The fall rains come as the leaves are dying. The drops paint the leaves, splashing on shades of yellow, red, and gold as both fall from the sky. The wooded banks of the river turn from a uniform green to a riot of color. The panorama extends for miles but invisibly, when a bend in the river brackets the vista like the border of a picture post card.
I mark the changes on my daily drive across the Mississippi River bridge, an arced span that ends at the Ford automotive plant on the St. Paul side of the river. Like art imitating life, people begin imitating nature. They don’t turn different colors, but they accelerate as if they too are under the spell of a wind that makes leaves float, spin, stop, and dance madly away. Like the leaves, people are looking for a place to rest.
There are lots of trees at the state hospital. Like many of the patients, the leaves here seem to be resting. I knew a man who lived at the state hospital for ten years straight, which proves you can get used to just about anything. Not everyone likes it here, though, which accounts for the shouts, screams, and curses wafting out the windows of the various locked units inside the aging brick buildings. I’m a social worker, and all my folks are in locked units.
You meet all kinds in a state hospital because insanity doesn’t discriminate. Rich, poor, men, women, educated and not: schizophrenics; bipolars; the depressed and suicidal; chronic alcoholics whose use has given them wet brains (we call it dementia now); “MI and D’s” (mentally ill and dangerous); satanists; a swarm of personality disorders; assorted misfits, malingering criminals who prefer the mental health system to prison, and so on. The commerce in this community of the unwell revolves around sex, drugs, cigarettes and pop – not necessarily in that order. There is never enough to go around. Sometimes frustration sets in and patients prey on each other. The collective misery attracts demons like flies to a carcass; they goad and taunt the unfortunates to enhance the general misery.
These poor folk share more than their various mental afflictions, the Muzak piped in through hospital speakers, incessant self-esteem therapies, medications that make them drool and shuffle, and an inability to make it in the cold hard world. Within each of them is a small enclosed space – a chamber. On occasion I have entered a chamber, and paused for a time in a landscape utterly different from cool, color filled land of creation.
Some chamber terrains are bleak and silent. Others are pain filled, all a throb in reds and blacks. Here are landscapes of terror, despair, profound sadness and madness – so interwoven who can know if madness is a cause or an effect? The writhing, inconsolable quality of some chambers echoes the silent screams of lost souls. My instincts tell me to pray and run.
I leave, but they do not always leave me. Their wretchedness is haunting. One of the few taboos remaining in our culture is insanity. Mental illness is a leprous scab that strips its bearer of all credibility and social standing. You can get away with a lot these days but you’d better not lose your marbles – or have someone accuse you of it. I knew of this stigma before I met the poor folk. Like the biblical “sins of the father,“ research indicates schizophrenia runs in families. It runs in mine.
By the grace of God or luck of the draw I’ve been spared, but not entirely. There are memory fragments from childhood that still detonate with force. I remember Dad when the voices took over. They kept him awake, told him to kill himself, told him we were all against him. He hurt himself and he hurt us. Dad bled. We bled. Our home received a mournful baptism of tears and blood. At his climax Dad got very religious and very violent – a nasty combination in a big man coming after a little boy with mayhem in his eyes. It was usually too late by the time the police came and dragged Dad away, but at least they came. When the shouts, screams, and sirens died away, our home sat shrouded in silence and shame.
Now I hospitalize people, and sometimes it feels like I’m still trying to hospitalize Dad so he can finally get the help he needed years ago – or so that I and other family members can feel safe for a while. Maybe my career is an attempt to mend the damage done to our family, as if I could retroactively transform my real childhood into the childhood I needed to have. But not even lies can change the past.
Dad got better before he died. He loved my wife and kids, and they laughed when he mixed up their names. He never apologized, or spoke of what his madness did to us – or what it did to him. But he tried to make amends without saying so, and sometimes I tried to let him; he was better at this than I was. It is sad I could not love him, but being unable to forgive him hurt more. Slowly and slower, a will to forgive appeared like a bud on a tree. On my better days I willed that it grow.
It helped that he was kind to my children. They loved their grandpa. They taught him how to return affection – or reminded him how he did it before his life went to hell. Then one day Dad was on his deathbed. He had failed quickly and profoundly. Life support sustained him until my sisters and I arrived. There was no question of prolonging his life, only how we would say good-bye. I had my few minutes alone. I knew Dad could never hurt us again, and I talked to him. I didn’t tell him I loved him, but I told him I forgave him and I asked him to forgive me. I heard him sigh. We gathered at his bed. They pulled the plug and we watched Dad die.
I never tried to enter Dad’s chamber. Whenever I got too close I started crying. He gave me what he had: his pain and suffering. I accepted it for what it was: a legacy. I share my legacy in an unspoken way with the folk I work with. They give me what they have: their misery and brokenness. They are the humblest of gifts, and I accept their gifts with respect – something that was too hard for me to do with my own father because I wanted and needed so much more from him.
The results of my work are none of my business, I suppose. It has been a privilege to have been able to enter the tortured chambers of my fellow humans: to pay my respects, to bear witness to their pain, and to pray for their healing. Sometimes I think they know. I hope my presence makes a difference: if not with their illness, or even with their wretched lives, then at least with their spiritual welfare.
In return, I have been rewarded, perhaps excessively. For as the fall rains come to all, so has the ancient gift of tears come to me. They mingle with the rain, and I embrace everything that washes over a heart no longer hidden, a heart broken yet woken as well. I realize I am growing to love what was never there, to love all that I never had, for it has made me the man and father I am today. And that is a good thing.
* * *
The leaves are falling faster now. They carpet the ground, and cold mornings coat fallen leaves with frost. Some trees are almost bare, skeletal limbs anticipating the tomb of winter. The fidelity of nature’s design is admirable. The organized miracle called “change of season” helps me believe it is never – ever – too late for grace. I take my children to a park. We swing and play in the leaves. The youngest ones run to me laughing. We hug. I am leaving them a legacy too. After they are in bed the house is quiet. I think about home. I close my eyes, and listen for sounds of chamber music.
© 2011 Moina Arcee