My son, Nick, has been transferred from the locked ward to the unlocked ward because he has improved. They put him on liquid lithium because he was cheeking his pills. I can’t believe it. I check his mouth every single time. The nurses chuckle softly and smile knowingly at each other. They tell me I don’t realize how clever, how adept the patients are at this. My son, the mental patient.
When you enter the psychiatric hospital, sign-in desk, there is a bowl filled with padlocks and keys. They give you one so that you can put your purse, phone, anything of value or potential harm into your own, high school style, locker. I walk down the hallway holding only a tiny key that is mine for an hour, to go visit the person that I grew in my own body, all by myself, with all my cells and love. Walking down the super bright, clean hallway, the hard metal dancing on my open palm, I consider the idea of a locking and unlocking. I am a breathing, blood-pumping metaphor.
In the unlocked ward they are allowed to congregate. My craydar goes into overdrive as soon as I enter the community room. There is a good-looking Latino guy making large, unwieldy origami birds out of heavy construction paper. For God’s sake, everyone knows there is special paper for origami. Why don’t they have origami paper? These birds will never fly. Several women sit at a long table coloring in coloring books. One of them looks really normal. This cheers me up. Then I realize she is the ward nurse. A small man with only one eye (really?) is talking to the wall in an adjacent room. Origami Guy is now circling the room twirling a broom like a baton. My son sits, like Buddha in a Barcalounger, off to the side. He is doing nothing.
“Hey, Nickboy, how are you?” I ask.
We have an impossible conversation in which I attempt to address the medication issue. He strongly denies any cheeking. I tell him what the doctor told me: there were blood tests and the blood doesn’t lie. My son has no reaction to that information. He then smiles broadly and informs me that he likes the liquid lithium, “It tastes like Tang!”
For a moment I wonder how it is that he even knows about Tang. Isn’t he too young?
Another visit that doesn’t seem to accomplish anything. I am not sure what I expect after all these years, but I cannot seem to let go of the idea that there is an answer out there somewhere. Why did this happen? Whose fault is it? How can I fix it? He won’t hug me, so I touch his sleeve before I go.
As I open my metal locker, I consider the histories of the mentally ill. So often they are artists, with a sensitivity to see beauty and connectedness in the world that the rest of us don’t recognize. Perhaps that heightened sensitivity makes them more susceptible to these illnesses. Their exquisite brains are easy targets, like little bunnies, so vulnerable. As I walk out into the rain, I imagine that the stone building behind me is a warren of rabbits, safe from the cold uncaring world. Instead of frightened and tortured souls inside, it’s filled with members of the Leporidae family, hopping happily through happy lives.
Alone, in my car, I hum the song I used to sing him to sleep with. A light rain is falling and yet somehow, at the horizon, I can see the sun.