One of my earliest memories of the home I grew up in was sitting on top of a pile of sod: the rolled up grass sections that would soon be our lawn. I felt like I was on top of a mountain. I felt good.
Another early memory was of how brave my Daddy was. It was the middle of the night, we were all sleeping. I heard a noise and got up. Daddy and Mom were standing in their bedroom, facing the bedroom closet. The closet door was open and it was dark inside. Daddy was yelling: “Come on out,” to something inside the closet. Daddy was in a boxing stance. He looked really mad. Mom stood next to him, looking upset at Dad. That confused me because Daddy was being really brave and protecting us from a bad guy or a monster. I felt safe. I was proud of my Daddy.
As a grown up I understand this memory differently. There was nothing in Mom and Dad’s closet that night except their clothes. Dad was hearing voices. He had an illness called schizophrenia. Mom was upset because dad was having symptoms in the middle of the night and disturbing everybody. The instinctive childhood love I had for my dad created the positive interpretation I gave the episode.
Mom acted like nothing was wrong with Dad. She must not have known what else to do. I think Dad went crazy after they married, but Mom never divorced him. She never talked to us children about Dad’s illness, or even explained to us that he had an illness. We were left to make up our own childhood minds about things. Dad used to do bad things to Mom. She got even with him in the time-honored ways women get even with men.
If Mom was a vengeful victim, she had years of practice at it before she ran into Dad. She grew up in England during the Blitzkrieg: the long weeks, months, and years Hitler’s bombers bludgeoned Mom’s island home. Who wouldn’t feel like a vengeful victim growing up like that? Dad was an American serviceman serving in England after the war. Maybe Mom thought marrying an American would help her escape war and the aftermath of war. She crossed an ocean, but it is hard to escape war. She has outlived Dad, however, and that has lightened her load considerably.
Perhaps the mystery and confusion about Dad prompted me to study psychology in college. I was drawn to the deviant side: Abnormal Psychology was my favorite class. I have always found the study of mental illness fascinating. After a career counseling teenage boys, a career as a salesman, a career in business, and even a career in law, I came back to my roots. I ended up a county case manager for adults with serious and persistent mental illness. Now I work for the state with the same population.
Schizophrenics are my favorite portion of this population. Perhaps I would have worked with schizophrenics even if my father hadn’t been schizophrenic. For whatever reason, these people are linked with me. While I have few fond memories of my father, I do have a fondness for many of the schizophrenics I have worked with over the years. I have respect for the sheer guts it takes for them to get out of bed each day to face the same demons: demons that seldom take a holiday, and closets that are never empty but always full of monsters with sneering voices and frightening innuendos. Terror and spite haunt their spider-web filled minds and their dirt scrabble lives.
One of the schizophrenics I knew killed himself in the bathroom of the psychiatric unit of a community hospital. I had been out with him prior to his hospitalization and was saying good-bye to him. He said he would remember me. I asked him what he would remember. I’ll remember your kindness, he said. I remember him too. He was a good guy who wouldn’t kill a fly but ended up following voices and taking his own life.
The schizophrenics I have met have taught me compassion; they have taught me perseverance; and some of them have a quiet, humble dignity that I find admirable. Perhaps they have even taught me how to un-hate my dad, or at least to see life as he must have lived it. If I needed him too much to have compassion for him when I was a boy, I can make amends about that now, at least in my spirit.
Eudora Welty thought memory was a living thing, through which the present can reclaim the losses of the past. Today, maybe working with schizophrenics is my way of showing solidarity with my Daddy – by helping other people like him fight their monsters and win. I couldn’t help you when I was a boy, Daddy, but now I can fight the bad guys, the monsters with bad voices, and win sometimes. Maybe even win enough to even out the score. And that will be something to remember.