Sunday, August 15, 2010
THE PRINCE OF COMPASSION
The night my son collapsed with schizophrenia, I went to the shore. My heart was aching; the familiar, resigned stoicism with which I had endured so many crises was creeping over me again. I was bracing myself for certain heartbreak, clinging with all my strength to the comfort I found in the sound of the ocean rolling in, wave on endless wave, upon the sand.
Pacing up and down the water's edge, nervous and shaking, I thought of my gentle, happy-natured son as he had been when he was little. Jeff was my third child and he was born laughing. His disposition had always been sunny. In our noisy house of four children, he was my quiet, sensitive one, the one I felt was most like me.
Jeff is an Old Soul, one who lives gently and kindly on the planet. He seems to have brought wisdom with him from wherever he was before he came to me. Now that laughing, tender little boy was a lean, fragile six-footer, seventeen years old and in the psych ward.
I had just moved to Tofino, and was working to get us re-established. Apparently, he had run out of my mother's house in Vancouver, where he was staying for the summer, and raced through the darkened night-time city streets to the hospital, where he had checked himself in.
He was psychotic, suicidal. They needed me to sign the consent forms, they could not begin treatment until I came.
*** *** *** ***
I didnt know what to expect when I got to the hospital that first time. In the modern front lobby, I was directed to a separate ancient-looking building across the alley in the rear. The psych ward was old and dreary, its nicked walls needing paint. I walked up the scuffed and shabby stairwell. It felt like the abandoned ones lived here. At the nurses' station, asking for Jeff, I felt them sizing me up, with my frizzy hair, thrift store clothes and natural temerity. My seventeen year old son had broken down, was in desperate shape. What had I done to cause it?
I signed the forms. I asked to speak to the doctor. He would be in this morning, they told me, pointing me down the hall to Jeff's room.
Peeking into the darkened room, I saw the usual evidence of Jeff's occupation: clothes and belongings strewn all over the floor, blankets ripped off the bed, dirty and clean clothes and wet towels all together in a tangled heap.
On a bare mattress, wrapped, head and all, in a blanket, was my son.
"Jeff," I called softly, and his shaggy head burrowed out from underneath the blanket, long tangled reddish-brown curls in disarray. He smiled, the same big smile, our eyes met, his same blue eyes. He got to his feet, tall and thin and tousled, and we hugged. I felt relief. This was still Jeff.
We went down the hall to an alcove, where two chairs sat by a window.
"What happened?" I asked.
"I couldnt take it any more. I needed help."
"I am so glad you did this, that you came for help. That was a really smart thing to do."
"What do you want them to do for you?"
"I want them to make it stop."
"Make what stop?"
"It's like a bad trip that hasnt stopped. I've been scared all the time, it's like living in a nightmare, like being in hell. There are voices, clamoring and shouting. It's scary."
His eyes turned on me once more. When he was little, he had the round untroubled blue eyes of an angel. Now they were haunted by the visions of his waking dream.
"Is it from the drugs?" Jeff had taken LSD fifteen times the previous winter, but I hadnt found out until he was already in trouble.
"I dont know. I havent done drugs for six months, but the last bad trip never stopped."
"Well, you're in the right place." He nodded. "They'll be able to help you. We'll get through this."
I felt a difference happening, the beginning of real communication between us, in the midst of a crisis, a breakdown. The son I thought I had known was now a son who was openly suffering. All the hidden demons lay revealed. My response was to roll up my sleeves and muster all my strength to help him. We would talk our way through the next twenty years, but we didnt know that then.
For now, my son was tired and retreated back to bed, pulling the blanket up and over his head. While he slept, I paced the hospital halls and waited for the doctor.
I saw people in various stages of depression, locked within their lonely worlds of pain. People of all ages were making their solitary treks through the labyrinths of their own minds. My son now inhabited this landscape. It brought very close to home the fragility and, at the same time, the incredible resilience of humans, that in a nanosecond, any one of us might topple over into that land of rain-speckled windows, tears and no more hope.
My son, brilliant, talented, a writer, a mystic, a dreamer, a musician, a lover of life, with all of the suffering soul and sensitivity of the creative artist, had walked the fine line between daybreak and hellfire, and had fallen. He now paced these drab corridors, his hours marked out in paper pillcups, naps and hospital trays. Where would his beauty ever find a place to land, in halls so bleak and bare? How would his tender heart find its way home from this land so strange and new? And where was home, now that I had packed it up and taken it away?
How had I helped to bring him here? And what could I do now to lead him safely out?
*** *** *** ***
Dr P came rushing in, white hospital coat flying, and raced down the hall. I lurked around the nurses' station while he ran in and out of rooms, conferred briefly with nurses, pored over medical files, barked short commands. I hovered, saw the nurse telling him I was Jeff's mother. He glanced over, sizing me up. Once more I felt my general inadequacy, both as a parent of a boy who had fallen apart and the responsible adult who somehow had to deal with the situation.
Finally, he called me into a small office. The doctor peered at me, shuffled some papers, then began.
"Jeff is suffering from a psychosis, a psychotic break. This may or may not be drug-induced. It may have happened even had he not done drugs. Jeff is going to need medical help, his medication has to be monitored. First we have to get him stabilized. There is the possibility that it may be schizophrenia. In any case, the treatment is the same. We will try him on anti-psychotic medication and will try to stabilize him."
"I hope this is drug-induced then." I said. Schizophrenia was an illness of intense suffering. The thought of my gentle son suffering for months, perhaps years, was too starkly terrifying to consider. I wanted the magic pill that would restore my son to himself, so we could all go home and get on with our lives.
It is good we did not know, then, the long road that lay ahead of us. Life is merciful that way.
I still had questions but now the doctor leaped up, rushed down the hall and was gone.
I left some money at the nurses' station for Jeff, then tiptoed back into the room where he lay sleeping. On his bedside table was a scrap of paper, with a few lines written in Jeff's distinctive, quirky script, a sort of spikey printing with jagged downstrokes. I read what he had written and my heart turned icy with fear.
"I am Cloud.
Someone blow me away."
I walked out of the room, down the gray hall, the gray, drab stairs, out into the noisy brightness of the city street. Life roiled around me, normal and noisy, while my son lay in the psych ward, his life hanging in the balance.
I couldnt get the words out of my head and still recall them frequently, two decades later.
"I am Cloud.
Someone blow me away."
*** *** *** ***
Next day and many, many times after that, I went back to the hospital, to the city, to Jeff's side. I remember walking down the rain-washed dark city streets beside my tall, guant, suffering son in his long black trench coat, as he cried.
"It will get better," I'd say.
"I'm afraid it never will."
"It will." It had to. "I couldnt handle it if anything bad happened to you."
"I know. That's why I'm still here."
*** *** *** ***
Jeff writes some of the most beautiful poetry I have ever read. He composes beautiful classical musical fragments; one wishes he were able to complete the entire opus.
All of his beauty and loneliness is evident in his music, all the sensitivity, the genius that somehow got its wires crossed, his youth which should be flowering, on hold, as he sits alone at his keyboard and sings into empty rooms where no one hears him.
He phones me every day or two, sometimes in tears, from the psychiatric group home where he has now lived for a dozen years. We talk, we say 'I love you', we hang up. I picture him, drifting back to his room, his messy sanctuary, lying down on his bare mattress, bedraggled blankets strewn all over the floor. Awash on his boat of pain, steering his solitary course towards a horizon he cant see, no route markers, no compass, no hope, no dreams, no one to hold him and tell him it will be all right. Truly, he is the loneliest person on the planet.
He is as in-the-moment as a small child, and as lonely as a coyote howling at the moon. He calls himself Jeff Siddhartha Crazy Horse Marr. He has the gift of appreciating the little things. I recall buying him a little ninety-nine cent violet and how tenderly he carried it home. Peeking into the bag, he whispered, " Come home with me." And when we got there, he made it a little altar with a soft piece of cloth, so its protruding roots would not be hurt.
Though Jeff is one of the poorest of the poor, his generosity is legendary. He gifts his brother and sister-in-law on their wedding day with his favorite Nein Young cd. "My gift will be my ambassador," he smiles.
When I visit, I shake my head with mixed chagrin and pride as we walk down Granville Mall together. Jeff, in his raggedy clothing, impoverished, cannot pass a homeless person without emptying his pockets - those pockets I have just filled with hard-to-come-by cash. The Prince of Compassion, freely sharing his largesse.
"How're you doin', man?" he asks, dispensing coins and cigarettes. "Take care."