“He reminds me of your brother sometimes,” my mother sighs, watching my son melting down in her back yard. The treasure hunt is at an end and the frenetic activity and late bedtimes of this vacation have combined with his intense disappointment to shred his self-control. He shrieks, sobs, and launches himself at his brother, who holds the prize high, dancing around and teasing. My father steps in to referee, disentangle.
They can be maddening, my boys: one minute fiercely allied, the next locked in bitter combat. Only today it is not these two little children, but my mother who has upset the balance. The brother to whom she refers, the Ivy League-attending, Fulbright-winning vital companion of my childhood, sits somewhere in the house behind us, closed up in his room, insulated from us by a debilitating mental illness: schizophrenia. And when my mother says my child reminds her of my brother, she is not forecasting a life lived to fulfillment. She is saying, beware.
Each of my boys is a work in progress still. Imperfect and earnest, they morph before my eyes from one incarnation to the next. Though at times they seem driven by a quirky and peculiar logic, I have trusted the soundness of their genetics. My own DNA might be riddled with possible points of weakness: an uncle caught by a deep and boundless depression, a great aunt who lived out her days physically in an institution but who never left the world constructed in her own mind. Still, I have by lucky accident chosen a father for these boys with a pristine family tree. He hails from a hard working, even keeled people with no trace of mental illness in any known ancestor.
But who knows what really throws that deciding switch? Not science. Not yet, anyway. As a baby, my brother was allergic to everything, a list that draped down the front of the refrigerator to brush the floor. He was shy, too sensitive, given to ducking his head in department stores and whining, Mommy, that lady is looking at me. Make her stop looking at me. He was also funny, brilliant, kind, stubborn, competitive, creative, and fiercely independent. He danced at the Waldorf Astoria for Fred Astaire, attended boarding school in New England, traveled the world with a singing group from his college. He wrote music, played the piano, studied biology. But the future once imagined has become instead governed by a litany of drugs. Chlorpormazine. Olanzapine. Haloperidol. My mother combs through his childhood now. Somewhere, she should have seen it coming. Somehow, she should have stopped it. When was that critical moment when life, careening off in one direction, could have been jerked back, snatched up, and set carefully back on course?
I own the books. The bible for families like ours, Surviving Schizophrenia by E. Fuller Torrey, sits on my bookshelf, unread for years. I should read it, of course, but there are things that I don’t want to know. My mother worried all her life about what nightmares beyond her control might befall us. All that anxiety and all those late nights did nothing to shield my brother from his illness. There are years yet between my children and the age when schizophrenia could make its first clawing appearance. I can’t realistically protect against every possible circumstance beyond my control. But my mother worries sufficiently for both of us.
The first time she pulls me aside to say that my son seems excessively sensitive to crowds and loud noises — “abnormally so,” she insists — I lash out.
“You are insane,” I tell her. “Who says things like that?”
I leave her looking at her hands, a figure of defeat. But she does not apologize. She does not take back the words.
I cut off communication. Dismiss her worry as weakness, her inability to maintain optimism as failure. “She has two other healthy children,” I say to my husband. “Doesn’t that put the odds in our favor?” But her warnings take root, grow weeds. I study my son, compare him to his friends, interrogate his teachers. What counts as normal? Could his irrepressible energy, wildly changing moods, and trepidation in new situations indicate some small seed of the runaway train that is my brother’s illness?
My son has been looking forward to soccer for weeks. After three seasons of watching his brother from the sidelines, he is now big enough to join a team of his own. “My own team!” he calls to me, kicking his ball into the makeshift net beside the garage. “I love my team!” But when he arrives at the field decked out in his tiny shin guards and cleats, he shrinks into me. The coach blows the whistle and a scrum of small wriggling bodies converge like eager puppies; but my son stands rigid at my side, gripping my hand. I push him forward, frustrated by his recalcitrance. I have a baby to manage and his older brother to walk to his own practice down the way. But this boy, so impatient to arrive that the presence of the stoplights slowing our progress seemed a personal affront, balks, tears welling. “I changed my mind,” he whispers. “That’s not my team.”
He is steadily devouring the fish on his plate with single-minded focus and I’m not expecting the question. I ask him to repeat it, stalling for time and struggling with the baby who is furious with hunger, but does not want to eat.
“What was the first day?” he asks again, staring out the window, frowning. “The first day, ever?”
He wants to understand the existence of God. He wants to know why words mean what they mean. Why are Lemurs called Lemurs? Why is a bank called a bank? Why can you never touch the sky, no matter how high you go? My answers, the best I can come up with, leave him in tears of frustration. The world should make some kind of ordered sense and I’m failing to provide that for him: the security of logic, the comfort of meaning.
His teachers call him delightful, the way his mind skips from one unexpected question to the next. But despite my best intentions, I have started to worry.
I confront his pediatrician, who assures me that my son falls well within the range of normal on all fronts. He is a typical four-year-old, she insists, and sends us firmly on our way. This mollifies me only briefly. I trust his doctor in the realm of all things physical, but what I really need, to set my mind at ease, is a specialist.
I track down the psychiatrist who first diagnosed my brother all those years ago and I’m surprised when she takes my call. She is a renowned researcher in this field; I submitted many years ago to needles and a PET scan in the service of her sibling study on patients with schizophrenia. She listens now to the litany of concerns I piece together. I know that I’m imposing. I know that she cannot grant absolution over the telephone. But I continue anyway. She is quiet for a long time when I finish. In the silence I can feel her searching for the right words. “The risk is very small,” she offers, finally. “There are things you cannot predict and cannot control. But that should not stop you from living your life.” The words, delivered in her thick European accent, sound less like a prescription and more like a prayer. While this is a far cry from the get out of mental illness free card that I want to tuck into my back pocket, I take it.
My brother hiked the Grand Canyon, interned for Congress, and sang at Carnegie Hall. Now he rarely ventures outside, even into the fenced yard. But he plays the piano and bakes elaborate desserts and takes his medication and manages, every day, to get out of bed. It is not the life my mother expected for him, but it is a life.
My mother is still worrying over my boys, who, treasure hunt forgotten now, are rolling down the grassy slope of her yard. I stand up and join them. It has been years since I have tumbled down a hill and my body has lost the rhythm of it. But when I reach the bottom, damp and grass stained, my sons pile onto me, laughing and pulling the leaves from my hair. Twenty yards further across the flat bottom, the ground drops away to a shallow creek. A hawk circles overhead, searching for rabbits in the scrub brush. My mother is at the top, watching. Anxious. In the stillness, I want what is impossible: for things to be different than what they are. I raise an arm to wave, reassure. It is not quite acceptance, not quite comfort. But for now, in this moment, it is enough.