BY MELISSA LEWIS ACKERMAN
Sitting on an iron bench in a churchyard I was taken aback when an unstable looking fellow in his mid thirties, barefoot, wearing a burlap sack dress with a rope belt cinched around his waist joined me in the yard.
As he found his spot on the dewy, cobblestone ground, twenty feet from me, anger pushed and weaved through my mid-section. I crossed and uncrossed my legs. I resituated a book on my lap several times. I wiped my brow from profuse sweating in the September chill. I didn’t know what was happening to me other than the fact that I’d been grieving, and grieving had made me reactionary, stripping away the person I’d been before my son died months before.
The person I’d been before my son died would’ve been intrigued by this man with large, dark eyes, uncommonly slender hands, and a kindly face. I’d have been interested in how he chose to navigate living with what was clearly mental illness. I’d been studying psychoanalysis. But I was caught hiding in the park, defenseless under my long dark coat, emaciated, without hope of hunger.
Playing the part of a monk from another century, the balding man began to recite in an astonishingly tender way, Psalms 23, “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death…” as he looked toward walkers on Eighth Avenue.
Deeply moved by his recitation, I thought about how I wasn’t unfamiliar with the concept of entropy, or those who needed to turn themselves into monks, or philosophical souls to deal with it. My son spent his sophomore year of college in my living room sighing over his understanding of the term, entropy. He’d always suspected a pointlessness to everything, and finally college had given him a word for it.
Holden’s repetitive thoughts on the subject of entropy were endearing then, because I hadn’t known how mentally ill he’d become in later years, specifically the year before he died. There was isolation to contend with, hallucinations, and his unsettling relation to clocks. He became so peculiar around electronics, skirting them warily, that I was afraid to give him an electric toothbrush that I’d bought for him before he started acting strangely, eventually setting it out on the street for any takers.
My handsome, light-haired boy, with face and eyes so earnest, laid sloppily back on the beige lounger in my front room with one hand hanging over the side, massaging the dog’s back.
“I just don’t get it, Holden. Explain it again,” I’d say, about entropy, setting a bowl of chili onto his lap.
“It means that none of what we do matters. Life’s random!”
“But why are you thinking about it all the time? How can we help you enjoy the time you’ve been given?”
“You don’t understand, Mother. I’ll have to bring you more literature.”
The monk in the churchyard was making contact. I knew it. The air around us grew palpably thick. His lovely, beginning chant of Psalms, “Even as we walk through the valley of the shadow of death,” was tonally changing. I felt his eyes flickering left toward me as I pretended to read my book, clutching my stomach with my free hand, an attempt to keep myself grounded. That’s when it hit me. This was the monk’s pulpit. He wanted me to leave. I was distracting. Pulling his attention from his Eighth Avenue audience.
There was no way I was leaving. It wasn’t his fucking churchyard!
Holden poured over entropy the way at eight years old he’d spend great parts of afternoons figuring out how much money he’d need to live through his lifetime. Holden was a genius, but not a brag-about-your-kid kind of genius. It was as painful to watch him try to cope with being alive as it was beautiful to witness his shaky navigation.
“Seventy-two thousand dollars. That’s what I’ll need,” he’d say in a voice so high and adorable that I’d step over and kiss him.
“We’re doing this again? I thought we had your life mapped out last week. Don’t you wanna play with Legos or your Micro Machines?”
“It’s important,” he said.
“Okay, then. Let’s have it.”
“The average male life expectancy is mid-seventies. If I’m healthy I’ll likely live to at least eighty. So if I eat peanut butter and jelly for lunch everyday…”
“Stop. Do you want to eat peanut butter and jelly every day for the rest of your life?”
“Sure. And I’d like a Cosmic Brownie to go with it.”
“Well then, what if I just buy you peanut butter and jelly and Cosmic Brownies for the rest of your life, then we can get lunch off your list of concerns?”
“You could die.”
“I’d leave you the money,” I countered.
“The market could crash.”
“We could stock up now!”
“I don’t know about the peanut butter and jelly jars. There could be changing environmental air pressure concerns that deteriorate the possibility of long term preservation. I’ll check on this.”
“I’m going to make a cup of tea, Holden. Would you like one?”
“No, thank you.”
Hundreds of people passed the monk without looking at him with his tone having turned more deliberate than tender. Instead of shooing me off with his eyes, he took more drastic measures. He’d drop a hand he’d raised to heaven, look at me, and jab his pointer finger toward the street. His face, that was at first kindly, grew hard and tight. I grabbed the arm of the bench and squeezed it so hard my knuckles turned white.
I didn’t dog Holden about medication. Not when he lounged around in the manic, too-happy phase of his building breakdowns. Or when his movements began to get sloppy, slow, and his features more languid. It wasn’t until I saw he could take no more of himself, that he was too depressed to function, that I’d cajoled him into discussion.
We started many days at Bruegger’s Bagels. He’d get six Everything Bagels with one eight-ounce tub of salmon spread cream cheese. He’d spent years finding the perfect ratio of cream cheese in the tub to a certain number of bagels. He’d open the tub, dissecting the cheese into twelve pie slices.
“We have to go to the drug store today. Ok?”
“I’m not taking meds. I’m not. I don’t feel anything when I take them. You know that!”
“You’re stuck again. Let’s get you unstuck. It’s just a tool.”
“I’m not doing this,” he’d say, staring out over the parking lot from the large window we sat against, instead of at me, his mother, who in this way always eventually betrayed him.
“Just one day, then two. You can be in control of this. You could feel better.”
“You know that’s not what happens! For a week or two I’ll believe I’m happy. Then I’ll feel nothing. It happens every time!”
“You’re right, Holden. You’ll feel numb. But now you’re suffering. All we can do is search for middle ground until there is one.”
“I know you love me, but please don’t ask me to do this.”
“I don’t know, Mother. I don’t know.”
We spent long afternoons parked in front of drug stores as I waited for him to get out of the car of his own volition to collect his meds. He had to decide. There were processes to honor. It was imperative that he keep his dignity.
The monk traveled sideways in the churchyard. An inch at a time. Twenty feet became ten feet, then five. When the monk turned to face me, his “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, get the fuck out of my churchyard,” turned terrifying, but I didn’t care. There was nothing the monk could do to me. I’d lost the thread. I’d lost what I’d spent twenty-eight years doing with time.
“Fuck you!” I screamed up at him. “I’m here, God dammit! You can’t have the whole fucking churchyard! Leave me the hell alone!”
His large brown eyes glazed with contempt. His slender hands, at close range, were skeletal. He began swaying his hips like a menacing schoolyard bully as he became sing-song and mocking. “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death! It’s your fault! It’s your fault!”
“What?” I cried, flinging my book across a side path, trying to keep from jerking up and slapping him hard across his face. “It’s not my fault!!!”
“Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death! It’s your fault! It’s your fault!” He continued.
Rising, I pushed my hand toward his face, screaming, “Stop saying that, God dammit! Shut up! Shut up! Shut up!”
But the monk was only egged on by my anger.
There’s a twisting, a turning in the soul when you’re so many years joined with someone who’s mentally ill. When the connection slips, you become mentally ill. Or, this is what I felt was happening to me. I spent days on the floor with my back to the wall in the quietest, back corner of a Jersey mall after Holden died. I had nothing to tether myself too. I had no place, and I couldn’t be home. Night fell, and I couldn’t tiptoe down the hall of my apartment into any room without being completely unnerved by the still quiet in the air. I stripped the walls of my son’s face. I threw away memorabilia in a frenzy. I dumped files off my computer of any essay I’d written that made reference to anything about my son.
Loved ones told me I had to get on some kind of medication. I couldn’t. I was too terrified meds would dull me into a false sense of being okay. I’d live in fear of ever going off them. Of being cast back down into inconceivable suffering.
“It’s not my fault! It’s not my fault! It’s not!” I wailed at the monk, who did not care, as a river of tears streamed down my face. “You know nothing about it! I swear to God! I hate you! I hate you! I hate you! And I’m never going to stop hating YOU!”
The monk froze. His mocking ceased. His eyes softened. He stepped away from me as if frightened just as my legs buckled and I fell to the dewy, stone ground.
The stones were cool, substantial beneath my palms. The smell of earth brought me back to something. Me on my knees outside my son’s house when I was told something that could not be true. There were towering pines filling a crystal blue sky. There was yellow tape. There were policemen with desperately disquieted faces. I think they were looking at me, but I couldn’t figure out if I was straight up or upside down. Then a person was grabbing my body out of the air as I’d plunged into the force of my life to make it up four steps to my son, Holden.
“Get up! Get up!” I would’ve said. “Please don’t leave me!” I would’ve said. “We’ll get bagels with salmon spread. We’ll talk about entropy. We’ll hang out in the drugstore parking lot! We don’t have to see that new neurologist on Tuesday! God dammit!”
And that’s it.
I collected my book and left the churchyard.