Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil, but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.–From Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians, New International Version 1 Corinthians 13:4-7
On Christmas Eve, perhaps twenty years ago, I attended the traditional holiday party hosted by my sister-in-law by marriage. I hardly know anyone, except for my wife and children, for most of the people there belonged to my sister-in-law’s large extended family. My parents, brothers and sister all lived out West, thousands of miles away. I became an internal expatriate when I agreed to move to this Northeastern city so my wife could live near her only brother.
I sat on a couch with A, the youngest sibling of this clan of strangers. He carried the conversation, his subject the healing power of Mother Mary. I focused my attention on his head with its thinning hair. A trick of the light, perhaps, but I swear I saw the halo of an angel, like those in Medieval European paintings.
A chose to talk to me. His words repeated themselves in a continual loop full of personal revelations regarding sinners burning in Hell as lambs with swords chastised them with the flaming love of Jesus, visions of biblical terrors he believed were imminent. The end of the world, the end times, the time of God’s judgment: this was the era of his delusions, full of terror, though I saw a shining joy on his face, the millennial excitement of a gentle man finding happiness in eternal punishments meted out to unbelievers.
I was the heathen he sought to convert that evening; and he used these images of torture, the multitudes screaming in the lake of fire to which Jesus Christ had condemned them for all eternity, to convince me to accept Christ’s promise of grace for those of the true faith. His testimony did not cohere; the narrative he sought to express unraveled into chaos. His thoughts came too fast for his mind to arrange them into any semblance of order; a superb mania, grandiose and majestic in the intensity of its display.
If only he had taken his Clozaril, perhaps his mania would have subsided. Despite his kindly manner and innocuous appearance, A’s madness terrified me. The others at the party engaged in banal conversations standing around the kitchen or seated in the living room. I wondered if they were happy that someone else was attending to their lost man-child. I caught them glancing at A and I, but no one came to relieve me.
Meanwhile, my nieces ran through the house chasing after my son, excited, expressing a shared desire for their older, handsome adolescent cousin. He was their first infatuation, as they wrestled him, rolling around on the floor while he fought them off, all of them laughing with delight. Did they understand the nascent emotions he evoked in them? Probably not, but they appeared happy, content to remain in the liminal state between their present and their future that is the domain of pre-pubescent girls.
I couldn’t appreciate their fleeting happiness, however, for I felt paralyzed by A. An aura surrounded his face much like the glory of the great archangel in the Book of Revelation who wraps Satan in chains and throws him into a deep pit. I couldn’t remove stop looking at him, couldn’t pretend I hadn’t heard what he said, for I was weak. It was as if my conscious self split in two and one part was looking down and seeing myself as a deep failure, beyond redemption.
* * *
I wonder now, as I write about this interaction, what you think about A. Do you believe he exists, or is he a fictional character? Let me assure you that A is no figment of my imagination. In his way, he’s a good person, even though I cannot understand him, even though he often repulsed me for reasons I did not fully understand.
He came from a loving family. His every action expresses love for others, the love of those, like small children, who are true innocents. He knows of his lost sanity. He understood his mind was not like the minds of others, but he kept a measure of dignity in a world where to have his illness invariably results in being shunned and maligned.
A was his family’s youngest child, the last of eight siblings. His schizophrenia manifested itself around the age of 19. Before then, he was outgoing, had many friends, and was a talented student, musician and singer. His voice in song is fulsome in its sweetness, and it can touch places in people they have forgotten or never knew existed. He possesses a certain magnetism and an eerie calmness that often seems at odds with the topics he longs to discuss, invariably long and convoluted explanations of his religious visions.
Yet, I had difficulty relating to him. All my so-called empathy, my listening skills, my ability to mirror the emotions of others in my mind went out the window when I had to spend time with him, face to face. Despite my psychology degree, and my work as a counselor to disturbed adolescents in my early twenties, I was out of my depth. I couldn’t overcome my anxiety and my prejudice in his presence. And that failure made me ashamed.
* * *
Over the years, I usually saw A at every holiday event hosted by my sister-in-law. I gradually became accustomed to his behavior, and less concerned about him. However, I tried not to spend much time speaking to him. His delusions still bothered me. Yet I also felt sorry for him.
I have a chronic autoimmune disorder. I won’t dwell on my symptoms, but I’ve had it for well over two decades, maybe longer. It places limitations on me, much as A’s schizophrenia places limits on what he can do. I used to tell myself that we shared some commonalities in that we were both hostages to our respective ailments, and that neither of us shared the same world that those afflicted with health enjoy.
How can I describe this otherworld in which, to my thinking, both A and I live, a world created out of our limitations and our thoughts about those limitations? His thoughts come unbidden, while mine? Are they refugees as well? I take words and push them into my fingers, which pound them out on a keyboard, and through that process bring into being something new. Just as A with his revelations and hallucinations, I create a new reality each time I convert thoughts into written words and then stories out of those writings. It was my belief that, in our separate own ways, we both sought to explain a universe that allowed these cruel afflictions to embrace us and not others.
I told myself that fundamentally he and I were not that different. Neither of us had much control over that first world into which we were born, the world that gave us these ailments, and thus diminished us. So what did it matter how many new worlds we chose to make? Our acts of creation offered us a temporary respite, a sanctuary, our own Golden Pavilion to which we could escape. It was ours alone whether we found our own way into it with words, or images, or through random packets of electrical impulses conveying bits of data flung outward toward the frontiers of our hopes and desperation.
Did A choose to make a doppelganger for the world in which his flesh and yours shall someday spoil and rot, only to be restored in a glorious new body at some future, unknown date? No. He followed the template of a religion imprinted upon him as a child to explain the voices he hears, the visions he sees. Can you blame him for that?
I did recognize our differences, however. I was more fortunate than A in many ways, but also less. I do have more choices than he does. I can choose what to reveal and promote, or what to disparage and decry in the narratives I create. I invent them as a potter forms vessels from clay on his wheel. But, unlike A, I have no template to guide me. I’m like a man without a life jacket in a great sea, looking for whatever bit of flotsam I can find to keep me afloat. I envied A’s clarity of purpose, even though it was based on delusional thinking.
I thought then (and still do) that time is different for those of us forced to remain in the lands of our afflictions, whether of the body or the brain. It’s measured, not in motion around a burning star, but in movement toward, or away from, the struggles we face and the pain we endure, circumstances we do our best to ignore or, in some instances, re-shape so that our suffering has meaning.
* * *
Let me leave my depiction of A for a moment so I can tell you three unrelated stories. Each is true as far as I know. They may appear to be unrelated digressions, but there’s a connection to the story of my relationship to A. It might not seem that way as you read them, but trust me, it’s there.
a) An old man who loved to talk about himself, once told me of his time in the Navy on board a ship with 1500 men. Fifteen hundred, of whom seven were Jews, and he was one of the lucky seven. This was in a time of war, but that did not ensure friendship with his fellow sailors who did not share his faith. It was an earlier time, but it could be today too.
One of his shipmates, a large, obnoxious son of a bitch (not his words, but mine), took to calling him “Matzoh Ball.” This bully had picked his target well. He outweighed “Matzoh Ball” by nearly 100 pounds. Poor Matzoh Ball was not by nature a fighter. He tried to avoid this annoying idiot, but ships are small, confined places.
Every day this oaf tormented him. No one came to his defense. He was only one of seven Jews among a host of Christians, many of whom slipped easily into the prejudices of their era, when public expression of anti-Semitism was common, rather than hidden behind polite gestures of meaningless tolerance.
One day, Matzoh Ball finally reached his limits of his ability to ignore the slurs and abuse. As he was kneeling down, placing some item of gear in his locker, the bully towered over him. The bully spit out that hateful name again. Perhaps others nearby laughed, some nervously, some in full agreement with this lout’s actions meant to demean a fellow sailor simply because he was a Jew. Regardless, 130-pound Matzoh Ball could no longer stand hearing the bully use the nickname he hated, nor endure the humiliation he felt each time his comrades laughed at him, seemingly in agreement with the bully. In anger, without thinking, he rose from where he squatted faster than the bully could have ever expected. Matzoh Ball’s right fist hit the bastard full on the chin, cold-cocking him into unconsciousness. They sent him to the brig for two weeks, but no one ever called him Matzoh Ball again. And so he lost the nick name he never wanted.
b) Four openly gay men, all close friends, were visiting each after for the first time in many years. They went to see the play “Wicked,” that unlikely musical based on the “true story” of the Wicked Witch of the West from the world of Frank Baum’s Oz books. Their evening had been wondrous. The musical was a delight. The auditorium where the musical was staged was a famous architectural legacy conceived by Frank Lloyd Wright. Everything was perfect that evening: the entertainment, the company, the special intimacy that can be shared only among old friends.
They had been fortunate also in finding a parking garage nearby that required valet parking. One of their party went ahead to wait in line after the show ended. The rest walked together, sharing the moment, the city’s lights beaming down on their smiling faces. When they arrived at the parking garage, their friend was close to the front of the line; and they walked up to join him, grateful for his efforts. But two women behind them objected.
“You’re cutting in line. Go to the back like everyone else.” They sounded angry and upset. One of the four friends turned to explain that they had all driven together in one car, so they weren’t jumping the line. But the women didn’t want to listen.
“Shut up! Get back where you belong!”
Another one attempted to explain they had all come in a single car, trying to maintain a sense of decorum, but the women would have none of it. As he calmly explained again, the older of the two women, dressed in a fancy gown and a mink stole, shoved him in the chest.
“Shut up you! You fucking faggots!”
So there it was. The actual issue that concerned these two women had nothing to do with what the men had done and everything to do with the fact they were gay. And what began as a simple misunderstanding (or so everyone that night who waited for their cars must have thought) now was out in the open, floating among the gasoline fumes from passing cars exiting the garage and spumes of steam rising from the city’s sidewalk grates.
So a third man, the man who told me the story, turned to face the woman. She had shoved his partner in the chest. He was in a mood to retaliate. His eyes fixated on the older woman’s fur wrap.
“That’s a lovely coat you’re wearing,” he said. “Skunk is it?
His friends laughed. Other people in line also laughed at what he considered a well-deserved riposte to the woman’s rude and bigoted slurs. He was pleased he’d come up with it so quickly. Until, that is, he saw the two children huddling by the younger woman’s legs, fear and confusion on their faces. They must have been her kids: a boy and a girl, brother and sister. They couldn’t have been older than six and eight, respectively.
“Look what you’ve done!” This was the younger woman speaking. “You’re scaring my kids!”
After that, all the talking stopped. The man now felt shame for what he had said.
What did it matter if they were homophobic bigots? he thought. I should have seen the kids. I should have ignored the bigotry expressed by their mother and grandmother who had brought them to the show as a special outing, a treat.
“I felt ashamed,” he said to me as he recalled that evening. “And I still don’t know why.”
3) This is the shortest story. A man is driving a small child to daycare. He’s being careful, more careful than when he drives alone. His daughter of five years is too precious to risk speeding or going through yellow lights. So what if he’s a little late to work?
He was singing a silly song to make his daughter happy when he first noticed that the car in his rear-view mirror was tailgating him. He sped up to put some distance between himself and his pursuer, to lessen the risk of an accident, but the other car sped up too. How close was it? Six feet? Three? He sped up again, but the car refused to back off.
This is absurd, he thought. This is crazy. Don’t they know what the hell they are doing? Don’t they know their stupidity could get us all killed? Could get my daughter killed?
That sent him reeling into a rage, one that consumed him to the extent he entered a dissociated state. He felt split in two, one an objective observer and the other a monster beyond his control.
He slammed on his brakes. The car behind him just missed his rear bumper as it slid off the shoulder of the road. He opened his door and got out. Slamming it behind him, he marched over to the driver’s side of the other car. Behind its steering wheel sat a young woman. No matter. He was going to do what he was going to do.
He banged on the woman’s car window with his fist.
“What kind of asshole do you think you are, tailgating me like that? I have my daughter with me. You stupid bitch! I have my daughter with me!”
When he finished swearing at her and banging on her car, finished seeing her cringing in fear, he returned to his own car, feeling righteous.
As he settled into his seat, he heard someone crying. It was his daughter.
“It’s okay, honey. She won’t be bothering us ever again.”
However, she kept whimpering. “Daddy, you scared me. You scared me. Why did you do that?”
He had no answer.*
* * *
It’s Christmas Eve again, at my sister-in-law’s annual gathering. It’s a smaller event than the last one I attended. Her father died 18 months ago; and her mother, your nieces’ grandmother, has been in and out of the hospital since that time. She looked tired and worn down.
It takes a while before I notice that something else was different. I look around for A, but can’t find him anywhere. He always attends these affairs, so where could he be? I asked my sister-in-law where he was hiding out since I wanted to wish him Merry Christmas. Make amends for my attitude toward him, though I suspect he knew nothing about what had bothered me about our previous encounter.
“He couldn’t make it this year. He’s been having some problems.”
“He stopped taking his meds after Dad died—and with Mom being so sick…” Her voice trailed off.
She nodded, then walked away to talk to someone else about happier subjects. And it came to me that I missed him. Once his presence had been disturbing, but now his absence brought on a feeling of dismay. And I realized something else: that I never understood him at all.
*For the record, the father of that five-year-old child was me.