One day my uncle decided to leave the house he shared with my grandmother and get a pack of cigarettes. That’s a routine task for anybody but a schizophrenic. My grandmother called me and asked if I’d search the neighborhood for him. I was unusually calm about the whole affair, and remember driving around in my truck thinking everything would be all right. My intuition was correct. I didn’t find him, but a kind realtor did and brought him back to grandma’s house.
I always marveled at my grandmother’s poise in dealing with my uncle. After all, she was getting older and he could be a handful. Once when he tried to eat a quarter she delicately took it out of his hands. It was like magic. Now you see it; now you don’t.
My uncle was like my own Boo Radley. I never understood him, and who knows if he understood himself. There were moments of insight – like the time he told me not to take drugs because they’d mess you up pretty bad. Coming from anyone else that would’ve sounded like a stupid PSA, but his schizophrenia made me imbue him with sage-like qualities. Here was this disheveled old man who was the epitome of drugs that can fuck you up. Sure he did drugs when he was younger, but the worst kind of drugs were the ones that were supposed to make him better.
His pinky shook ever so slightly when he held a hamburger. When he ate he sat too far away from the table so that all the ketchup and crumbs wound up on the floor. He poured a half bottle of ketchup on every burger he ate. He rarely shaved and his clothes never fit him well.
Once he drove me to Carl’s Jr., a place he tried unsuccessfully to work. He pulled around the drive thru and asked me what I wanted. I heard the sloshing of water bottles in the backseat; my uncle was always prepared for the apocalypse—inevitably there’d be a gallon jug or two in the backseat or in the trunk. Chicken Little, always prepared for the worst.
Oftentimes my grandmother talked about him in the past tense: pre-schizo and post. “He always had such a high IQ,” she said in that whimsical voice of reminiscence—her way of saying his genius did him in. The smart one who winds up going batty.
The specter of schizophrenia followed us around like an unwanted dinner guest. My dad confided that he worried about going crazy. My grandmother wanted my sister and I to tell our prospective partners that any future kids might wind up bonkers. My great grandmother had gone bonkers. She’d liked to invite Lawrence Welk to dinner. Schizophrenia, instead, took his place at the table.
The day my uncle died I went to the hospital with my grandmother and sister. It was a routine visit; no one thought he was going to die. Still, his health was bad. He had recently had surgery to implant a shunt in his brain. His body, though, would have none of it, and he wound up with sepsis and his body shut down.
A very pretty doctor greeted us and calmly said, “He’s in code blue. We’re trying to help him.” I couldn’t get over how pretty she was. I was an unsuccessful straight person then and every so often my failure would slap me in the face. This certainly wasn’t the time to be musing about pretty girls. But she couldn’t save him, and my sister went off to call our dad, to tell him his brother died. My grandmother went to see his body. I was left alone in the waiting room when a rather large woman walked in. She saw me sitting alone and I must’ve looked a wreck because she came over and talked to me. I’m a very private person – certainly not one to blab about dead uncles. But that’s what I did. She offered me a tissue and suffocated me with a giant hug. Immediately I regretted my confession. I found myself thinking of the pretty doctor and how soft her embrace would be.
My grandmother came strolling into the waiting area with a priest. My grandma, who had kept kosher for my grandfather for years, was chatting it up with a priest. For a second I thought the bear hug might not be sending enough oxygen to my brain. But, yes, there was a priest in our midst. He was tall and skinny and used the word hell a lot, but not in the hellfire and brimstone kind of way. He was a comedian. When he talked of hell it was like a joke.
My sister came back and was seemingly calm about the whole priest in the room thing. And then the doctor walked in and my brain just caved on me. She was all apologies and condolences, then left. I watched her walk away and saw her hips sway in slow motion. But then she was around the corner. Now you see her; now you don’t.
The fact of our Judaism finally came up and it happened that the rabbi that usually came around was busy that day. My sister and I figured he must’ve been busy often, as my grandma had struck up a sort of friendship with the skinny priest. She’d met him on her other visits to the hospital and they liked each other. They’d actually make a cute couple, I thought.
The large woman who’d hugged me was also black and I only mention this because she made a point of mentioning her people’s suffering. When she found out we were Jewish she started telling a story that I was sure she told often. She spoke of our cultures’ commonalities. “The Jews have suffered too,” she said. “Like blacks. They were slaves too.”
Inside my head I was screaming: “My uncle just died!” The last time I saw him his head had shrunk. He was so thin. When he walked he usually lumbered around slowly, but the pressure on his brain made him fast. He was also a diabetic, which, years ago, had caused him to lose his big toe. When he got home from the hospital he stood in the shallow end of the pool with all his clothes on.
My dad told me my uncle had a violent side. Before all the medication. He once chased my dad around the house with a shotgun. When he was institutionalized he gave my dad a deadly stare. My grandparents took a bus for three hours to see him.
My Uncle Boo once told me I was pretty and I believed him. I’ve never believed anyone else.
Now this long talk about long-suffering souls was making all of us suffer. And yet there was my grandmother all poise and aplomb. On the day her son died, she kept her cool and told this woman thank you. I bet even the priest was impressed. Beatify that, I thought.
About the author:
Abby Rotstein teaches English in Las Vegas, Nevada. She has had work published in The Battered Suitcase, The Legendary, and Foliate Oak.