I still see my aunt, sitting on the edge of my bed, telling the four-year-old me that my mother is ill.
This concept comes as a shock after nearly three decades of learning what ill meant, and after having my mother insisting a few years ago that I take her to see “One who flew over the coo coo’s nest” for her to see if they got it right.
I could have told her as much myself from having spent a few days in
Bellevue’s mental ward as
the aftermath of a bad trip.
They almost got it right.
She thought so, too, but said McMurphy – the character I admire most of nearly all fictional characters – got away with too much for too long before the authorities did what they did to him.
Perhaps my mother was right. I had a very hazy memory once they pumped me full of tranquilizers and anti depressants and led me upstairs, a memory so much like when I went to jail that I sometimes confuse which is which, door after door closing behind me, telling me that there was no easy way to get out again once they got me where they wanted me, the echo of footsteps resounding before and behind with the sound of doom.
“How can I tell you this so you will understand?” my aunt said, biting her lip as she tried to explain how Graystone had gobbled up one more victim.
But even at four, I knew, just as I knew a few years later when I was six or seven and watched my mother swallow a bottle of pills she should have taken only one at a time twice a day, and she shouted at Ritchie, her brother, when as usual he over reacted, and how my other uncles surrounded her in the kitchen as my grandmother with shaky hands dialed the phone number for the police.
I squirmed under the kitchen table amid the legs of chairs to a point where none could reach me, wondering if this “illness” was contagious, and vowing to not let them take her back to Graystone again, unable to keep my eyes open, and so woke in the morning in my bed and my mother gone from her room down the hall.
Although I had never seen the shock treatments she underwent, I had seen the machine they did it with in her doctor’s office in
Paterson, a horrible device of torture filled with dangling wires,
and dials that regulated how much torture the victim would undergo at that
And though I had vowed not to let her go, and failed, I could not overcome the onslaught of sleep, and found my aunt once more sitting on the side of the bed, repeating the words she had spoken only a few years earlier.
I never meant for McMurphy – who faked mental illness to get out of jail – would become my hero. He just is. A man who didn’t fall asleep under the table. The man who fought the system in order to save someone else from a similar fate, a man who eventually was rescued by a big Native American Indian by giving him the only way out of all those doors after the system had ruined him.
I recall all my mother’s bouts with madness, even the trip when I was two or three to Ohio, she trying to shush my crying on the Greyhound bus, and how when we arrived, we came into Canton, then being reconstructed, and how we stayed in some cold water flat, and how scared she was that my uncles would find her there. I don’t remember how we got back, only later, when we lived on
in Paterson, amid her madness, and
I somehow hoping it was all a bad dream. It was, one from which I woke up with
my aunt beside me telling me, all will be well, and that my mother was ill.
And though my mother is stable now, I keep thinking back to the inside of that place, from what I visited her and she wasn’t sure of who I was or didn’t believe I was really her son, and that I might be a substitute, and still years later, me thinking of McMurphy, and how we all struggle to escape, never knowing whether it is us that suffer the illness, or the world in which we live.