant I captured it in my journal, then in an essay, and the beauty of our afternoon leapt onto a magazine’s page, as easy as her ship navigated calm seas.


Opening the map case drawers required cajoling and patience, placing fingers in two cup pulls and tugging with the same force lest the drawer tilt and forward motion cease. 


Migraines. Depression. Chiropractors. Deep muscle massage. Pain killers. Anti-depressants. Tennessee lost his job. Friends hired him. I edited his emails and letters, peppered with misspellings, incorrect tenses, flipped ‘ds’ and ‘bs,’ transposed words. Embarrassing goofs for a college-educated Baby Boomer. Sleep apnea, the worst his doctor had seen. CPAP machine. Friends cut his hours. He applied for Social Security disability.


In a report to the US Congress, the CDC stated that TBI is the leading cause of death and disability among children, young adults, and persons older than 75 years. The risk of TBI among males is twice the risk among females. The major causes of TBI are motor vehicle crashes and, in the elderly, falls. Each year an estimated 1.5 million Americans sustain a TBI. As a consequence of these injuries, 230,000 people are hospitalized and survive. 50,000 people die, and 80,000 to 90,000 people experience onset of long-term disability. As a cumulative result of past TBIs, approximately 5.3 million people in the US live with a permanent TBI-related disability.


In a second accident, Tennessee totaled Erica’s van. Airbags. Loss of consciousness. Whiplash. Concussion. Erica falling to her knees at the impoundment lot when they gathered her things from her vehicle.


“I’m done,” he said. “I’m selling the house.”

I stopped stirring the stir-fry. “Done?”

“I need the money.”

“But the house pays for itself.” With no mortgage, the rental income covered its upkeep and taxes, with a little left over. 

“The agent is holding an open house in two Saturdays.”

“But…” I turned the gas stove off. “Let me see what I can scrape together.” We both knew I couldn’t come up with his half or qualify for another mortgage. “Can we wait a few months, until after the summer? Until after our planned weekend together. Until after the already paid guests come? This isn’t the time to sell.” Not for me or our guests or our inheritance, as we were in the midst of the Great Recession and island home prices had slid south. Tennessee would surely connect the dots.

“Stop. Talking. I’m done.” He hung up.


Mad. Livid. Madder than I’d ever been.

For eight years we talked every day. Until we didn’t. 


As photocopies replaced blueprints, hand-held devices with downloadable imagery obsoleted hard-copy topos. Owning a map collection and case communicated fuddy-duddiness—a professional lost in a time warp, unable to find her way. 

The case’s middle section drawers drooped. Its glue, like glial cells providing support and homeostasis to the nervous system’s neurons, had deteriorated. Rust from the pulls dirtied the garage’s concrete floor, the way oxidative stress destroys molecules. 


As our parent’s estate executor, Tennessee sold investments, valuables. Sold the house. I discovered that he had opened more than a dozen checking and credit card accounts, all with different banks, in Mom’s name. 

“Why would he do this?” I asked my lawyer.

“Either hiding assets or forgetting he had accounts. You know your brother’s motivation better than I.”

The forensic accounting was a hot mess. After sorting through financial statements for a year and sending me monthly invoices, my lawyer asked if additional thousands to chase Mom’s missing dollars was worth the relationship strain with my brother.


“Our marriage really wasn’t the same,” Erica said.


Whole-brain atrophy can occur after mild or moderate TBI and is evident at an average of 11 months after trauma. Injury that produces LOC leads to more atrophy. These findings may help elucidate an etiology for the persistent or new neurologic deficits that occur after injury.


I called Tennessee during COVID-19’s lockdown. He in his Bay Area townhouse, me cooking dinner in Tucson. We hadn’t talked in five years.

“How’s the weather,” I asked. “Is it blustery?”

“Yes. No. I don’t know.”

“What about gas prices? What are they?”

“Not sure.”

“Have you run out of anything? Toilet paper? Hand sanitizer?”



Parkinson-like symptoms. Feet shuffling. Can’t remember the year he was born. Muscle atrophy. Monosyllable responses. Tailored suits to Goodwill. Power of attorney. Someone staying overnight while Erica attended a niece’s wedding.


My case occupies a corner in my garage. Similar to Dad with Pater’s WWII-era footlocker, I’m unable to let it go. Opening its drawers is nearly impossible, and no amount of cajoling or patience makes a difference. The middle section’s front panels have given way, the gapping opening like eyes. There’s confusion and darkness inside: bird nests have unraveled to twigs, snakeskins have disintegrated to scales, fungi have pulverized to dust, and mice have shredded the maps.  

Without our tongue-and-groove talking, Tennessee and I are broken. Like Dad’s inability to patch the deck, unclog the septic field, replace the roof, exterminate the vermin, or untangle Mom’s synapses, I don’t know how to restore our relationship. We are as stuck as my case’s drawers.


Lisa K. Harris (she/her), a Pushcart Prize nominated author, has published in Orion Magazine, Passages North, Highlights for Children, Litro Magazine, (M)othering (edited by Sorbie and Grogan, 2022), among others. Her work has been supported by Bread Loaf Environmental Writing Workshop. Migrating between Seattle and Tucson working as an environmental consultant, she has two daughters, six cats, two desert tortoises, and a terrier named Lola. @Harrislisakim;