Paintings by Miriam Feldman
According to Wikipedia, a jumper (person), in police and media parlance, is a person who plans to fall or jump from a potentially deadly height, sometimes with the intention to commit suicide, at other times to escape conditions inside (e.g. a burning building). We humans are also known to jump into something happily, as in “cool water.” Sometimes, we jump for joy.
The theater is almost dark, there is only the half-light created by tiny bulbs embedded in the steps, so people don’t fall. It is packed. The audience is made up mostly of women, a few men dot the landscape like strange cactus in an otherwise uniform desert.
The ceiling is high enough to almost be perceived as not even there. The stage, flanked by deep blue velvet curtains, is formal, daunting.
The crowd rises and roars as the three women authors walk out, smiling, and greet them. It is a reading. It is a celebration. It’s not formal after all. The women are there to have fun.
It’s in my mouth. At first, I thought it was in my jaw, the pain, like marrow to the bone. But I was wrong. It seems to be living in the saliva, moving between my teeth, collecting under my tongue, sometimes slipping out the corners of my mouth. The watery, moving anguish that is my son’s insanity.
Yesterday was his thirty-third birthday. We couldn’t take him out to lunch because he’d demolished his apartment. Cabinet doors ripped apart, broken furniture, coffee and Gatorade all over the walls. He is sorry. He promised he won’t do it again. But it is not up to him.
Now my mouth burns even more as I look at him on the gurney in the emergency room; large mound of a man. I sit in the very corner and my saliva starts to taste like blood. The pain. The fucking, never ending, pain. I can’t seem to put it down for even a minute. It tastes red.
For his birthday, his sister posted pictures of them as children on Facebook. His delightful smile, the cartoon dimples. The future written neatly in skin-colored ink over the surface of his body. I could see it. I could always see it because I have the Mother Eyes. But it lied. The real story must have been written somewhere else in some other kind of ink. Maybe that’s what is accumulating like a tidepool in my mouth. The real story written in blood. The one where he gets the crazy eyes when he is nineteen and punches holes in the walls. The story where he shakes his head no when he says “yes.” The one where he doesn’t become a famous artist after all, he never becomes a husband, a father. The red ink of a big, vacant-faced person who lives on an empty island. The real ink tells me to shut the hell up with my stupid idea of how it was supposed to be. Just let the blood ink swish around in my mouth until my teeth are like swiss cheese and my esophagus rots. His sister tells the internet that he is her North Star. God help me, but he is mine as well. The skin-colored ink confirms this. But who looks at a careening bottle rocket and calls it the North Star?
When my daughter was in fifth grade, the entire class went on a three-day field trip to a nature reserve in the mountains, five hours away from the city. On the second day, one of the boys drowned in the lake. His own mother was one of the parent attendants. She had been sitting next to the cool blue, watching, when it happened. The boy who died was a firebrand. He was a ringleader. A trouble-maker. Small and taut, with developing muscles and sinew emerging on his arms and calves, you could see the handsome devil he would become. Would have become.
His mother sat by the blue with the other parents, chatting, as the boys began to horse around. The firebrand climbed up to a jagged rock high above and did a cannonball into the lake. All the girls squealed and complained about the enormous splash, so of course, he had to do it again. Soon, several of the boys were scrambling up the boulders. The parents called in unison for the jumping to cease, at which point the three or four that were still on the rocks all leapt at once. For a split-second, the sun articulating their bodies, they looked like an airborne statue made of marble or stone.
Now my son is making wild grimacing faces, showing all his teeth and gums. I pull the chair from the corner of the room out into the hall. I cover my face with my left hand (of all the family, only he and I are left-handed) and cry. Then I decide, this is a hospital, I don’t have to hide the fact that I am crying. I lower my left hand and rest it in my right just in time for a nurse to place a small box of Kleenex in my lap. I just sit there and bawl. I make eye contact with everyone. I don’t care.
Another nurse asks me she can get me anything. I say no, and I mean it. But then she says, “how about a hug?” I surprise myself by saying “yes please.” I fall into her ample arms and stay there a really long time.
My mother told me that as a little girl I hated being hugged. She said I’d stand, steel rod straight, and endure it until it was over.
The stage is brightly lit now, the luster spills out, illuminating the audience, outshining the meager bulbs in the steps. Once she finishes reading a passage from her latest book, the star writer returns to the couches where the other two await. They are all friends. They sprawl on the couches, open bottles of wine and tell stories.
When they notice that the boy is missing the adults begin to call for him. Instructing the children to sit by the lake, stay together, and wait, they run through the bushes and trees, scale the rocks, looking for him. Their calls become strident, laced with apprehension, shrill.
Because they are in the wilderness, it will take some time for the EMTs to arrive.
It is clear at this point that the boy must be in the murky lake. The adults have no choice. The fifth graders are instructed to hold hands and stretch themselves across the expanse of now blue-green water, one adult at either end. The children, somber now, follow directions precisely.
They drag the lake. The children. The hope is to have a foot, or a leg, brush the body of the lost boy in the bed of the body of water. Too horrifying to contemplate. Rubbing against something in the world above surface would create friction. A spark. Flint. Fire. But in the cold wetness under the skin of the lake it will signify the end of resistance. A yielding, a surrender to truth. Success or failure, which would be worse?
The children look oddly like ghosts in the brilliant sun. How is that possible?
The mother’s howling fills the afternoon.
Sitting in the hallway of the psychiatric ward, I can’t remember who that little girl was, the one who wouldn’t let anyone hug her. What she was thinking? God, I wish I knew. Maybe she knows the answer to the mystery of the ink. But she is not here anymore. Actually, not here. The cells of my body have died and been replaced so many times in 62 years that my original body is gone. I look intently at my foot, tapping the pale blue, shiny linoleum floor, resplendent like water. I wonder if maybe, just maybe, a speck, a trace of the original me might still existsomewhere. Maybe on the very tip of my toe. Or what about my first permanent tooth, awash today in the blood-ink?
I sit outside the room where my son lies, making faces. I’m clutching the brightly decorated, single-serving Kleenex box, the police report, the never-ending paper cups of water they keep bringing me. I am a big, silly Sad Mom Doll (she cries real tears!) complete with accessories.
The blue plastic bag labeled Patient’s Personal Belongings is on the linoleum next to me.
It turned out that in order to jettison up the rocks the boy had put his shoes back on. His big, clunky, super-cool Doc Martens. When the EMTs found his body, his left foot had been sucked into the muck at the bottom of the lake.
His mother’s howling filled the evening.
His father must have driven madly up the inclines, the switchbacks, that took him from the city when he got the call. By the time he arrived it was dark.
My daughter told me that she and some friends snuck out of their cabin to see what was happening. They huddled together behind bushes as he got out of his car and walked toward the main building. He stopped. He turned around, looked toward the place where they hid, but no, past them, somewhere far away. He began to pick up the pieces of furniture, chairs, picnic tables, and throw them with brutal force into the air. They crashed to the ground. Once they were in a pile he began to kick and hit them. Punching wood. Smashing metal. Never uttering a word. Panting.
My son’s name is Nick. A good, solid, single beat of a name. I love it. It is like one hard tap on a resounding drum. In our neighborhood, there were two other Nicks about the same age as mine. Their mothers and I referred to them as “your Nick” and “my Nick.”
My Nick lost his mind. Like a favorite jacket in third grade, it just disappeared.
The second Nick was hit by lightning on the beach and killed instantly. Hit by lightning. Every time I see his mother, I want to rock her in my arms like a baby. My Nick once told me that when a person is struck by lightning, their shoes fly into the air.
The third Nick was accidentally lit on fire by an ill-conceived “liquid candle” bought at Bed Bath and Beyond. He endured numerous, painful surgeries. His mother nursed him, excruciatingly, back to health over three years. He won a law suit against the company and received a big payout, which he used to open a yoga studio. He recently got married.
The theater is hushed now. The audience has laughed, applauded and cried through the wonderful display of comradery between the three writers. The show is almost over. The star writer is center stage. She takes the microphone and says, “I want to introduce you all to someone,” with her hand above her eyes she looks out into the crowd and calls a name. “Thirty seconds after I met her, she said this to me: “If you jump into my arms, I will catch you.” The writer hops up and down a bit. “Watch! We’re going to show you.”
A tall, athletic girl runs up on to the stage from the audience. Her seafoam green shirt sets off tan skin and wild golden hair. She smiles as she acknowledges the situation, then takes her stance like an antelope at the very top of a mountain. The venerable writer leaps across the stage, right into her arms.
They stand, like a soft and hard and beautiful monument. Like the end of a long day. Like the answer to all our prayers.
Miriam Feldman is an artist, writer, and mental health activist who splits her time between her Los Angeles studio and her home in rural Washington state. She has a 33 year old son with schizophrenia. The plan is to find the place where mothering, mental illness and art collide and then figure it out. Come join her on Instagram @mimitheriveter or at miriam-feldman.com. She is part of Lidia Yuknavich’s community at Corporeal Writing in Portland. Her memoir, He Came In With It, will be out in June of 2020 from turnerpublishing.com.