Thursday, April 21, 2011

Chapter 7~~Visiting

Photo by
Brendon Stuart

After talking continuously for 50 minutes, Jo stopped. Her eyes usually looked they had in high school⎯bright and curious, intense⎯that’s how I had recognized her in the supermarket after not seeing her for 20 years. But that afternoon, when she told me about her son’s breakdown, they looked empty. I felt helpless to comfort her.

“That’s a lot to go through,” I offered.


“It sounds awful.”

“It was.”

“So, did you visit him the next day?”

She nodded wordlessly.

“Listen, Carl, I know you’re trying to help me, and I appreciate you giving me these sessions for free, but I’m not sure this is such a good idea. Repeating all this isn’t making me feel any better.”

I panicked for a second, not sure what to say to keep her coming back. But then my trusty rhetoric kicked in.

“I know it seems like that now, Jo. But it will get better. Trust me. You just have to work through it. It’s going to take time.” And then, because she was much more than a client, because she was the first girl I had ever loved, and a friend, I let myself breech the invisible wall that separated doctor from patient in my office. I came out from behind the desk and pulled her up out of the chair and into my arms. She gave that little sharp intake of breath that women do. I can still hear it tickling my ear. Her hair smelled like coconuts. Her muscles softened. I felt her begin to surrender.
That lasted three seconds.

“I have to go now,” she said suddenly, pushing me away.

And then the next day, when she came back (I was so afraid that she wouldn’t!), and I asked her a question to get things going, she got out of her chair without speaking and approached my desk. She picked up the little microphone that was propped there, and the recording machine it was attached to, and carried them both over to the couch by the window. Then she lay down, closed her eyes, and spoke directly into the mic. I stayed safely sequestered behind my desk.


“When we got home the night that Eddy was checked into the hospital, it was 1:30 in the morning--10 hours after he had called home with a bleeding hand--and I was dead tired. I worried about going to work in the morning. I knew I wouldn’t want to go. In the morning, I would want to stay in bed, staring out the window or up at the ceiling, trying not to wonder what was happening at that moment to my brilliant and handsome offspring, trying not to think of anything at all.

“I don’t remember how we passed that night. Probably we clung together in the darkness, beneath the covers, both of us on our sides, my forehead pressed against Larry’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 have been like ripping open a fresh wound held together by flimsy stitches, like flinging open the door on a cage full 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 Michael 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 bank was empty. There was nothing left to spend. So instead of talking or crying, we grasped each other mutely. Probably, eventually, Larry started snoring. Then he would have released me and rolled over, facing the other side. Then I would have fused in behind him, wrapping my arm around his chest, just above his pot belly, curling my fingers over his bicep, drawing warmth from his body, into mine.

“I do remember my dream,” she glanced over at me, knowing I’d be interested.

“Eddy is a baby, wrapped tightly in a blue blanket. I’m carrying him to the top of a windy hill. I see sheep in the distance, and a dark forest. No houses. I’m wearing a long dress and a headscarf--clothing unfamiliar. When I reach the top of the hill, I place Eddy down on a flat rock. He starts crying loudly. I take one step backwards. He waves his little hands in the air. I take another backwards step. His crying grows louder. One tiny foot breaks loose from the swaddling clothes. I see it is twisted, deformed. I put my hands over my ears and turn away from him, start running down the steep hill. I stumble and fall on some sharp rocks. My knees are scraped and bleeding, my forehead smeared with blood. My hands are cold. I get up and keep running, keep stumbling. I sense that someone is behind me, chasing me. When I reach the bottom, I turn around to look. I see a shadowy figure far away, up on the hilltop, lifting my baby off the rock.”

I wanted to interrupt her soliloquy to discuss the dream in more detail, but she wasn’t having any. She shook her head and continued speaking into the mic., as if in a trance.

“Five hours later, the alarm clock began its incessant beeping. I groaned before swinging my heavy legs out of bed. I showered and pulled on my clothes with numb efficiency. Larry stayed in bed. He was unemployed at the time. Michael said he was going to stay home from school. I didn’t care. I drove my car to work, even though the hospital was just a few blocks from home. I pulled myself out of the car stiffly and began walking towards the huge edifice. I knew Eddy was on the third floor, locked up in the psych ward, but my plan was to go straight to the Planning and Marketing Department where I worked. I thought I would be okay; I thought I would check in with the receptionist, walk to my office, shut my door. Maybe I would be able to visit Eddy at lunchtime. But the first person who said ‘good morning’ to me in the elevator commenced my unraveling. I found I couldn’t even grunt a perfunctory hello. Walking down the wide hallway full of nurses and visitors, three more people gave the customary greeting. The social pressure to respond to them was more than I could bear. Once I reached my department, I walked quickly to the receptionist’s desk.

‘“Lindy, I don’t think I can come in to work today,’ I whispered, exhaling deeply, despite the fact that I already didn’t have enough air.

‘“Why? What’s the matter?’ Her voice was full of concern.

‘“My son is here, in the hospital. We were up all night.’

‘“Here?! What happened?’

“A graphic designer was watching us now, sensing the intensity of the conversation from across the hall. A few writers were oblivious, hurrying past. Mandy was inaccessible in her office. I marshaled all my resources to continue.

‘“He hurt himself,’ I finally managed, keeping my voice low. ‘He’s okay, though. He’s in the psych ward.’ I knew what I said wasn’t giving the right impression. It sounded like he had tried to commit suicide. Still, it was the best I could do.

‘“Oh, Jo. I’m so sorry. Okay, just go home. I’ll tell Mandy, and I’ll call to cancel your interviews.’

“Relief washed over me. ‘Thank you,’ I mustered before walking back out the door. I rode down the elevator and pushed through the ground floor passageway as if I was underwater. As I plowed across the parking lot, making a beeline to my car, I saw the new head of the Cardiology Department ambling toward me. I had just interviewed him the month before for a cover story on heart health. He was an attractive young man, who had just that year married an attractive young woman in Surgery. I had no doubt that one day they would produce healthy and attractive children--the kind of children who would never aspire to be homeless, or put their fists through bathroom windows, or be escorted by security guards through impenetrable doors.

‘“Mornin’ Jo. How are you doing?’ he asked cheerfully.

‘“Not good,’ I was surprised to hear myself respond. I seemed to be operating on autopilot, without any input from my brain. ‘My son is in the hospital. I’m going home.’

‘“Oh, no,’ his sympathy was genuine. ‘What happened?’

“‘He hurt himself. He’s in the psych ward.’ The slightly skewed sentences popped out of my mouth of their own volition. I wasn’t in control of my language. Then I watched in amazement as I foolishly began crying. The doctor put his arm around me stiffly, in an effort at comfort. I felt embarrassed and awkward, as if my misery was something I was faking to impress him. I felt my skull open and my brain tipping off.
“Back at home, I found Larry sitting up in the bedroom. ‘Visiting hours are 12 to 1,’ he informed me, apparently unsurprised at my immediate 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. So I guess we don’t have to leave until 11,’ I answered as I crawled back under the covers, fully clothed.

“When the hour arrived, Michael, once again, wanted to come with us. For a moment, I wished I had made him go to school, but I didn’t have the energy or will to oppose him. We left early and stopped at Earthbeam, a health food store on Broadway in Burlingame, where we bought things we thought Eddy might like: a candy bar made of raw oats and honey, kombucha tea in a bottle, almonds mixed with raisins, and carrot juice. Larry drove the car and I directed, showing him the back way employees used to enter the hospital grounds. 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 on a small island of greenery floating above the asphalt, sitting at a picnic table beneath a towering eucalyptus tree.

‘“That looks like a job I would like,’ Larry commented as we got out of the car.

‘“Really. You should apply here. Everyone gets a pension.’”

She turned her head to look at me as she recorded the next few sentences.

“Larry isn’t really a slacker. After 20 years in the restaurant business--good years that supported the family while I stayed home when our children were small--Larry lost some big money by opening a restaurant in Corinth, wiping out his taste for the restaurant business along with our bank account. He spent the next couple of years looking for another job.”

Then her gaze shifted back.

“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. We walked around the huge scale on the landing dock and down the wide hall, built big enough for supply transports, to the ground floor elevators, which we took up to the third floor.

“Despite having worked at the hospital for three years, I had never been to the psych ward, either. I was learning something new every day!” She gave a sardonic smile. “After turning a corner, we found ourselves standing in front of locked double doors. A small silver plaque said ‘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 if we wanted to come in. I picked up the receiver.

‘“Unit 780,’ a woman’s voice answered.

‘“Hello. This is Eddy Thibedeaux’s mother, Jo Kasten. We’re here to visit him.’

‘“How many of you are there?’

‘“There are 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. I hoped no one I knew would walk by. Larry picked up a newspaper he found on a side table and began to read. There was a family of four standing stiffly in the hall, a young man and woman flirting in front of the elevators, an older man reading a newspaper in a chair by the window. I wondered whom they were waiting to visit. Siblings? Spouses? Children? Friends? I tried to imagine what it would look like inside. Larry was silent, but Michael began ruminating.

‘“How do they keep the doors locked?’ he asked. ‘I don’t see a keyhole.’ I said I had no idea. His father ignored him. ‘I wonder how hard it would be to escape,’ Michael continued. ‘Maybe we should try to smuggle Eddy outside with us.’

‘“No, Michael, we shouldn’t,’ I told him firmly, annoyed. ‘He’s not a prisoner here. They aren’t torturing him. They’re helping him.’

“Larry picked up the conversation where I dropped off to give his opinion on 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 admonished, taking the young couple who stood by the elevators 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 Larry’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 community room behind it which was filled with chairs and couches. A hall to our right seemed to be off limits and led to individual rooms. I scanned the big room quickly, but couldn’t locate Eddy, 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.

“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 tread on the soles. His hand was bandaged. Despite the clean look of his clothing, he didn’t seem to have showered. His hair hung in greasy, brown clumps around his face.

‘“Hi Eddy,’ I said as we sat down beside him, me on one side, his father on the other, and Michael next to Larry. ‘We brought you some health food,’ 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 was commencing a job interview. ‘The food here really isn’t bad. I like it.’

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

“Eddy looked down at his plate of stirred potatoes and started to laugh. ‘Actually, you’re right. The food here is crappy!’ He seemed delighted to have made this observation. ‘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 green shorts, a short-sleeved yellow shirt, white ankle socks and black loafers. His narrative (which blended politics, the stock market, and a trip he took to Florida) was so compelling that he never paused for a response from the listener. His voice grew louder and subsided with surges of intensity apparently unrelated to what he was saying.

“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 whining. ‘It’s 12:15 already. I’m the only one here who doesn’t have a visitor,’ she lied.

“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 rolling down her chin.

“Another table held a younger woman, whose arm was bandaged from wrist to elbow, talking cheerfully to the young couple I had seen out in the hall. ‘She’s a cutter,’ Eddy told me too loudly.

“A disheveled man paced back and forth in front of the nurse’s station, muttering, his hospital gown hanging open and his round belly showing through. Other inmates were scattered across the room, alone or with company; most seemed to be in exaggerated states of silence or 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 cheery crispness. But his actions didn’t reflect his tone. He looked in the bag lazily, 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. Nope. 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,’ Larry said. ‘They’re going to have to evaluate you.’

‘“Hey Eddy, can I have your brownie?’ Michael interrupted.

“Eddy shoved the tray across the table to him aggressively, making a loud clatter. ‘“Michael, would you just leave the table? I don’t want you here! Go sit over there,’ he commanded.

‘“Okay.’ Michael turned to leave, but then froze, uncertain, looking out at the people in the room. Where was he going to sit?

‘“Wait a minute. What’s the problem?’ I asked angrily. ‘Do you want to keep your brownie, Eddy? Michael 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 the windows. Outside was a beautiful view of the San Francisco Bay and the runways at SFO, crawling with planes. The windows were tinted blue, and the day looked bright and clear.

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

‘“But why? What’s the problem?’ I felt nervous. ‘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. Larry and Michael 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.’ 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 your apartment, 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 squishy blood all around him,’ he stopped to smile at the gruesome construction, and my 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 hurting now because you were born?’ I was skeptical. 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?! That’s not the issue here! Nobody is talking about my hand!

‘“Well your hand is what landed you here in the first place,’ I argued.

“Larry 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 pronounced regally. ‘I want you to leave now. All of you. And don’t bother coming back again.’ Eddy stood angrily and stormed across the room without a glance behind him, turning at the nurses’ station down the forbidden private hall.

“Larry and Michael and I shuffled sheepishly out after him, stopping first to pick up the brown bag full of untouched health food items on the round dining table and taking it over to the nurses’ station.

‘“Could you put Eddy’s name on these, too? Could you see that he gets them?’ I asked meekly.

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

“When we got home, Michael walked without speaking to his bedroom and shut the door. Larry and I lay down together on our double bed.

“I must have dropped off to sleep, because the next thing I knew, someone was shaking me roughly, saying, ‘Jo. Wake up.’

“I opened my eyes to see Larry standing over me, fully clothed. His face was somber. In fact, he looked angry, and or a moment, I couldn’t remember what had been happening. Then I heard Larry saying again, ‘It’s time. I’m leaving,’ and my throat started to close. I panicked. Where was he going?

‘“Evening visiting hours are 7-8 pm. Maybe I should go see him alone this time,’ he continued.

“I felt a huge rush of relief. Larry wasn’t leaving me, he was just going to visit our son. But then I remembered the white-lit alcove, the two big security guards. I saw myself stumbling across the parking lot to my car. Had that really been this morning? I remembered Eddy’s theory about his birth trauma, and his anger at my disbelief. Exhaustion washed through me. My body felt paralyzed.

‘“Maybe that’s a good idea,’ I agreed without argument.

‘“I’ll just feel him out, see if he acts any different when you aren’t around.’

‘“Mmm Hmm.’ I rolled over on the bed, away from him. Was what was happening to Eddy my fault? That was a familiar question. Whatever was wrong with my children, the world seemed in agreement, was attributable to me.

“After Larry left, the house remained fairly quiet. I lay in bed. The phone rang. I forced myself to answer it. Michael never emerged from his room. Two hours later, when Larry returned from the visit, he spilled enthusiasm into a resistant void.

‘“He was perfectly normal!’ he said happily, luring me out of bed to give me his report at the kitchen table.

‘“Really?’ I was unconvinced.

‘“Really! He was fine. He didn’t say anything crazy. We sat and talked together the whole time.’ Relief shone through Larry’s unshaven face.

‘“That’s good news,’ I wanted to encourage him. I did. But how did this happen? I wondered. Was it some kind of trick? ‘Did you talk to the doctor?’

‘“No. He wasn’t there. But Eddy said he’d talked to him. They’re giving him some kind of medication, apparently. Maybe that’s what’s doing it. He also seems pretty freaked out by the hospital. He wants to come home. Maybe just being there shook him up enough to make him come back to his senses.’

‘“That could be ... ’ I allowed a glimmer of hope to slip through my defenses. ‘My sisters Jean and Jane both called. They must be psychic or something. They knew something was wrong. They both said they want to come visit him. I’m sure Claire and Francine would visit, too, if they didn’t live out of state. When are they going to let him out, exactly? Did anyone tell you?’

‘“I’m not sure. We might be able to ask the doctor about it tomorrow. He’s not really supposed to tell us anything⎯for confidentiality reasons, since Eddy is 18 years old⎯but since he’ll be coming home with us, we might be able to get some information.’

‘“Is he coming home with us? Not going back to his apartment? Did he agree to that?’

‘“Yes. Yes. He’s perfectly reasonable, I’m telling you! Maybe it’s you that was making him crazy,’ Larry teased me. ‘Maybe only I should be allowed to talk to him from now on.’”

Cut Off will be published in June.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Believe that life is worth living, and your belief will help create the fact.

April 28, 2011 at 3:31 PM  

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