I woke up the next morning, my last morning in the hospital, to the sound of Dr. Larsen calling to one of his patients whose room was next door to mine. Although we normally saw him in the doctors' room behind the nurses' station, there were occasions when patients were too sick to make it that far. Apparently, Dr. Larsen was seeing her in her room.
Oh no! I thought to myself as I jumped up and started to put on my socks. One of my last thoughts as I fell asleep the night before was that I hoped I'd see the doctor first thing in the morning, so I'd be discharged as soon as possible.
Dr. Larsen's habit was to see as many patients as he could on the East Unit between about 7:30 and 9:00 A.M. If he missed you, he'd be back about lunchtime. One thing I admired about him was that he saw us every day, even if he had to go looking for us in the cafeteria at dinner. Not all the doctors saw their patients every day.
Every so often I missed Dr. Larsen in the morning; then I'd see him at 12:45 or thereabouts. But once, his whole day had fallen apart, and he didn't see any of his patients on the East Unit until 4:30. I didn't realize how much I depended on his visits until that day.
But today, I was afraid I'd miss seeing him until lunchtime, and I wanted to be long gone by then.
I was struggling to get my jeans on in a hurry when I heard him talking to a therapist in the hall. In panic, I grabbed my robe and dashed out in the hall, hair tousled, no make-up on, wearing a green robe with blue jeans and socks underneath.
As I bounded out my door, they both looked at me in surprise.
“Don't go anywhere!” I gasped urgently.
Dr. Larsen grinned at me. “Well, look at you! What's up?”
“I want to go home!” I panted, and then laughed, realizing for the first time what a sight I must be.
Dr. Larsen told me to go ahead and go into the doctors' room while he looked in on a patient he had admitted the night before. It seemed like I was going to see the sunset from that room before he got back, but when I looked at my watch, it said 8:10.
He hadn't seated himself before I started in on how well I had done at home, and that I wanted to be discharged. He eagerly agreed, writing out prescriptions and telling me to call him later in the week. He told me Kana was my therapist that morning, and he would take care of the details of my discharge.
I came jumping and dancing out of the doctors' room like Rocky, yelling, “I've been sprung! I've been sprung!” I was elated and oh, so excited.
A large group had gathered, therapists taking vital signs, the med nurse giving out morning medications, and patients waiting for Dr. Larsen.
A loud cheer broke out as everyone congratulated me. As I moved through them and past them, I saw smiling faces everywhere — Kana, Margo, Melissa, and Roger, the therapists; Harriet, the med nurse; the patients — Janet, Jo Anne, Marvin, Kathy, Marcie ... Neil. Neil was standing apart from the others — face down and sober, shoulders hunched, hands half-inside his front pockets. As I ran past them, I thought to myself: I've got to talk to Neil before I leave.
I hurriedly finished dressing and found Neil still by the nurses' station, waiting to see the doctor. I smiled a brilliant, happy, victorious smile at him, but he didn't return it. That's when I thought of the word “haunted” as a description for the expression in his eyes. Only now, they looked more haunted than I'd ever seen them. I stopped smiling as I came up to him.
“I'd like to talk to you before I go,” I said.
“That would be nice,” he said immediately.
“When would you be available?” I asked him. “I'm going to eat breakfast now. Shall we meet in the cafeteria?”
“Yeah,” he answered, softly. “I've gotta see the doctor first.”
In the cafeteria, I couldn't sit still. After downing a glass of milk, I was back on the East Unit. Neil was still waiting. Before I spoke, Kana grabbed my arm. He was from India, and I really enjoyed the days I had him as a therapist.
“I have a meeting now, but when I get out ... mmm ... about 9:30, I want to discharge you. We'll have to hurry, because I've got group therapy at 10:15.”
I looked at my watch. It said 8:45. Neil had overheard our conversation.
“I'm still waiting,” he said, desperately.
“Okay. I haven't packed yet. I'll go pack; that shouldn't take me long,” I told him. I felt like my world was going in fast motion.
“Will you find me in the cafeteria if I'm not here when you're done?” he asked, his voice pleading.
“Yeah ... if I don't come to the cafeteria, I'll be here on the unit somewhere, probably in my room.”
I started to run down the hall, but something made me turn back. Neil was looking after me, one hand in a tight fist, the other pushing through his hair, nervously.
I went back and touched his arm. “Neil, I won't leave until I talk to you. We'll get together.”
He nodded, looking down, chewing on his lower lip. While I ran back to my room to pack, I remember thinking that I had little idea of what I was going to say to him.
When I heard him asking for me outside my room, I rushed out and he suggested we take a walk.
Once outside, I started out by telling him he was one of those people in my life that I'd always wonder what happened to.
“I'll wonder if you decided to go to school after all, and if your legal problems got worked out, and most of all, if you're happy.”
I took a breath. “I want you to know that you've helped me here in the hospital far more than you'll ever know ...”
A gasp interrupted me, and he blurted, “I didn't think I'd helped you at all. You always seemed to have it all together.” His face had a look of shock.
It was my turn to gasp. “Oh no, Neil! I've felt down and beaten much of the time here, and you've shown me over and over that it's possible to get right back up and try again. I needed that.”
Neil had set a pretty brisk pace, and I was getting out of breath. I knew there was more I wanted to say, and my tongue seemed to go as fast as my feet.
So when I said, “Neil, I'm afraid for you,” it sounded more desperate than I intended it to.
Throughout our conversation, Neil walked with his hands half-way in the front pockets of his jeans and with his head down. Now, he looked at me in alarm, but then looked quickly back at the sidewalk.
“I understand that sometimes you have to go with your instincts, even when everyone says you're wrong or foolish,” I ventured carefully, knowing I was treading on sensitive ground.
“And if your plans to sue the government and the Portland police are motivated by a desire to make the world a better place, so that no one else will have to go through what you've gone through,” I continued, “then great! Go for it.”
I gulped in apprehension. “But if it's motivated by hate, I'm afraid it'll destroy you, and it won't do a thing to the government or police ...”
I trailed off as he stopped, red-faced, with a stricken look on his face. I thought for an instant that he would blast me as he had so many others who tried to discourage him in his plans for revenge.
“It's hate, isn't it?!” he said in a shrill, anguished voice. Before I had time to respond, he strode on without me, his hands holding his head, shouting, “Oh God! It's hate! Oh God! ... Oh God!”
Greatly surprised, I stood still, uncertain. As he continued on down the sidewalk without me, I knew I couldn't leave him like that. I had to run to catch up with him.
“That hate is tearing you up inside, Neil,” I panted, “and it's a painful thing to see.”
He put his hands back in his pockets in his characteristic way, breathing heavily, eyes cast down. “I guess I want my cake and eat it, too,” he said, reflectively. “I've screwed up everywhere. If I hadn't gone to Fort Steilacoom, I wouldn't have had my nervous breakdown. If I hadn't gone to the V.A. Hospital in Portland, I wouldn't have been taking the meds that messed me up. Maybe if I'd talked to people different. Maybe if I'd fought against going to Nam ... there doesn't seem to be a place where I belong, where what I do is right. Maybe if I hadn't left Oakland and gone to Tacoma ... I always have all these crazy plans ...”
I listened with growing dismay and hurt. All this time I was vaguely aware of a gardener sweeping dead leaves into a basket and two neighbors were out in a yard chatting — that was going on in the periphery of my mind. What was really taking up my attention was the pain that was growing bigger and bigger, starting in my chest and ending in a growing ache in my eyes, and spilling out onto my cheeks.
I couldn't stand the hurt of this gentle, good person, berating himself for something he couldn't help. Suddenly, I ran around Neil, facing him, and I grabbed his arms, stopping him in his tracks.
“It's not your fault!” I cried, more tears cascading down my face. I was really surprised at myself, but my unusual behavior didn't seem to make a dent in Neil at all. He stood stock still, hands still in his pockets, haunted eyes still on the sidewalk.
“Neil,” I said, seeking eye contact, “IT'S NOT YOUR FAULT!” I repeated the words slowly and deliberately, hoping that somehow my words would become tangible and lodge in his mind, making their home there.
Slowly, his eyes came up and met mine. His eyebrows came down, and his eyes registered confusion. Hoping to gain control over my crying, I dropped my hands, took my place beside him, and we started walking again.
“You've had a really rough time for a long, long while,” I started out shakily, “and you're just responding to that. Nobody could go through what you've gone through and just shrug his shoulders over it. Any normal person would act much as you have. I suspect your plans are a sort of grief process, to make some sense out of all those years you feel were so empty and wasted. I also suspect you're more normal than you think.”
By this time I was wiping my tears and speaking more forcefully.
“And I'm going to make a commitment to you, Neil. I'll always be for you. I'll always be on your side. I may not agree with what you say or do, but that's separate and apart from NEIL. I'll always be for NEIL. So,” making an attempt at some levity, “if you get completely paranoid, it'll be your own fault, because there will always be at least one person looking out for your welfare besides yourself.”
I smiled at him, but if I was hoping for a shared joke, I was to be disappointed. The face that looked back at me was a study.
“You mean,” he said slowly, “even if I did something you didn't like, you wouldn't turn on me? I mean, what if I did something crazy like hold hostages or hit somebody or something or...”
“Oh, Neil,” I interrupted,” that would be so uncharacteristic of you. I'd think you'd be awfully desperate to be capable of such violence. I wouldn't like it or approve of it, most likely, but I'd still care about you and be interested in your welfare. I'd still be on your side, even if I didn't agree with what you were doing, because we all make mistakes. I make mistakes, and I hope people will still want the best for me, even when they disagree with me.”
We walked in silence for a bit. I don't know what Neil was thinking, but I felt like I was taking part in a dramatic scene in a movie. It didn't seem real. I was wondering where these words that were coming out of my mouth were coming from. Instead of originating in my brain and going through normal channels to my tongue, they seemed to originate from my tongue while my brain looked on in amazement.
Neil had picked up the walking pace again. “I should have had you around the last 13 years. I've had doctors tell me I had a bad attitude, and counselors who said to just go out and get a job, and friends who said 'Snap out of it; an evening with you is like watching 60 Minutes.' I tried to snap out of being depressed; I tried everything, and it just got worse, and I felt so alone, like no one cared, no one wanted me. Maybe some of them did care, but I was so bombed out in my depression, I thought their rejection of my ideas was rejection of me. So, I turned away from everybody who disagreed with me, and I thought all I had was ME. I guess I screwed up with that, too.”
At this point I remember the bushes on my left side that lined the parking lot's east side. We must have been around the block at least once, maybe twice. I remember, too, that I was out of breath again, and I thought maybe I could just wind this up and go inside and finish my discharge.
But almost in spite of myself”, I said, “Neil, I want to tell you something. Religion is a very personal subject with me, and I find it a hard thing to share. I hate seeing these fat, overbearing preachers with white shoes that you see on television yelling, 'Repent!' I don't associate that with a very real relationship with God, and it bothers me that that seems to be a stereotype of religion.
“But I want to share with you that I was one of those lucky people that grew up in a religious family. In a very natural and gradual way, I developed a close relationship with God that has gotten me through some very rough times. There wasn't any climactic moment when I knew God existed; He just always has for me.
“But when my depression hit, my faith, or my idea of my faith, strong as I thought it was, flew right out the window. That was a real source of anxiety for me. I couldn't pray, and I felt in a deep sense that not even God was there for me. I've got friends and family who showed their concern in 100 ways, but I felt alone and unloved.
“Remember when you told me one symptom of depression is withdrawing from people and wanting to be alone all the time?” At his nod, I continued. “Well, I'm thinking that maybe in depression, something goes haywire in our brain that makes us feel alone and unloved and abandoned, when in reality, we're not. It's the depression telling us that falsehood, not our natural self or other people ... or God. Neil, I don't think you screwed it up with your friends. You were mishandled, and your depression was preventing you from coping.”
I paused to catch my breath. We walked in silence for a bit, then Neil said, “I hope when I get to Astoria, I can find some good friends. I hope I find the right church with people my age to relate to; I've been around the wrong kind of people too long.”
I smiled at him, but his eyes never left the sidewalk. The worry lines were all over his forehead.
“I think if you read your Bible, you'll be led the right way, Neil. It says that it's God's desire that everyone come to Him. When I was really depressed and desperately searching through my Bible for some answers, I happened on Psalm 139, and that's something I've clung to all through my time here at Riverside. Maybe it'll help you, too. People have a way of disappointing us, but God is always there, even when we're depressed and don't feel His presence at all.
“In fact,” I was gasping for breath now, talking fast, “all the Psalms are good to read. Most of them were written by ...” I paused to take a breath and Neil finished for me, “David.”
“Right!” I said. “And if anyone had a right to feel paranoid, it was David.”
“Yeah,” Neil said, eyes still down, nostrils flared, head nodding.
We were coming close to the entrance of the hospital again, maybe for the fourth time. I felt an urgency to leave Neil on a positive note, with hope and optimism. Every moment, every word counted now, and I wanted to pour some confidence into him.
In mock severity, I said, “Neil, I want you to erase those worry tapes in your mind!”
He gave me a half-smile. “Okay.”
“I want you to replace them with tapes that tell you that you're a worthwhile person right now — not when you're out of the hospital, not in two years, or five, or ten, but right now, you're a person of great worth. You've become very dear to me, Neil, and I care for you very much.”
We were walking up the wheelchair ramp to the entrance to the hospital. We were both breathing like we'd run a marathon.
“You know,” he said, rounding the last corner of the ramp, “you've always represented love to me. No one has loved me just because I'm me. I couldn't ever figure you out.”
His last statement really threw me. As we were going in the door, I thought to myself: What's to figure out?
We were being let on the unit when Neil asked me for my address. “Maybe we could write or something ... I mean ... you said you'd wonder what happened to me ... and ...”
He was starting to stammer, so I said, “Sure! Have you got some paper?”
By this time, we were in the doorway of his room, so I followed him in and sat on his bed. While he looked for a piece of paper, I said, “Hey, send me a postcard from Astoria, okay?”
“Yeah, okay, I will ... uh ... here,” he said, handing me a sheet of notebook paper and a pencil.
There was silence as I quickly wrote my name and address. I included Psalm l39, so, hopefully, he'd remember to read it. Then I heard Kana calling me in the hall.
“Hey, listen, I've got to go,” I said, jumping up off the bed. “Write me if you feel paranoid, okay? And I'll write right back and tell you you're a good person!”
Neil made a noise halfway between a snort and a chuckle. “Okay.”
“And I'm really interested to know how your hearing with the judge goes.” I handed him the paper and pencil.
Neil sighed and looked away. After a pause, he said in a strained voice, “I'm ... terrified of seeing that judge.”
I couldn't see his face, but his free hand balled into a fist.
“Hey, look,” I said, and he looked at me sideways, just with his eyes, turning his head only a fraction. “Tell Dr. Larsen about it, okay? Remember? He's the best. That's what he's here for; he'll make it okay for you, I'm certain of it.”
Neil looked down again and just nodded. Then he looked up, eyes boring into mine. We stood there, looking at each other for a bit, and then I said, “Well, do I have to wait two years for a hug?”
“Uh, no,” Neil stammered, putting down the paper and pencil on his bed. I wrapped my arms around his chest, because that's as far up as my arms could reach, and he bent over, slowly and carefully, and laid his head on my shoulder, his arms across my shoulder blades. I held him close when I realized he was crying.
Oh God, I prayed, what is going to happen to this very special person? Please take care of him!
Kana called again, so I pulled away. As I started out the door, Neil grabbed my right wrist, unusual for him, one of the few times he touched me.
“Hey ... uh ... it was really nice of you to say all those good things to me. Thanks for ...” he shrugged his shoulders, “... being so nice ...”
“Oh, Neil,” I said in exasperation, “I didn't say it to be nice; I said it because it's true, and it needed to be said.” I patted him on the upper arm with my free hand. “You're easy to love.”
Kana's next call left no doubt that his impatience was getting the better of him. I had to go.
“Bye, Neil,” I said, breaking away. “Have a good life!”
I ran into the hall with joy and excitement in my heart at the prospect of going home. But I'll always remember Neil's face as I left. The haunted look in his eyes was replaced with abject pain, and there was a tear running down one cheek. He stood in the doorway, hands forever halfway in his pockets, shoulders slumped, looking (for Neil) very small and vulnerable. It's a scene that will be forever etched in my mind.
The details of my actual discharge are blurred and confused in my memory. Everything and everyone seemed to be going in fast motion.
Logan was magically there while Kana asked questions and had me sign papers. Kathy was in and out of my consciousness, asking first if Neil and I had had our “little talk,” then wanting my address. To stave her off, I told her I'd given it to Neil. We were almost off the unit when she was back, saying she couldn't find him. I told her, as Kana maneuvered me out the door, that I'd left him in his room.
There were well-wishes from patients and staff, I remember. And there were the rounds to the pharmacy, arts and crafts room, and business office. Then finally, Kana was shaking my hand at the entrance, wishing me all the best.
The sun was shining on our way home. I watched the scenery in silence as we drove home, as if for the first time. I was thinking that this must be how a caterpillar feels when it comes out of the cocoon.
Home ... home ... I was home. Logan went back to work, and Leighton would continue staying with his grandparents that day as he had every day I'd been in the hospital.
I unpacked. I wandered around touching things. I noticed that there were so many things to be done, and I knew I'd be the one to do them. I gloried in my freedom, and I took a Xanax all by myself to celebrate.
Wow, I thought to myself as I made a sandwich, I can still make my own lunch. I watched some television and fell asleep. When I woke up, I stretched and thought happily: I'm home, I'm home. It wasn't a dream.
That evening I greeted Leighton and Logan, happy that I'd be there to stay, and Logan bought us hamburgers to celebrate. As I tidied up the kitchen, I thought to myself: Everything is okay now. I'm home.
It all came crashing down on me when I turned on the television to see what was on. When I saw the football game, suddenly I saw Neil's face as I had left him that morning, and I burst into tears.
I looked all around me, and everything was alien and overwhelming. I ran into our spare bedroom and cried most of the rest of the evening.
Oh, Neil, I thought, are you watching that football game without me? Oh God, please watch over him. Keep him safe.
The next morning I was able to get Leighton up, dressed, and fed before Logan's dad came to take him away for the morning. Victory! I tidied the house and exercised. Maybe things wouldn't be so bad after all.
That afternoon, after I laid Leighton down for a nap, I tried to read, but all I could see was Neil's face. He'd be in Arts and Crafts now, I was thinking. And I started crying again. I felt like a mother who had sent her child off to kindergarten for the first time; only I probably wouldn't know how he was faring for a long time, if ever.
Oh God, I'd pray, I pass the baton to You. Please watch over him. But I kept snatching him back.
The first week went on much like this while I tried to find my way in my own life. Sometimes I'd pause in a household task and wail, “God. Neil ... I'm so worried about Neil!”
It was during one such call to God that I saw an image. It was Neil, walking through an obstacle course just like the one he walked through in the hospital, only I wasn't the one directing him — God was. It was as if He had His arms around Neil — no — more than that. Neil had an aura around him that was leading him. He still looked worried and sweaty, but, nevertheless, he was being led safely around trouble.
The meaning was obvious to me. God was telling me He was leading Neil through life, and I was not to worry. I still worried, but I wasn't in anguish over him anymore. I knew it was now up to me to trust.
So, when I was tempted to wring my hands, I thought of Neil being led by God. And I knew that same guidance was surrounding me, too. Now, I was just lonely for his friendship. I hoped he'd be able to get out of the hospital and write to me soon.
Several days later, I was lying on my bed, looking out the window into the blue sky. The sun was shining, and I was feeling warm and content. I was thinking about which books I wanted to store and which to keep in a bookcase when suddenly I saw Neil's face floating in the sky, slowly, slowly, floating higher and higher. It was just his face, and it held the joyful expression I'd seen after he'd made it successfully to his chair after the obstacle course exercise.
I smiled peacefully at it, and afterward wondered what it meant. “I hope this doesn't mean that he's going to die,” I said nervously to my sister, Sharon, long-distance on the phone.
“Maybe this means he'll be going to Heaven when he does die,” she suggested. Sharon had been avidly keeping up with my experiences with Neil. In fact, she had shared Neil with several friends of hers and all were praying for him.
I laughed when I learned of this. If Neil only knew the attention his life was getting, he'd be in shock for weeks. And this led to the questions: Why am I so obsessed with Neil? Why is the story of Neil so powerful?
I had no answers, and as the days went on, I found myself needing to know how Neil was doing--not because I wasn't trusting God to care for him, but because I needed to know what and how he was doing. I just needed the knowledge, like one needs to know the ending of a book.
On the third week after my discharge, I found out.
It was Tuesday, the day Neil was supposed to appear before the judge. All morning I was nervous, and I attributed the anxiety to the fact that I was in the difficult part of my menstrual cycle. I also knew that this was the day that a part of Neil's future would be decided.
The mail came that afternoon about 1:30. When I saw Kathy's name on the upper left-hand corner of the envelope, I had mixed feelings. My stomach churned, and with a feeling of dread, I tore it open.
I hastily read it, hungry for news of Neil. It was written in a large, immature scrawl, not making a whole lot of sense. It was two pages of rambling, misspelled, and disorganized thoughts.
She said she and Marvin and Neil all wanted to be good friends with me; that Mikey's birthday party had been a success, and that her family thought Neil was a “terrific guy.” She said she and Neil laughed a lot about her two-year rule and that she had found Neil to be very “huggable and kissable.” They were glad to be out of the hospital because now they could see each other so much more. She also said Neil was going to spend all the major holidays with her family.
She went on and on about what she was doing to “stay well,” but there was no more about Neil — no word on his legal problems or how he was feeling — just that he was going to leave for Astoria on Friday.
The next morning a letter to Kathy went out from me. I congratulated her on her discharge and included a message to Neil, reminding him that he meant a lot to me and that he had promised me a postcard from Astoria.
This was a round-about way of communicating, I felt, but better than none at all.
I was jumping on my mini-jogger the next morning —Thursday — when Kathy called. I knew who she was before she told me — her voice had the familiar machine-gun-fire quality to it. I also knew, with a tightening of my stomach, that something was wrong, because there was a distraught, panicked air in her voice that I hadn't heard before.
“Oh, Judy, this is Kathy. I'm so upset and concerned about Neil. He called me Monday night and said he hadn't slept in two days and couldn't sleep, and he'd taken forty of his pills to try to get to sleep, but couldn't. And he said he was so tired of being messed up, and he didn't want to live anymore. And he said he wouldn't make a good husband, worse than Gary to me! We were going to get engaged in six months and married in a year. I kept telling him to talk, talk, talk to me, but he said he didn't want to see me for a few days, to pull himself together. He didn't want me to see him like he was. But when I looked for him at Meier & Frank's, he didn't come, and I've called the police and they say there aren't any unidentified dead bodies. I went looking for him with my step-dad at the address he gave me where he lives with Vaughn, but we couldn't find it, and the police won't.”
“Kathy, Kathy,” I was trying to break in. “You say Neil took forty of his pills?” I found myself taking notes. This was confusing, and I wanted to get my facts straight.
“No, I think he said four or five, oh, I don't know, maybe more, but I'm afraid he's dead on the street somewhere! The police won't go to the address to find him, because they say he hasn't done anything.”
Which is just as well, I thought to myself, considering how Neil feels about the police.
“Maybe he just needs some time alone,” I suggested. Heaven knows, even Neil must have a limit on how long he could put up with Kathy’s behavior. “Wouldn't his roommate have called you if something was wrong?”
“Oh no!” she said, shrilly. “He hates me! He's queer and jealous of me. Neil said he never bothered him, though. And when he was real sick before, Neil said Vaughn took real good care of him.”
I started getting a headache and was rubbing my forehead. Also, her panic was starting to transmit itself through the phone. I was still thinking about the pills.
“Listen, Kathy,” I said. “When Neil called you, did you call Dr. Larsen?”
“No!” she screamed. “We don't want him to know about us! He says I have too many men!”
I put the phone to my throbbing forehead. I think if we had been talking face to face, I would have shaken her until all her teeth fell out. To put her own feelings above Neil's welfare was unthinkable to me.
When I put the phone back to my ear, she was saying something about limiting Hank's visits to twice a week. “Kathy,” I broke in, “I'm going to call Dr. Larsen.”
“NO!” she screamed, sounding hysterical. “You can't, you can't ...”
“Kathy, listen to me! Maybe he knows something. And if he doesn't, he ought to. He's Neil's doctor!”
She went on pleading with me, saying the same things over and over, so I looked at my notes.
“Kathy,” I interrupted, “why were you waiting for Neil at Meier and Frank?”
She told me that the previous weekend, they had decided to meet in front of the department store after Neil had had the hearing with the judge, but though she waited two hours, he never showed up.
“Could he have gone on to Astoria?” I asked.
“No, I called Marvin, and he hadn't seen him. Oh, Judy, couldn't you go try to find the address?”
So, I thought, Marvin is out of the hospital, too.
“NO,” I answered. “I don't have any transportation during the day. I'm calling Dr. Larsen.”
I finally got her to end the conversation by telling her I wouldn't tell him who had called me unless he specifically asked.
I put the call in and spent the hours it took for Dr. Larsen to return my call by alternately praying urgently and remembering my image of Neil being surrounded by God's aura of guidance.
Kathy called several times in the interim, causing me to be both disappointed and angry. I'd jump for the phone, expecting the doctor. Instead, I'd hear the same fast, distraught voice. My day was turning into a nightmare of telephone rings.
Our conversations took on a pattern. She'd ask me if I'd heard anything, and I'd assure her that I hadn't and would let her know as soon as I had.
“When did you and Neil get out of the hospital?” I asked her during one of her calls.
“On the 17th — the day of Mikey's birthday party. We were so glad to get out. Everybody was talking about us because we were so close. Marvin teased us a lot. But we're really in love.”
The 17th, I mused. That was the Saturday after the Monday I was discharged.
“Judy, what did you and Neil talk about the day you got out of the hospital?” she asked, abruptly.
“Why don't you ask Neil?” I countered, surprised.
“He said he didn't want to talk about it.”
“Well, then, I guess that's between you and Neil. Have you tried calling Vaughn?” I asked, changing the subject.
“He doesn't have a phone,” she whined. “Neil had to call from a phone booth eight blocks away. Oh, Judy, I'm so worried!”
So am I, I thought silently. So am I.
When Dr. Larsen returned the call about 2:30, I was pleasantly surprised, thinking it was Kathy's dialing finger getting itchy again. I told him that I had found myself in the middle of an awkward situation, and since he knew everybody involved, I was going to throw it in his lap.
He laughed. “Thanks a lot!”
I told him of Kathy's calls; how I thought she was out of touch with reality most of the time; my concern for Neil; and that I felt a responsibility to let him know about Neil.
“Judy,” Dr. Larsen said, crisply, “you did the right thing by calling me. You must understand that I can't discuss with you either of these cases, but I will tell you that your estimation of Kathy is correct and that I am aware of Neil's condition. I also don't want you to have anything to do with these people; it can cause you nothing but grief. If you hear from Kathy again, refer her to me. Don't waste your time talking to her — it won't do either of you any good.”
“Okay,” I said, relieved. “I understand all this patient confidentiality stuff, but can you at least tell me Neil is okay?”
“No,” he said, quickly. “Neil is not okay. So how are you doing?”
Hmmmm, I thought to myself, Neil must be on the West Unit. Or is he? How bad off is he?
“I have agonized all day about Neil's welfare,” I began, impatient with Dr. Larsen's manner. I wasn't thinking, then, that he knew nothing of my emotional investment in Neil, “You can't leave me like this! Is he at least under some kind of care?”
I heard a sigh. “Judy,” Dr. Larsen said, then paused. “Neil died of an accidental overdose of the drugs he had, earlier this week.”
It was as if a giant hand had squeezed my torso, forcing all the air out. I managed a small, whimpering, “Oh...”
“Now, I don't want you to fret about this ...” he began.
“Fret? Don't fret?” I got my air back in a hurry. “Ask me to jump over the moon and that would be more likely! I cared for Neil; this has really upset me! You don't want me to fret?”
“Judy, listen to me,” Dr. Larsen broke in, authoritatively. “I told you this because I know you can handle it. I was afraid you'd read it in the newspaper, and maybe it would be easier if you heard it from me.”
I remember sitting on the bed with the phone to my ear, nervously tracing the pattern of the bedspread with my finger. My eyes weren't focusing on anything, and my mind was struggling to comprehend the words coming through the receiver.
“There wasn't anything anybody could do; it's just one of those tragic things that happen,” Dr. Larsen was saying. “I want you to remember that, and we'll talk about it next week when you come in to see me.”
“Okay,” I said softly. Without waiting for him to say goodbye, I hung up.
I sat there a long time. What do I do now? I asked myself. What do I do now? Shouldn't I be crying or something?
I got up and walked around the house. I picked up a pen to write in my journal, but my hands were shaking so much I couldn't write. The pen just dropped out of my hand.
I walked out the back door and walked around the backyard. I kept thinking that I didn't know how to feel. I'd try this feeling and that feeling, but nothing surfaced — no sorrow, no anger, no nothing. It was like I was trying all the keys on an unplugged typewriter — nothing was happening. All my electricity was gone. My body was in the middle of one long gasp. I had the feeling that if I pricked myself with a pin, I wouldn't feel it.
After a while, I remembered I was supposed to call Kathy, and I went indoors. I picked up the phone but found I couldn't dial. I took a Xanax, walked around some more and formed my words.
“Kathy,” I said as calmly and as naturally as I could manage, “Dr. Larsen called. He said he was aware of Neil's condition, and he told me not to fret. He said if you wanted to know more, you can call him.”
“Oh! Is Neil okay? Is he back in the hospital?” she asked, frantically.
“I can't tell you any more,” I said, mechanically, feeling like a robot. “Just call Dr. Larsen.”
“Did you tell him about us?”
“Kathy, I had to. I was concerned for Neil's welfare. It doesn't make a whole lot of sense to me, anyway,” I said, getting angry. “You're seeing a doctor to get better, and you're not being up front with him! Just call Dr. Larsen, okay? I can't tell you any more than what I've already said.” I wanted the conversation to end. I was desperate to hang up. Reluctantly, she gave up.
I paced around the house some more. I needed to keep moving. I had the feeling that if I stopped moving, I'd suffocate.
Leighton woke up from his nap early. He was crying and calling my name. Grateful for something constructive to do, I hurried to his room.
This was unusual. Usually, Leighton woke up happy and cheerful. Now, his face was flushed, he was crying, and he lifted up his arms to me.
Gently, I picked him up and cradled him close to me. Carrying him to the rocking chair, I could tell he had a bit of a fever. He snuggled down against me, and we rocked.
As I caressed the hair from his face, I wondered in my numbness if Neil's mother had done that to a little Neil, loving him, worrying over his childhood illnesses, wondering how he'd turn out. I wondered how she felt about his adult problems and whether somewhere there was a mother crying in grief over her son. I wished I could tell her how good and kind and considerate and eager to be better he was. I wished I could share her grief. I thought about all that as I rocked Leighton, grateful that he was still young enough to rock and comfort and hold in my arms.
Since Logan had to work evenings all that week, we had arranged for Leighton to stay at his grandparents' house those evenings to give me a break. A couple of hours in the rocking chair and some Tylenol seemed to have done the trick, because Leighton was happy to go when Logan's mother came by for him.
Alone again, I stood at the kitchen sink and stared out the window for a long time. I could see into the backyard of our neighbor. He'd done a good job improving the wooden fence on the other side of his yard, I noted. His half-grown German shepherd sat on their picnic table, his ears twitching. As I saw the stars start to twinkle on, one by one, I asked myself over and over: What do I do now?
After a while, I remembered the story of David in the Bible. After his infant son had died, he got up and got dressed and ordered some food to eat. And his servants were amazed at his behavior because while the child was alive, he fasted and wept. But now that the child was dead, he got up and ate.
But David explained it this way:
“While the child was still alive, I fasted and wept. I thought, 'who knows? The Lord may be gracious to me and let the child live.' But now that he is dead, why should I fast? Can I bring him back again? I will go to him, but he will not return to me.”
So, I made myself a roast beef sandwich and poured a glass of milk. As I ate, I thought: Goodbye, Neil. I've got to pick up my life as best I can and go on. Goodbye, Neil ... goodbye ... I felt a great wistfulness.
It seemed important to do the ordinary things. I washed the dishes and tidied the kitchen. I turned on the television, but I don't remember what was on.
When the phone rang, I jumped, realizing I'd been staring into space for a long time. It was Kathy again. Apparently, Dr. Larsen hadn't returned her call. I tried to reassure her that he'd call soon, or maybe tomorrow.
“What do you think, Judy? Is Neil okay? Is Dr. Larsen taking care of him?” Her voice whined in my ear.
“It doesn't matter what I think,” I began.
“But don't you think if Dr. Larsen knows about Neil that he's taking care of him?” Kathy asked, urgently.
I could well understand her urgency. I'd feel it, too, if the situation were reversed. As kindly as I could, I tried to reassure her without giving her false hopes.
“Kathy, what I think doesn't matter; it doesn't have anything to do with reality. I'm sure Dr. Larsen will call you soon and he'll tell you all about Neil's condition.”
“Judy, what were you to Neil?” she asked, throwing me off guard.
I hesitated. “We were good friends,” I said, haltingly.
“He said you were very special to him.”
“Well ... he was very special to me, too,” I said, bewildered, wondering if she was noticing we were talking about him in the past tense.
“Was he your boyfriend?” she asked, getting more agitated.
“No!” I denied, tears of frustration stinging my eyes. “I'm very happily married! Neil was a very special person to me, but only as a friend. Only as a very special friend!”
She started to whine again. “Neil said that the only girl he ever wanted to marry was already married. Was that you?”
“NO!” I wailed. “Neil and I were only very good friends! We talked about our relationship, and I'm certain he only thought of me as a friend.”
Oh, what's the use, I thought, as tears started running down my cheeks. It's a moot point, now. Talking to Kathy is like trying to pour water into a bucket full of holes.
“We were going to get married, Judy! Can't you understand how I need to know about him? I'm so worried!” Kathy shouted.
I wondered if she was talking about being worried about my relationship with him or being worried about his welfare. I chose to comment on the latter.
“Listen, I've been in anguish over Neil since you first called,” I said. “I understand how you could be upset over him after not hearing from him. But there's nothing we can do now. We'd better get off the phone now. Dr. Larsen is probably trying to call you.”
She hastily agreed.
I started pacing. The phone rang twice more, but they were only good friends calling about how I was doing. I jumped every time the phone rang, wondering if I should unplug it, only to decide against it in case Logan needed to call or if his folks needed to contact me about Leighton.
“Fine,” I'd say to those people who called. “I'm getting better.”
What else could I say? I couldn't feel anything but tension. I felt like an undefined word.
As I paced, I started thinking that I hadn't realized how much a habit agonizing and praying over Neil had become. I'd begin to worry and then remember with a start that he was dead — it's all over — and I'd feel like someone punched me in the stomach.
In a way, I thought, it's a relief. I thought it was all over. But in many ways, it was just beginning.
By the time Logan and Leighton got home, I was a bundle of nerves. I had begun to look at the phone as an enemy and was jumping at every sound.
After Leighton was put to bed, I told Logan about Neil, and the tears finally came. I could feel them glancing off my cheeks and falling on my lap.
“Oh, Jude, I'm so sorry,” Logan said softly, as I wiped my nose.
“Why does everyone I care about die suddenly?” I sobbed. “It's so rude when people die like that!”
A little later I asked, “Log, where's Neil now? Don't you think if I loved him so much, God does, too?”
I looked up from his chest, and Logan was looking straight ahead, his arms around me. “I don't know, Jude. I wish I could say something that would make you feel better. I just don't know.”
After a time, I couldn't sit still anymore, and Logan went off to bed. He had had a long day.
I paced back and forth in the living room, tears soaking my face. Why, Neil? Why did you call Kathy? Why didn't you call Dr. Larsen? Why didn't you call me? You didn't even say goodbye! I told you that you were a survivor, and look what you did! How could I have been so wrong? What happened to you? What happened?!
Oh, God, I prayed, I can't stand the thought of Neil being in hell after the hell he's lived here on earth. Oh Lord, he was sick! He was looking for you! He acknowledged you! Was that enough?
I started remembering preachers from my childhood arguing that the only true church was the one they attended, that baptism was the only salvation. Everyone else was hell-bound if they didn't attend church three times a week. I remembered stories about teenagers who said they'd get baptized next Sunday and they were killed in car accidents during the week, and everyone knew they'd gone straight to their doom. These thoughts were like buzzards picking at my emotions, and I felt like screaming. I paced back and forth with my hands over my ears, trying to silence the voices that went on and on.
Then came the inevitable “what ifs.” What if I had put my phone number down under my address that I had given to Neil? What if I had emphasized his calling me if it all fell apart for him? But he had a doctor for that, I reasoned. Why, Neil? Why didn't you call Dr. Larsen?
What if I had stayed that extra week like he wanted me to? Would it have made a difference? But I always came back to no for an answer. I had to go home. My first responsibility was to my family; and besides, I couldn't take being in the hospital any longer.
Was it my fault, Lord? Was I put there to “convert” Neil, and I failed somehow? Oh Lord, you knew my condition in the hospital! I was barely intact. Why, Lord? How could this have happened?
Sometime, just before dawn, Dr. Larsen's words were played back in my mind — “an accidental overdose of the drugs he had.” I stopped pacing and leaned over on the dining room table. Nothing was said about suicide, but that was what I heard — what I had understood — when Dr. Larsen told me.
I straightened up and wiped one eye with the back of my hand. An accident? You mean, maybe, you accidentally died, Neil?
It didn't bring me much more comfort. How could that happen, Lord? An accident?! After all my prayers? After so many people were praying for him? He accidentally died?! Maybe you didn't mean to die at all, Neil; I'm so sorry I wasn't enough! Oh God, this is so hard to understand!
I started pacing again, and Jesus' words came to me — the same ones He asked his apostles while in Capernaum when many of the disciples left: “Will you leave me also?” I stopped in my tracks, rubbing my aching eyes. After a moment, I laid down on the couch, considering.
I at last had to say, like Peter, “Lord, to whom shall I go? You have the words of eternal life.” I added, however, “But this is under protest; You know how I feel. I'm in torment. But I have no alternative. I have nowhere else to go. You have truth, though I don't understand it. I don't understand it at all.”
Sleep only came with exhaustion that morning.
I sat up with a start when the phone rang. I rubbed my eyes as I looked at the clock — almost 9:00. Somehow, I had made it to bed in the early morning hours. Logan was talking on the phone.
I was confused. Something awful had happened. And why was Logan home?
Oh yeah ... I laid back down on my pillow, my hands feeling cool over my hot, swollen eyes. Neil had died. And Logan had said he'd stay home this morning in case Kathy called. I just couldn't face talking to her.
I dully picked up where I left off several hours earlier. An accident. It had to be an accident. Neil had grown so much in the hospital. And he had had all those plans. He had been so adamant about seeking help if things went wrong again. What a lot to give he had had; he was one of those rare people that showed his good side as second nature. And now it was all over. What a waste!
Logan came in the bedroom to tell me Kathy called to say Dr. Larsen still hadn't called, was sorry to hear I wasn't feeling well, and that she would be praying for me.
Fresh tears came as I buried my head in my pillow. It was I who should be praying for her. What a lot of grief she was in for. Kathy, Kathy, I railed silently, why didn't you call Dr. Larsen when Neil called? How could you put your own feelings above Neil's welfare?
Logan's dad came by to take Leighton on an outing for the morning, and Logan went on to work. I mechanically dressed and ate and tidied up, but pain dominated my thoughts.
This makes no sense at all, Lord. What part do You play in accidents? I've been in prayer over Neil since I got out of the hospital! Why? Why? Why did it happen this way?
It had been suggested that I was put in the hospital to be a light to Neil — to point the way to God for him. I laughed it off, saying it hadn't been worth all the pain I had been through. Now, the scheme of things really made no sense. Before, much of the time when I'd been feeling low, I'd think of Neil as a positive part of my hospitalization. He was my friend. I had needed him as much as he had needed me. Now even that was stripped from me.
Dr. Larsen called to ask how I was doing. I told him I had felt better. He told me to get some rest, that we'd talk next week, and that I'd be fine.
Fine ... I doubted that I'd ever be fine. When I had dealt with sudden death before, all I had had to deal with was my response — my own personal grief. I always knew that my grandmother, my father, my brother-in-law, my friend in college, a co-worker were saved — I always knew they were with God. My grief was largely self-centered in that I felt loss because there was a hole in my life without them.
With Neil, it was reversed. I never really thought I'd see Neil again — maybe hear from him a few times — but I had accepted that once I knew he was doing okay, we'd be going our own ways.
Now my grief was tied up in Neil's salvation. My torment was relentless. If I had seen him kick dogs or spit on babies or do something inherently cruel, it still would have been hard, but I could have accepted with less pain that there was a possibility that he wasn't with God and that I'd never see him again.
In my anguish, I remembered that I had relinquished long ago all feelings of judging the ultimate destination of people. It says in the Bible that “God will save who He will,” and I figured that since He made up the rules, He could save anybody He wants to. It wasn't up to me.
But in Neil's case, I found myself praying over and over: “He had such a rough time here on earth and yet he was so good and kind, Lord. Doesn't that count for anything?” I felt like a lawyer, pleading his case. In Neil's case I had to know where he was now, and therein lay the core of my torment. The fact that he died as the result of an accident added more weight to my anguish.
That afternoon's mail brought my Guideposts magazine. Anxious for something to distract me, I bedded Leighton down for his nap, and then settled myself down to read.
The first article was about someone going through some kind of problem (I had trouble concentrating), but a scripture he used caught my eye. It was Job saying, “Though He slay me, still will I trust Him.”
I jumped off the bed and looked out the window. It was one of those rare cloudless days we get in Portland when the sky is a brilliant blue, and I pondered as I scrutinized that blue sky.
That's what it all boils down to, isn't it, Lord? Trust. Oh, I'm not so puffed up that I think the pain I'm feeling has never been felt before. David felt it. Job felt it. Elijah felt it. I'm not the only one throughout all the generations that separate me from them that shook my fist in the face of God and asked, “Why?” I can name a dozen contemporaries that have felt my pain and worse.
God, I've been through the “refiner's fire” and I don't feel any closer to being like You. I'm in unbearable torment over Neil, Lord. I can't stand the thought of him being in hell. Sometimes I've felt like I couldn't breathe another breath, because I don't know what my response is supposed to be.
But now I know — trust. I don't have any idea of what's going on here. I don't have any idea of what's going to happen. I may live in torment like this the rest of my life. You know I'm not happy; I can't hide that from You. But, nevertheless, I'll stand with Job and say that though You kill me, I'll still trust You.
I rubbed the backs of my hands across my wet eyes, still hurting, still in anguish, but not expecting any relief anymore. I felt like the ball was in God's court now. All I had to do was trust Him to throw it back, sometime, if He wanted to, in His own way.
I slowly laid back down on the bed. I was reading several articles later about some lady who was having trouble with the annoying habit of biting her nails, when I saw him.
The magazine dropped unnoticed on my chest. My mouth popped open in surprise. My eyes were open, staring at the bookcase, but I saw him just as clearly as if someone were running a video tape in front of me.
It was Neil. He was lying on a couch or a bed and he was sick and calling out. He was so sick, and his arms were raised, begging for help. And God came. God came and picked him up, much as I had picked up a crying, feverish Leighton the day before. God picked up Neil and cradled him against Him, comforting him. And a voice said, “I just took him to myself.”
And suddenly I knew that Neil was quite safe.