It was 6:30 a.m. as I washed my face and heard a faint warble. For the two weeks leading to Halloween night my iphone had been beeping non-stop with requests from Spider-Man to Doctor Who. In a Pavlovian response, I scanned the media for meaning. One stood out. No Caller ID arriving at 3:00 a.m.
I hate those calls, when all you can think is that somebody died.
The message was from my son. He was incoherent. Blubbering that he had fucked up. I’d never heard him blubber before, but then he was calling from the psych ward at St. Joe’s Hospital. I was thinking, hoping, maybe he’d finally hit rock bottom. I know that sounds callous coming from a mother, but sometimes rock bottom can be the place from which your children can rise fully formed.
Driving my SmartCar with Lake Ontario’s bright sparkling water conflicting my day, I realized that I wasn’t panicked. I could no longer remember, though, if that calm was part of my personality or whether I was like a triage nurse who’d seen it all.
There was a lot of comfort in the fact that my son had called and not the Hospital. He was alive and I was grateful, but still I had that sour metallic taste in my mouth. An emotional knee jerk reaction. Not because he was in trouble, but because I’d been here before with another family member.
You might be thinking, oh maybe mental illness runs in her family, but neither of these ward members are genetically related to me. After miscarriage and infertility, I’d hoped to give Darwin a good fight. There was a time when my sisters and I laughed thinking my adoption of children would improve our family DNA, like replacing our flat Scottish bottoms with a real bouncy round derriere gene.
We stopped laughing so much after the deaths of our father, mother and sister. Half of us were gone and there was no stopping the trajectory of stomach Cancer in our family. My goals had changed since the average lifespan in my family was now 57 years. I just wanted to see my kids grown up and happy.
Emergency was quiet and orderly. The occasional voice of a wailing child rose and fell with the opening of the pneumatic door into the Juvenile Room. As I stood behind the yellow line I thought about getting a coffee, but did not want to miss my turn. Finally with the mention of my son’s name the sliding glass doors opened from the waiting room into the treatment areas. My reluctant feet knew their way past the thread bare curtained rooms where knees were stitched and bones were set to the heavy door separating the crazies from the almost crazy.
The door had a window. I did not look in, but leaned against the wall, hand paused above the buzzer. The last time I was here I made a choice to leave alone. The memory of the small shocked face of my daughter getting smaller in that same window as I walked away, is difficult. For seven years that face, that memory, had me chained to hopes and dreams shattered by alcohol and drugs and what comes with it.
What was I committing myself to by walking through this door again? I was alone physically and emotionally with the indecision of loving my son and potentially threatening my own well being.
I pressed the buzzer. The staff and two beefy security barely glanced up. Who would though, I’m the tiny WASP blonde grandma. Not much of a threat.
The control room dominated this ward. There were no privacy curtains only small locked treatment rooms, a bathroom and a bank of seats. My 23 year old son was sitting on an orange chair fatigued to the pallor of a 40 year old Bay Street broker with too much credit and no self control. I let him ramble through a bizarre tale of over-drinking with friends to the point of paranoia. A mad run, through the neighbourhood he grew up in, from someone who was trying to “kill him”, ending up crouching inside the local convenience store.
He said he’d called out for help, but the store clerk had disappeared, increasing his paranoia that he was in danger. The next thing he remembered was breaking through a plate glass window only to be faced with a squad of armed officers. I’m thinking, what was he on to get that crazy and thank god the clerk hightailed it out to call the Police.
Toronto’s finest took him to the Hospital and not the Drunk Tank. Miracle One. After a series of tests, the Doctor let him call me, but he said he was terrified that I wouldn’t show. His father thought we should leave him here to toughen him up. I wasn’t sure yet what I wanted to do.
I sat back finally in the chair. A small Asian woman walked the perimeter of the ward, I thought like a mouse retracing it’s steps, sure that they’ve missed an opening or a morsel of food.
I was sad. Like my daughter, my son had narrowly escaped accidental death more than once. What was the universal meaning in this? I rubbed my face, thinking about what to say.
I wanted to understand what happened, so I queried like Agatha Christie. Was someone angry at you? How much did you drink? Did you mix it with pot? Who else was there?
I could see truths skirting around the edges of my son’s eyes, but impairment is subjective. He could be mixing up days of drinking with fears rising like hallucinations. One tiny piece of information could put the story together for me or break my heart. I’m glad he doesn’t tell me everything. Mothers shouldn’t know everything.
A young man with dark hair and dark eyes, who had been lying on a gurney, arm over his eyes, rises. Boredom, curiosity, or maybe even hope drive him into the bathroom and then to sit beside us. Shock still in a blue gown, listening to the murmurings of a Mother and son. Where is his mother, I think.
A smell was now making it’s memory or rather demanding recognition from me. Not like death, or illness or even hospital disinfectant which were all now in my 54 year old life’s repertoire. I couldn’t put my finger on it, till I thought, it’s neither pleasant or unpleasant. It’s just there, like something deciding.
The woman passed again, her competency and speed increasing as her hands stretched out, tracing the contours of the wall. The kind of person who you would appreciate filling your 7:45 a.m. Timmy’s order.
Having made no progress with understanding my son’s story I went to the nurse’s desk. I’m that typical Canadian. Waiting politely to be acknowledged. Sure that there is something more important than myself that is keeping them. The woman now stands beside me and says in no particular direction, “I’d like my toothbrush now.”
The nurse says, “The Doctor will be right with you. ” I wonder how he knows that. The phone didn’t ring. Is it some magical telepathy developed by psych room staff only. The woman’s voice says confidently, “I’d like my toothbrush and a change of clothes.” She is almost standing on my toes, like we could merge into one person to make us bigger, more impressive. Almost an afterthought, she says, “I’m ready to go home now.”
As they negotiate her surrender, I retreat. An orderly has offered a tray to my son and myself. We both take one and I realize that I can’t, being celiac, eat anything on the tray. My son’s tray of all beige food also stays untouched. “Why do you take it if you don’t want it.”, I say knowing that we are both food snobs and it is my fault.
Dark Boy asks if he can have the food and says he and the woman are here voluntarily. He is waiting for us to share the story. My son is amiable and gentle as they chat. With this incongruency, I have to stand and stretch.
A man, who looks like all the other staff except for a clipboard, crosses to us. The Doctor. After small talk about how my son got here he says, like I should know, “So you see, he really shouldn’t be here at all.” “He’s alright to go with you,” he continues as a question.
I am confused, but not really. He’s asking if I have any concerns about my son’s mental health. Anything that would necessitate a Doctor enacting the health act which states that my son could be kept if proven to be of danger to himself or others.
The forced practice of the staff to ignore unreasonable requests has the woman now screaming at everyone and no one. I shake my head, “No, he’s fine to come home.” I am not lying, but with only the violent insanity of my daughter seven years ago to compare him to, he is fine.
I stand, but the Doctor has his hand on my arm. “We found something”, he says. I sit.
The woman flies by muttering, “I want my toothbrush. I want to go. I want …”, then the door to the bathroom slams and the screaming turns to wailing. On the exact opposite side to the Juvenile ward where the toddler screams, the irony about the fragility of human beings is not lost on me.
My son is now perfectly quiet, like a sharp intake of breath before you blow out a candle. “We did an x-ray of his head and found a dark spot on his brain.” I am thinking, why did they do an head x-ray of drunk boy-man? Miracle Two.
“I think it’s a brain bleed, but I want to consult with St Michael’s.”, he offers. “Is this spot in his brain related to his strange behaviour?”, I blurt. I’m ashamed now, but for a nanosecond, part of me was desperate that my son isn’t an addict, spoiled or poorly raised.
I have too much fucking information, now thinking about my mother who survived skin cancer and a brain aneurysm only to die in her sleep from a heart attack at age 67. Her best friend, Joan, was supposed to meet her for an early supper and she didn’t show. Joan told us girls that she didn’t suffer. That she was curled on her side in that way that she sleeps which is so familiar to me. Was so familiar to us.
I didn’t wait for the Doctor to answer. Instead, with my palm on my son’s back, I open that heavy steel door with the tempered glass and we walk out together. Miracle Three.