Sunday, November 25, 2007

Chapter 8 ~ Visiting

Photo by
Brendon Stuart

When we got home the night that Eddy was checked into the hospital, I tried to sign up for a substitute teacher online. I put in my request, anyway, before crawling in bed beside Lawrence. Even though it was 1:30 in the morning—10 hours after Eddy had called home with a bleeding hand—and I was dead tired, I had enough presence of mind to realize I wouldn’t want to go to work in the morning. In the morning, I would want to remain in bed, staring out the window or up at the ceiling, trying not to wonder what was happening that moment to my brilliant and handsome offspring, trying not to think of anything at all.

I don’t remember how we spent that night. Probably we clung together in the darkness, beneath the covers, both of us on our sides, my head pressed against Lawrence’s chest encased in a soft, threadbare tee shirt, his arm circling over my shoulder and around my back, pulling me in. I don’t think we cried. I couldn’t have cried. Crying would be like ripping open a fresh wound held together by flimsy stitches, like flinging open the door on a cagefull of feral rats. I don’t think we talked, either. Most of our words had been used up at the hospital—on the doctor, the psychologist, the nurses and security guards. On Henry and Eddy. On ourselves. Now that we had come home without our son, now that we had left him in the hands of other people—in an institution—I found my word horde was empty. There was nothing left to spend. So instead of talking or crying, we grasped each other mutely. Probably, eventually, Lawrence started snoring. Then he would have released me and rolled over, facing the other way. Then I would have fused in right behind him, wrapping my arm around his chest just above his little pot belly, curling my fingers over his bicep, drawing warmth from his body, refusing to let go. I was thrust suddenly into a violent dream.

Eddy and his father are facing each other at a crossroads, a place out in the country where three paths meet. Lawrence is leaving our home, which looms behind him like a palace, on a short journey. Eddy is arriving for what seems the first time. Lawrence has gotten off his bike to walk it across the intersection, but when he tries to pass, Eddy stands in his way. “Step aside,” Lawrence says, nudging him with his tire. “I got here first.” Eddy shrugs and begins to bend slowly from the waist, as if bowing. He reaches in the roadway for a big, jagged rock…

Five hours later, the alarm clock started beeping. I groaned before swinging my legs out of bed. I checked the computer with wan hope, but as I had expected, no substitute teacher had picked up my job in the middle of the night. I would have to go to work. I showered and pulled on my clothes with a numb efficiency. Lawrence stayed in bed. He was currently unemployed. Henry, too, said he would stay home from school. I didn’t argue with him. I drove my car to work, even though the campus was only a few blocks from home. I pulled myself out of the car stiffly and began walking towards the office where I would sign in, check my box for mail, and pick up my scantrons for bubbling the daily attendance. The campus was already alive with people. The school band was marching on the track around the football field, the sound of drums and horns carrying across the grounds. Teachers and teenagers scurried here and there across the asphalt. A small group of Christians sat in a circle around the flagpole, their heads bowed in prayer. Another group, dressed like gangstas—oversized shirts, sagging pants, baseball caps on backwards, gold chains—lounged on a picnic table and called out comments to passersby. I thought I would be able to manage; I thought I would show a movie to my students; I thought I would tell them we were taking the day off from serious academic pursuits. During lunch, I would lock my door and put my head down on my desk. But the first person who said “good morning” to me commenced the unraveling of my thinly stitched plan. I found I couldn’t even grunt a perfunctory response. In the office, full of teachers, three more people extended the customary greeting. The social pressure to respond to them was more than I could bear. I walked quickly to the school secretary’s desk. “I don’t think I can teach today,” I exhaled, despite the fact that the room already didn’t contain enough air. “I thought I could, but…”

“Why? What’s the matter?” she asked me, her voice full of concern.

“My son is in the hospital. We were up all night.”

“The hospital?! What happened?”

One or two teachers were watching us now, sensing the intensity of the conversation from across the room. Others were oblivious, hurrying past. I marshaled all my reserve to prevent myself from sobbing.

“He hurt himself,” I finally managed, keeping my voice low. “He’s okay, though. He’s in the psych ward.” I knew after I said it that it wasn’t exactly accurate. It sounded like he had tried to commit suicide. Still, they were the best three sentences I could muster.

“Oh, Jo. I’m sorry. Okay, just go on home. I’ll find someone to cover your classes.”

The relief that washed through me was achingly sweet. “Thank you. Thank you,” I whispered before hurrying out the door.

As I plowed across the campus, making a straight line to my car, the chair of the English Department walked toward me. He was an attractive young man, who had taught Eddy for one semester, and who just that year had married an attractive young woman in the Math Department. I had no doubt that one day he would produce healthy and attractive offspring, the kind of children who would never receive F’s in English or leave high school prematurely or be admitted to the psych ward in the middle of the night. “Mornin’ Jo. How are you doing?” he asked cheerfully.

“Not good,” I couldn’t prevent myself from responding. “Eddy’s in the hospital. I’m going home.”

“Oh, no,” his sympathy was immediate. “What happened?”

“He hurt himself. He’s in the psych ward.” The slightly skewed sentences seemed to propel themselves from my mouth. I wasn’t in control of my language. I began crying. The department chair put his arm around me stiffly, in an effort at comfort. I felt embarrassed and awkward, as if my misery was an invention I had manufactured in order to contaminate his neatly pressed shoulder. I felt my brain tipping off.

Back at home, I found Lawrence sitting up in the bedroom. “Visiting hours are 12 to 1,” he informed me, apparently unsurprised at my quick return from work. “We should stop and get him something healthy to eat. I can’t imagine he’s going to want to eat the hospital food.”

“Okay. Good idea. So I guess we should leave at 11,” I answered as I crawled back under the covers, fully clothed.

Henry, once again, wanted to come with us. For a moment, I wished we had made him go to school, but I didn’t have the energy or will required to oppose him. We left early and stopped at Earthbeam, a health food store on Broadway in Burlingame, where we bought a variety of items we thought Eddy might like: a snack bar made of raw ingredients, kombucha tea in a bottle, raw almonds mixed with raisins, and carrot juice. Lawrence drove the car and I directed, showing him the back way employees used to enter the hospital grounds, the way I’d driven for three years when I worked in the Marketing Department on the 7th floor. We found what seemed to be the last parking space in the lot, out near the shed where they stored gardening equipment. A crew of gardeners was having lunch at a picnic table near the shed beneath a towering eucalyptus tree, on a small island of greenery amidst the asphalt. “That looks like a job I would like,” Lawrence commented as we got out of the car.

“Really. You should apply here. I’m sure it comes with a pension.” I encouraged him. After 20 years in the restaurant business, he had decided to strike out on new career paths after a restaurant he had opened in Sunnybrae failed miserably, devastating his enthusiasm along with our bank account. We’d all be happier when he finally got another job.

I led the three of us across the lot to the back entrance, where big trucks made deliveries and the CEO of the hospital had a parking space reserved in his name. On the landing dock, retractable metal doors opened to a supply room behind an enormous round scale with a square, silver base built flush with the concrete. I wondered what it was designed to weigh. We walked around the storage room and down the wide hall, built big enough for supply transports, to the ground floor elevators, which we took up to the third floor. After turning a corner, we found ourselves standing in front of heavy double doors. A small silver plaque seemed to apologize. “Doors must remain locked at all times. High risk of elopement.” Another sign directed us to use the phone on the wall to notify people inside that we wanted to come in. I picked up the receiver.

“Unit 780,” a woman’s voice answered.

“Hello. This is Edward Thibedeaux’s mother. We’re here to visit him.”

“How many of you are there?”

“There’s three of us. Me, his father and his brother.”

“Okay. Well we’re only supposed to let two in at a time, but I think it will be okay for today to let the three of you come in together. But it’s not visiting hours yet. You’re early. Sit down in the hall and someone will come out to get you when it’s time.”


The three of us waited on upholstered chairs by the elevators. Lawrence picked up a newspaper he found on a side table and began to read. There was another family of three standing in the hall, a young man and woman joking with each other, and an older man reading a newspaper in a chair by the window. I wondered whom they were waiting to visit. Brothers? Spouses? Children? I wondered nervously what we would find inside. Lawrence was silent, but Henry began asking questions. As was often the case, his curiosity seemed to incline toward crime. “How do they keep the doors locked? I don’t see a keyhole. I wonder how hard it would be to escape. Maybe we should try to smuggle Eddy outside with us.”

“I don’t know, Henry. It’s probably electronic. And no we shouldn’t try to smuggle Ed out with us. He’s not a prisoner here. They aren’t torturing him. They’re helping him.” Lawrence picked up the conversation where I dropped off to give a more detailed account of how the door was probably secured.

Five minutes later, a short man with muscled arms emerged from the unit, but when I rose to follow him back inside, he motioned me to sit back down. “One group at a time,” he cautioned, taking the young couple who stood in the hallway before us. It was another five minutes before someone else came through the doors.

When it was finally our turn, we followed meekly. Our escort took the bag of groceries out of Lawrence’s hands before we got inside. The doors opened to a nurses’ station which blocked our passage, guarding both the door to the outside and a large recreation room behind it which was filled with tables and couches. A hall to our right seemed to be off limits and led to individual rooms. I scanned the rec room quickly, but couldn’t locate Ed, at first. Before passing through, we were asked to write our names and other information on a clipboard while the nurse in charge went through the items in our bag. “No glass,” she announced, removing the kombucha. “We’ll put his name on this and keep it in the refrigerator back here. He can ask for it when he wants it.” Then she returned the bag to us.

As we turned from the counter, I saw Eddy sitting at a round table by himself in front of a plate of food which he was stirring aimlessly with his fork. He was wearing a blue and white print cotton hospital gown over similar pants and green hospital-issue socks with white painted tread. His hand was bandaged. Despite the clean look of his clothing and bandage, he didn’t seem to have showered. His hair hung in greasy, brown clumps around his face, down to his shoulders. He looked even thinner than he had in his own clothes the night before.

“Hi Eddy,” I said with a windy cheerfulness as we sat down beside him, me on one side, his father on the other, and Henry next to Lawrence. “We brought you some health food,” I continued, putting the brown paper bag on the table. “You don’t have to eat that stuff if you don’t want to.”

“Thank you,” he said crisply, with attention to detail, as if he had just commenced a job interview. “The food here isn’t bad. I like it.”

“Really?” I was surprised. “You don’t seem to have eaten any of it.”

He looked down at his plate of stirred potatoes and started to laugh. “Actually, you’re right. The food here is crappy! But it doesn’t matter, because I’m not very hungry anyway.”

We sat uncomfortably together for a minute. A man my age was loudly exhorting someone over a pay phone nearby, wearing army green shorts, a short-sleeved yellow polo shirt, white ankle socks and black loafers. His topic of conversation (which blended politics, the stock market, and a trip he took to Florida) was sufficiently compelling that he never paused for a response from the listener. His voice grew louder and subsided with rhythmic surges of intensity apparently unrelated to what was being said. Next to him was a young blonde woman Eddy’s age on the hospital phone. “Aren’t you going to come to visit me?” she was asking plaintively. “It’s 12:15 already. I’m the only one here who doesn’t have a visitor.” Behind Eddy, on a couch, was an extremely fat woman in a print shift , white anklets and black patent leather shoes who was staring into space, ignoring a thin cord of drool sliding down her chin. Another table held a younger woman whose arm was bandaged from wrist to elbow talking cheerfully to the young man and woman I had seen out in the hall. A man paced back and forth in front of the nurse’s station, muttering. Other inmates were scattered across the room, sitting alone or with company, in varying states of sedated silence or agitated volubility.

“Don’t you want to see what we brought you?” I prompted Ed, forcibly returning my attention to the table.

“Yes,” he said with the same cheery crispness. But his actions didn’t reflect his tone. He looked in the bag desultorily, expressing no interest, pawing the contents halfheartedly with one hand.

“So what’s going on here, Eddy?” his father wanted to know. “Have you seen a doctor?”

“No. No. I haven’t seen a doctor. They told me a doctor was coming this morning, but the doctor never came. This morning someone interviewed me in a room for five minutes. Maybe he was a doctor. He wrote down what I was saying. But I didn’t want to talk about what he wanted to talk about. I couldn’t sleep all night because the guy next to me was moaning. I think I’m done here. I’m ready to go home.”

“I don’t think they’re going to let you out of here until you see a doctor,” Lawrence said. “They’re going to have to evaluate you.”

“Hey Eddy, can I have your brownie?” Henry interrupted.

Eddy shoved the tray across the table to him angrily, making a loud clatter. “Henry, why don’t you just leave the table?! I don’t want you here! Go sit over there!”

“Okay, okay.” Henry turned to leave, but then froze, uncertain. Where was he going to sit? The possibilities all seemed fraught with danger.

“Wait a minute. What’s the problem?” I interjected on Henry’s behalf, an old family pattern. “Do you want to keep your brownie? He doesn’t have to eat it.”

“No, it’s not about the friggin’ brownie!” Eddy yelled, then looked over at the nurse’s station furtively. “Come on, let’s get out of here. Come with me. Over here.”

We followed him nervously across the room to a few chairs lined up beneath a wall of windows. Outside was a beautiful view of the San Francisco Bay and the runways at SFO, crawling with planes. The windows were tinted black, but the day was bright and clear.

“I just want to talk to Mom,” he announced. “You two wait over there.”

“But why, Eddy? What’s the problem?” I glanced back worriedly at Lawrence, inexplicably afraid. “Why can’t they sit with us?”

“Shit. I don’t care,” he shook his head in exasperation, taking a seat and herding me into a chair directly across from him. Lawrence and Henry sat behind me. Eddy took up both of my hands.
“Look, Mom. I’ve figured out what my problem is.”

“You have? That’s great, honey.” I felt relieved. Maybe this nightmare would soon be over. “What is it?”

“My problem is separation anxiety.”

“Separation anxiety?” I couldn’t help a short laugh. “But that’s something two-year-olds get, Ed. What do you mean by ‘separation anxiety’? Do you mean when you moved out of the house to the eco-commune? You weren’t ready to be separated from us?”

“No, no. Not then.” He was impatient with me. “You see, when a child is born, he doesn’t want to leave the womb. The womb is the perfect environment. All his needs are taken care of. He can hear the heartbeat and feel the warm placenta, squishy with nutritious blood, all around him,” he stopped to smile sardonically at the gruesome construction, and my apparent discomfort. “Then he’s thrust out into the world alone, against his will. It’s deep in my subconscious, Mom—a deep hurt. It’s the pain that is driving me. So I need to go back and re-experience the birth to rid me of it.”

“Are you saying you’re having trouble now because you were born?” My eyebrows drew together skeptically. Wherever this was going, I was sure I would be blamed. “But Eddy, there’s no solution for that. You had to be born, didn’t you? No one can stay in the womb forever.”

“Obviously!” he dropped my hands in disgust. “You’re not trying, Mom. You’re not paying attention.”

“I am trying, Ed. I’m trying to understand what you’re saying. But I don’t understand. How can the pain of being born cause you to put your hand through a window 18 years later? How are these things related?”

“My hand? My hand?!" his voice rose in volume and his face contorted. "That’s not even the issue here. Nobody is talking about my hand!”

“Well, your hand is what landed you here in the first place.”

Lawrence tugged on my shirtsleeve from his spectator’s seat behind me. “Maybe you should just drop it,” he suggested. “This doesn’t seem like a productive topic of conversation.”

“No. In fact, this whole visit doesn’t seem productive,” Eddy announced. “I want you to leave now. All of you. And don’t bother coming back again.” Eddy stood angrily and stalked across the room without a glance behind him, turning at the nurses’ station down the forbidden hall.

Lawrence and Henry and I shuffled sheepishly after him, stopping first to pick up the brown bag full of health food items on the round dining table and carrying it over to the nurses’ station. “Could you put Eddy’s name on these, too? Could you see that he gets them, later?” I asked meekly.

The nurse nodded at me with what appeared to be disapproval. Eddy belonged to her now, apparently. He was her patient, and I was some careless intruder who had dropped in to disturb him. That made two people who didn’t want me to come back.

Read the next chapter HERE, or buy a paperback copy of Count All This HERE.

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