“Looks like Randy got some new shoes!”
Randy, a child of perhaps eight or nine, stuffed into gray sweatpants that would have actually fit someone at least thirty pounds lighter, was unintentionally mooning those of us in the adjacent visiting room as he parked himself on the polished tile floor like a monument in front of the reception desk. I am not sure if he was wearing socks, but he was doing his best to lace the high-top gym shoes, which were certainly new, with great fanfare. Another boy stared at Randy and paced around the monument a time or two. This boy had an unusual red streak-type mark traversing one side of his face; it appeared to be either a marking pen accident from several showers earlier, or the result of losing a physical battle of some sort. I never did see Randy’s face, but I imagined that it must have have reflected an eager anticipation at the prospect of actually being allowed on the other side of the door of One West, which had been his holding tank for his “five-day,” or however long it had taken him to demonstrate the type of behavior necessary to be released to the outside world once again.
“Randy is going home,” Ethan said, matter-of-factly. While he didn’t seem especially happy for Randy, neither did he seem to be wishing that he was the boy in his place. He just wanted to play with the Duplo blocks.
An hour earlier, I had dropped Aaron off in Elmhurst to spend the morning with my dear friend, Kathy. We had lived on the same street when Dan and I were first married. We had been first-time mothers together, with those babies and even their little brothers now in graduate school and college. Hours we spent on park benches and in the Chocolate Moon, our best coffee shop, eating lemon knots and never even considering that those days would one day be mere memories. Driving down York Road, I noticed a band of little Catholic girls in uniform skirts and knee socks; they were outside but contained within a chain-link fence. It must have been recess. One kicked a soccer ball toward a net as several others scrambled to block the kick, and a few others huddled together near the fence. I imagined them sharing secrets and giggling in high pitches. As I approached the center of town, I dared not drive down Clinton Avenue for worry that my tears might distort my vision, and I might not make it to Ethan. I would see one-year-old Elliott climbing on his Little Tykes slide in the front yard, early in the evening as we waited for Dan to come up the street with his briefcase. I would see the front porch where I hung Christmas lights for the first time as an adult, and where I would sit, into the dark hours of the early morning, and watch the snow fall while I wrote my hopes and visions in my purple journal. It would be too much to bear, going back to those simple days, as I would know that my just-turned-seven year-old is behind lock and key, with no windows at all, certainly without sparkling Christmas lights, and with nobody to pull the covers over him each night, and with nobody to wish his fears away.
As I drove nearer to the hospital, behind a foreboding darkish iron gate, there was a sprawling cemetery with gravestones sprinkled with artificial flowers in sun-faded colors that had probably been, at one time, lovely and cheerful. I wondered how many people had driven by that day without actually noticing it, as I am sure I did every time before this one.
“Oh, Risperdal. Do you know one of the side effects of Risperdal?”
It was the boy with the red streak. He must have overheard the doctor talking with me about Ethan’s medication.
“Side effects? Do you mean weight gain?” I asked the boy.
“Growing breasts. Growing breasts is one of the side effects. I just want you to know.”
I hope I wasn’t obvious as I looked the boy over, wondering if he was on Risperdal.
When he sensed that I needed to make my way home, Ethan held fast to my leg. Abandoning his block tower, he pleaded, “take me with you, Mom!” If only this tormented little soul knew that I wished for nothing more. My little son, who cannot project what he needs two minutes outside of this moment, is unable to make sense of what has happened to him, and certainly cannot understand that the “staff” needs him to demonstrate certain behaviors before he can come back to us.
“Ethan! Your mom is leaving!” puffed Helen, a stately and stern sixty-ish woman who forced others to earn her smiles. She called a nurse collegue to peel Ethan from me, and I could hear his anguished cries down the hallway, past windowless walls bearing what must have been forced watercolor paintings by inpatient artists. I saved my own sobs for the drive back to Elmhurst. I expect that I, too, would be somewhat hardened and abrupt if I dealt with young patients who, on an hourly basis, kicked hard at my desk and called me an “idiot” and a “dumb ass.”
I am learning more on this journey of parenting than I ever expected to learn. Honestly, I really don’t want to learn all this stuff. I don’t want to know the side effects of Risperdal. I don’t want to have a reason to need to know them. I don’t want others to treat my sweet boy with any less dignity than he deserves. The grip of mental illness is not selective. This child is only trying to make sense of his world and his emotional kaleidoscope. I want him to eat lemon knots, I want him to be able to walk across the train tracks without being gripped by fear, and I want him to enjoy the Christmas lights with the rest of us. I want him to know that he is a treasure and a great blessing, every single day.
God, I miss him.