It was summer. I was sweeping in the kitchen, facing south. There was that milling around feeling, children everywhere, my own and some others — that white-haired child from down the road. Hear the sound of hammering, one, two, three, pause, one, two, three — a husband somewhere, working. There is no need to try to remember this. Time rose and fell and rose like a wheel unhindered by me.
Stop this memory here. I must not allow my younger self to glance up and out the door to the east. Don't let her see the field awash in light. Don't let her see what blocks the doorway. Who. I stand on this side of time and beg. Do not turn. Do not see your son, seventeen years old, a cardboard cut-out of blue jeans and T-shirt, his hair sticking out like fire.
He's going to say it. Don't listen. Don't move. Step away from that day. Protect yourself. Protect your son and his brothers and sisters and your marriage. If you do not stop this now the world as you have known it will shift slightly but forever out of reach.
I do my best to dig in the heels of the young woman I once was, her checked flannel shirt, her one long braid hanging down her back. But she doesn’t sense me. She sees and hears everything.
What can I do? If only words were things, I could gather them in my arms and lodge them into the turning wheel of that day. I could stop this.
“Put it out.”
My younger self glances up. She sees the field awash in light. She sees him looking like he always does, arriving out of the only world she has known. We are both his mother, but she stands on the other side of the memory, still innocent. She cannot see the wreckage, the rubble, the shards that he now contains. He appears as a cardboard cut-out jerking towards her.
The yellow floor rises up. The strands of straw in the broom lie side by side, unremarkable. The edge of the table appears and disappears. The seconds progress. Minutes. I return to the spinning earth having failed. I haven't stopped any of it.
“There's fire on my arms.”
He's said it. He keeps saying it.
But only he can see it. And no one can put it out.
This is what Wikipedia tells me:
"Schizoaffective disorder is a psychiatric diagnosis that describes a mental disorder characterized by recurring episodes of elevated or depressed mood, or of simultaneously elevated and depressed mood that alternate with, or occur together with, distortions in perception. Schizoaffective disorder most commonly affects cognition and emotion. Auditory hallucinations, paranoia, delusions, or disorganized speech and thinking with significant social and occupational dysfunction are typical."
In 1995, a small boy fell from the sky onto a beach in California. Two joggers used the words tumble and tumbling to describe his eighty-foot fall, end over end, his curly hair shining, the sun a twinkle of light along the edge of the sea. His shadow, too, catapulted down, a dark spinning trail through the air. The joggers did not say if his tiny toes curled at the movement of wind. He parted the strands of the seaweed with his sudden small body, startling tiny running crabs.
The woman jogger cradled the boy unbelieving, looking up at the sheer cliffs and eighty feet of hard-packed sand and jaggy stones. Who released this gift of delicate bone and fine breath? The child, open eyes and salty fists, did not cry out. He held tight as they carried him, not jogging, but gently, up 135 steps to his mother. She had not yet known to miss him. That story can be found in the Los Angeles Times.
Seagulls screamed for that boy, wheeled in circles, broke the orange light into pinwheels against a blue sky. That boy was unharmed. That boy was not my son.
He takes a step into the room. People say they have a "sinking sensation" only because they do not have a single word to tell it. When something bad happens to you or around you or to someone who is so close to you that he once was you, time stands still. The reason for the "sinking sensation" is that time, in fact, is not standing still but is rushing onward. It is you who are not willing to flow with time. You are not willing to know the life that follows. You never really catch up. When you miss a beat like that, the truth is you are always out of kilter. You are always missing the bus, burning the toast. You are always hearing the end of the sentence but not the beginning. You are always a beat behind. Time does not care.
History of the Present Illness
The patient states “Everything is pretty different” since this summer. Beginning in approximately June of this year the patient began to report a burning sensation in his skin, especially wrists, which he interprets as people sending electricity to him. He states it was initially bothersome and sometimes very painful. He reports he also “receives electricity” from people through his head. The patient reports that he has scar tissue on his wrists secondary to this phenomena. When describing this, he shows normal skin folds on his wrists which he interprets as scar tissue due to electricity. The patient reports the sensation that “The way I eat my food, it goes down in all kinds of ways.” He does not elaborate well on what this means. The patient reports he has frequently noted smells in the last few months. Many of the smells are reminiscent of a sewer. These smells are present, at times, for much of the day. Some of the smells he interprets as good, stating they are “fertile” and describing the smell of dirt outside. The patient reports that he sometimes can see electricity surrounding objects as a “faint white light.” The patient also reports that if he walks in the hall in school and changes his posture, "everyone will change the way I do.”
These black marks on the page, groups of distinct markings divided by dots, are called sentences. A sentence comes about when two or more words are gathered between an understandable beginning and suitable ending. It's true, a sentence might be only one word, such as Stop, or No, but only because the rest of the words stand by invisibly, understood. There is also the quotation, words borrowed from the mouth of another person and separated by curled dots hanging in air.
On their own, these black marks could not hurt a flea. But the closer you get to them the more alarming they become. The quotation marks, for instance, are pointed at one end ─ sharp, the shape of a claw. If you are close to the patient from whose mouth they are borrowed they snag. Like hooks, they grab and travel upon you. They hold, trailing fertile, trailing faint white light. The patient (trapped between the marks, imprisoned, held) seems patient, waiting in grace. He bears witness to the evidence in his wrists, the scars, telling us a story about his life, using his memories. His words are commonplace, recognizable. Let him be one of us.
As the initial days of the breakdown pass, he spends hours looking at himself in the mirror, squinting his eyes, making faces, touching his cheeks. He stares at his hands, turning them over and over, pinching the skin. He studies photographs of himself that hang on the wall at his father's work. One black and white image shows him in high school, rappelling down a cliff. He sees a serious young man with deep set eyes. His hair is long and wavy, flying up behind him as he searches for a new place to land.
Everyone turns and keeps turning, that moment itself turning for the rest of our lives. They turn, his father, his brothers and sisters, the neighbor children, the corner of the table, the yellow floor, the dark wood of the ceiling, the sky outside, the bright field, the edge of the barn, all locked in the turning.
I thought I knew him but I couldn’t have, not when he tells the doctors that he smoked marijuana, took LSD, and lived on cocaine for three years right there in the house. He was in the kitchen or on the porch or out there on the volleyball court and of course I must not have known him, no matter that he is my son. They say it was not the drugs but it might have been. They say it is genetic but maybe not.
Now here he is living out of dumpsters. I do not get used to that by the time he is living in a trailer that looks like a tornado hit it from the inside. I do not get used to that by the time he is in jail the first time. I do not get used to that by the time he is in the mental hospital. I do not get used to the jail that becomes those jails and the hospital that becomes those hospitals. Images of his life crowd around like that painting of a nude woman descending a stair. That woman keeps becoming herself at every step. She keeps being around herself but she never gets all gathered up. She never quite makes it to the bottom; she's always on the way.
It’s not his birthday anymore. I’ve missed it. Still, I vow to take him out in public. He and I will celebrate his birth just like I have always done with his brothers and sisters, just like I did when he was a child. I meet him at the nicest place I know. In a coffee shop we pass buckets of long white bread, fresh in their red and white checked paper. Then we pass rolls made of the same dough, white bagels and brown ones, some with seeds and some without. Eclairs, shiny brown chocolate, the yellow cream spilling out. Fruit tarts, dazzling raspberries.
He is silent. Then at once, he is laughing, talking, trying to keep his pants up, trying to keep his black dog named Red from coming in the door. It is the pies that catch his attention.
"I want green pie." The word “green” is drawn out long and loud.
A woman with spiky hair, tan shorts, and a white blouse edges farther back in line, pretends she is waiting for someone. A man with a newspaper reads the ads for radial tires intently.
"I want chocolate cake and two chocolate chip cookies and one piece of pie."
"Come on, just one thing."
He laughs. He settles on the green pie. How do the others see him? Red hair, bleached stiff from the sun — an uneven Brillo pad arrangement, a clean white T-shirt with a Nike swoosh, khaki pants unraveled at the bottoms. They see a crazy person. They are afraid. If he weren't my son, I would be too.
"A Coke, a cup of coffee, milk, and juice, red juice."
"Just one thing, or two."
He settles on the Coke and coffee. There is no sound but his laugh.
"Joe… he wanted to fall off the motorcycle. He was tired you know. I told him he would die if we went on there. That he had to have a helmet but he didn’t want to. Joe was my elder.”
It is her job, the woman-behind-the-counter's job, to be polite. She is drawn to his talk and scraggly charm. If you listen long enough to his trail of disconnected words, the pieces fall together. You can find a pattern or a theme. But he is not her son.
People quietly, softly, move as far away as possible. My son sloshes his drink and eats his pie. We sit in an island of sunlight. Red watches from the door, pure devotion in his eyes.
We age. He never again is seventeen years old. He never again turns without me turning with him. In daylight and in dream, I remember. It's easy to remember something that never stops happening. People often write, "Suddenly she saw that she had grown old." It's true. It can happen overnight. I saw wrinkles around my eyes that were not there the night before. It did not happen after the dream where my son and I were standing on a high brick building. He smiled and said, "Can I go, Mom?" He reached his hand out into the nothingness. I wondered if he would do a cartwheel. He dropped himself over the side. I stood far away and watched a giant cardboard X spinning down. But that was not the dream that made me old.
I dream I am standing with the boy's father after one of the great rains we had when we lived in the mountains. A large black tub is stuck in a swift river. The boy runs to dislodge it, jumps in, rocking it side to side. I see his face change as the tub becomes loose. He looks up, stricken, and yells out something I can't hear. The tub lurches forward, beginning to break up on the rocks as it is carried downstream. The father watches but does not move. I am drawn forward to rescue the boy but something about the father keeps me at his side. I don’t understand what keeps me there. I want to understand why I am not moving. I want to remain in my paralyzed position until I understand it. I feel as if I have been here before. I sense I am asleep but I throw myself forward to help the boy before I wake up.
When I get to the river the boy is struggling in calmer water with bits of the broken tub all around him. He climbs out and laughs.
That was the morning when I saw the wrinkles crisscrossed around my eyes. They call these marks "crow's feet." I did not hear the sound of birds.
In the movies mentally ill people are taken to a place in England with green grass all around. The patient is rolled out onto the lawn in a wheelchair by a nurse dressed in white who wears shoes that do not squeak. The ill person wears flowing white pajamas and sits at a small table overlooking a pond or a flower garden. He wears a light straw hat to protect him from the mild sun. You do not always hear the birds but you know they are there.
Memory is like this. You are in some bright country, maybe in a dream. You are bent over near a small river or maybe a stream. You hold a cheesecloth under the water and catch the smallest stones as the cold water passes through. Both the black ones and the light ones shine with the water. You want to lift up the cloth, to see better, to show the others, but you can't be gentle enough. You try to call the others to come and see but with every sound you make, with every movement, the tiny gravel is washed away. You lift up the cloth and it is clean. How will they believe you?
When my son comes back from wherever he has been I will know him by a certain lightness of movement. He might run the way children do on the day they get new shoes. He might be wearing new shoes. On that day I will, first, breathe all the way in, and then, all the way out. I will go on then as if time had stopped. We'll have some days in between, like other mothers and sons. Then, we'll say things like, "Remember that time when you used to be crazy? And we'll laugh.