49: A Brown Boy of Our Own

49: A Brown Boy of Our Own

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Family Caregivers

A Brown Boy of Our Own

The imperfections of a man, his frailties, his faults, are just as important as his virtues. You can’t separate them. They’re wedded.

~Henry Miller

Brian was born on a humid Sunday morning in the month of August. My labor had been hard; his birth difficult. Struggle defined him at an early age. At three months, Brian was hospitalized with bronchitis. At six months, he underwent a tracheotomy due to the croup. Brian was in the hospital more than he was home when a toddler. Asthma, pneumonia, allergies, ear infections, learning disabilities and eventually dropping out of school followed.

One windy March evening when he was 17, Brian came crashing through our front door in a full-blown psychotic state. His eyes were wild. He spoke nonsense. From that moment on, my role included caretaker.

Paranoid schizophrenia—a misunderstood, highly debilitating and frightening brain disease—was eventually the diagnosis. Psychotic episodes like the first one, plus paranoia, hearing voices, racing thoughts, and a distorted body image are common. This disease not only affects the one stricken, but those in the immediate family as well. We were no exception. It led to my divorcing Brian’s father. Brian’s siblings felt shame and, at times, hatred toward their brother and each other. To say we’ve just about come full circle is nothing short of a miracle.

Brian is now 36. Dealing with my mentally ill adult son at home takes an abundance of energy while working full-time and wearing all the other hats I wear. I’ve tried to remember Brian when his mind was calm—before this monster disease swallowed him up and spit him out in shattered pieces. Most days, that’s impossible.

Every three months, I take Brian to appointments with his psychiatrist and counselor. Pills are changed when necessary. His weight is monitored when needed, which is more times than not because of his distorted body image. Periodically, he has me stand with him in front of the mirror. He takes off his shirt and checks his muscles. He feels he is “uneven.” Since fearing he was choking awhile back on a candy bar, he continues to stand while eating. He has regular EKGs, blood tests, and physicals.

Brian maintains best with routine. He gets up at a certain time and does the same things as the day before. He goes upstairs to bed at 10:30, arranging his bottle of water and wristwatch just so on the small table by his bed. Before saying good night, he checks and double-checks his framed piece of artwork hanging by the window to make sure it is secure. He wants to be certain that nothing has come in through the panes to dampen this “pen/ink with markers piece” that won “Best in Show.” He stands in front of it staring. Then he rubs his hands methodically all around it until he’s convinced nothing has harmed this treasure, which he painstakingly and frantically created. Then he’ll turn to me—and smile.

After we’ve said good night more than once and I’ve said the same things to him over and over in reassurance, I’ll start down the stairs until he stops me to ask a question or two. Later, when the house is quiet and I’m unwinding, he’ll call down to me to say, “Night, Mom. Love you.”

On weekdays, I stop by mid-morning, making sure he’s had his coffee and cereal, taken his pills, and is ready for his afternoon of listening to music and doing his jigsaw puzzles. If I’m a bit late getting back home after work, he wonders where I’ve been. Sometimes he’s waiting for me at the door. After I get my coffee, I start dinner. As I work around the kitchen, I hear about every piece he’s put in his puzzle and about the music he’s heard and the cars that have passed by the window in the kitchen where he stands. I hear in detail about his favorite TV shows he watched the night before. And then the questions start. Some make sense; most do not.

I reassure him that no one can hear us outside, tell him that the refrigerator isn’t talking to him, and listen as he talks about having wings and seeing fairies, and spending time in a secret place way up in a giant tree where no one can make fun of him.

On weekends, I take him for rides. We call them cruises. We have a favorite route through the countryside, past Amish farms we’ve come to consider good friends. We have favorites, like the Pig Farm, the Sheep Farm, Abe Lincoln’s and Brown Boy’s place. Brown Boy was a rather neglected horse. If he was near the edge of the fence, we’d slow down and talk to him. He seemed to know us. Then one day, Brown Boy was no longer there. We rode the rest of the way in silence. We somehow understood we’d never see Brown Boy again.

I’ve taught Brian how to cha-cha, do the stroll and the jitterbug. We have favorite tunes and artists. It all depends on our mood. I love to sing along as we dance around the kitchen. Sometimes, we have to stop because we are laughing so hard. In the summer and into fall, we are busy in our garden. Brian has a genuine green thumb. He’s in charge. For over two years, he was enrolled in a greenhouse program on the grounds of an area psychiatric center. He loved it. He was up and out every day by 7:30 with his bagged lunch in hand. One night at dinner, he told me the greenhouse was closing, and two weeks later it did. To this day, Brian feels the way he planted the poinsettias was the reason for the program’s demise.

I can no longer imagine Brian any other way than what God has given me. He reminds me of life’s frailties, while at the same time, life’s blessings. I’ve slowly begun to prepare Brian for the inevitable. I know we won’t be doing the cha-cha forever. He’s close to his siblings. His little niece is quite special to him. But, for now, we are getting the barn ready for a few goats—and, maybe, a Brown Boy of our own.

~Barbara Briggs Ward

More stories from our partners