A Question That Can’t Be Answered


My mother Joan Mary Crowley (far left) in her nursing school dorm room, 1955.

Today, October 7th, 2015 would have been my mother’s 80th birthday. While we struggled with most of the problems common to mother/daughter relationships, she was wonderfully supportive of my career in manual therapy. She encouraged me to attend a therapeutic massage program at a time when my intellectual adventures studying literature at UC Berkeley had stalled. For this, I am forever grateful.

My mother had hoped that I would choose a career in healthcare: not massage therapy, but a career of a more traditional sort. She was a second generation American; all four of her grandparents immigrated from Ireland to America, and for those economic refugees, healthcare careers such as nursing were a sure path into the middle class. My grandmother, Mary Foley Landers, had been trained as a practical nurse by the Sisters of Providence, in Springfield Massachusetts. My mother, Joan Mary Crowley, attended the same program, the Mercy Hospital School of Nursing, graduating with an RN degree 35 years after my grandmother entered the nursing profession.

My mother seemed to recognize that nursing wasn’t quite the right path for me, but she repeatedly encouraged me to pursue a career in the health sciences. Perhaps due to my exuberant “twitchy kid” energy, she suggested I consider physical therapy. But I ditched every last one of her efforts to get me over to Merced Community Medical Center so that I could meet the PT staff and get a feel for their work. By the time I was a senior in high school, my mom stopped asking and let me drift academically at my own will.

Even as my mother implored me to consider physical therapy school, I never told her that when I looked at other people’s bodies, I felt sensations in my own body. I never explained that her place of employment (a large, understaffed, county-run hospital) was like a house of horrors for me, that I got bombarded with electrical bolts down the back of my body when I saw the the implements of medicine. Scalpels, hypodermic syringes and crutches gave me searing, nervy pain down my spine. And the patients too, people with sutures and bandages and bloody wounds flooded me with waves of electricity that coursed from my sacrum to my feet.

Like most synesthetes, I thought everyone had these experiences. This is the troubling conundrum that comes with synesthetic perception; we assume that every person’s sensations are similar to our own, so our unusual perceptions go unnoticed. Unless there is an “aha” moment. I was recently interacting with another synesthete on Twitter who mentioned that her grapheme-color synesthesia was discovered when she was sent by a teacher to the school library to fetch a copy of MacBeth. She didn’t see the white book on the shelf because for her, MacBeth is always purple. This was her Hellen-Keller-at-the-well epiphany.

I never had that moment of discovery with my mother; she died in 1996. I’m certain she saw me as the strangest of her three girls, but she never knew about my mirror-touch synesthesia and its influence on my career choices. On her 80th birthday I find myself wondering about Joan Mary Crowley; was she a synesthete too? I’m sad to know I’ll never know.