I don’t like to answer the telephone.
“Hi Mom. It’s Cary.”
The familiar voice jolts me back to a nightmare. The voice of my first-born child. My precious son. Love and terror.
"Cary, I’m surprised to hear from you.” I speak evenly and pleasantly. It’s a habit, a social habit to speak evenly and pleasantly to a caller.
“I get two free calls a week, and I don’t have anybody else to call.”
I wonder what he looks like. I remember when I first saw him. I remember my husband driving us home from the hospital, and I said, “Don’t drive, so fast. The bumps will wake him up.”
My God, how careful we were—my husband slowly guiding the car along uneven Chicago streets; our infant’s tiny, buttery-soft fingers curling around my index finger; the sun reaching down and touching us through the car’s windows.
We were perfect.
How many snapshots we have stuffed in drawers, mounted in scrapbooks. Cary in his first bath, Cary in his buggy, Cary at the beach, me holding Cary, my husband holding Cary, Cary with his sister, his brother, his sister and his brother, his grandparents. Cary at six, gently
cupping a bright orange butterfly in his small hands, at birthday parties, with his dog, through grade school, high school, and then—the pictures change.
Cary at his sister’s wedding, Cary holding the Siamese cat. Cary. Pale, thin, haunted.
Cary, what’s happening to you? Oh God. Is something wrong?
I don’t like to answer the telephone.
“Mom, it’s Cary.” His voice is clipped monotone, constricted. “I can’t talk. They’re listening through the walls.”
“Who’s listening? Why are you whispering?”
Fear chokes my throat. It seems such a short time ago that my son carried his belongings—pillows and books, suitcases, guitar, and even a new suit for some special event in the hazy future—into our old station wagon, the same one that took us to Canada and to Wisconsin on family fishing trips. And then, on a warm day in early fall, under soft clouds in a thin sky, over serene and open roads, to college.
We drive that day, my husband, my son and I, inexorably and dreadfully downstate. Other vehicles speed alongside us. Volkswagens and trailers brimming with odds and ends and bundles of happy baggage, faces framed in windows, eager and sure, all of us on our way to college.
Why then the dread? Why do I feel as though my husband and I are delivering a sacrifice: our thin, vulnerable son? Isn’t college supposed to be fun? Isn’t this the right thing, the best thing, for our son? Isn’t he supposed to feel lucky?
The dormitory room is neat and impersonal, ready for its occupant.
Cary cries. So tall, so intelligent, so loved. I am assaulted by his fragility, my grown son, now shrunken and weak with terror.
We give him appropriate reassurances, and we leave. We leave him—a sinful abandonment. The station wagon, unburdened of its pitiful cargo, takes my husband and me home through the soft, warm fall evening. We have left our son sitting alone in his room, weeping.
He phones us from school, each call a primitive force. I lie on the bed, pressing the receiver to my ear and listen, helpless. Phone calls daily from a stranger, secretive and sinister.
He can’t study. He hides in his room. He hears voices through the walls.
Finally I say, “Your father is driving down to get you. He’ll bring you home.”
In the evening, my husband returns with our son, a funeral procession of two, up the stairs, down the hall to Cary’s bedroom. Very hushed, my husband stricken. Cary’s movements are stiff and awkward, his head in an outlandishly erect position, a curved, dislocated smile on his waxen face.
He carries only a small duffel bag.
“Cary,” I ask, “where are all your things?”
“I don’t know.”
Cary opens his duffel bag.
Dark, small insects swarm from the bag and escape into closets, down the hall, infesting our home. I’ve never seen cockroaches before. These insects appear to me an omen, a glimpse into another world dark and irrational, evicting us from the safe, socially correct world.
We are contaminated.
Cary speaks in metaphors, very certain, very serious, very sober. “I’m going over the brink,” he says. “The dog is afraid of me. She backs away from my hand. She knows there’s something wrong with me.”
I talk to the psychiatrist, repeating, explaining, describing. “I’m afraid,” I tell the doctor, “that Cary will hurt somebody.”
The doctor responds with platitudes.
We creep carefully around the house, listening for Cary’s movements. We watch, never knowing what he will do, what will happen.
We are tyrannized.
We are waiting.
“I’m waiting to go berserk,” Cary says. “You’re poisoning my food, calling me names.”
We deny his accusations, frightened to see that he actually believes them.
“My friends tell me, ‘You’ll kill your mother.’” Cary smiles at me.
Why does he smile after saying such a thing?
He is so agitated. He cannot find a place for his hands, his eyes, his body, himself. He repeats the Rolling Stones’ urgent refrain, “Can’t get no satisfaction,” lending a terrible import to the lyrics. My son sobs, “I’m so unhappy,” his voice soft and even, belying his bewilderment. Desperately, he paces across my bedroom, then abruptly leaves.
I don’t follow. “I’m so unhappy” floats in the air and settles on my heart.
The clinician at college had summed it up in a simple, direct statement: “Go home, Cary. You’re in too much pain.”
Too much pain.
“Hello, Mom. I’m calling from the nurse’s station. They took my razor blades away.”
We find a hospital, private and exclusive: surely my son will find help now. Another drive, this time in a small Chevrolet, but the same gloom permeates the space in which my son and I move and breathe.
In the hospital lobby, I press the elevator button to five, looking straight ahead, not looking at my son at all. Let’s pretend: an ordinary hospitalization, an ordinary day. With great effort, I control the expression on my face, waiting for the metal doors to part.
Do people watch us? Do they know what the fifth floor means?
In penitence and grief, I lead my child into the hospital ward. The psychiatric ward. Cary’s eyes condemn me. “Soon I won’t feel anything anymore,” he says. “I’ll be a zombie.”
The young resident with a fastidiously trimmed beard holds his pen poised above a clipboard, waiting for my answers. I am cooperative, humble. I am sure that if I answer the questions in good faith, he will help Cary. I find it hard to breathe. It is as if my son and I are displaced in time.
“Mrs. Glaser,” begins the doctor. “Did you want your son?”
“Did you love your son?”
Cary refused to take his medication. He hid pills under his bed, insisted he didn’t need them. The voices in his head were more persistent and he became more combative.
We shuttle Cary out of the hospital and into a furnished room. My husband and I help him buy groceries, put away his shirts and pants, new socks and underwear, and arrange a few items of some special significance: a wooden pipe rack with pipes, an incense burner, a miniature wire candle holder from a school friend. We install a stereo, a television, an electric fan, give him a kitten, ice cube trays, pictures, and posters—and leave him again.
Cary avoids the front windows because people are watching him. He keeps the yellowed shades down. He loses the kitten. He burns his hands deeply with lit cigarettes. He holds his hands out to me so that I can see what he has done to himself. We hurry him to a doctor who bandages his raw hands. We take him back to his room. He lies in his bed on dirty rumpled sheets, staring at the ceiling, his hands hidden in heavy white gauze.
“Why did you do it?” I ask my son.
He doesn’t know. What difference does it make? Scars are nothing when the pain coursing through his body never ceases.
“I’m sorry,” says Psychiatrist Number Four. They’re all the same. Lofty, above responsibility.
“I’m sorry,” he says. “I don’t have a bed.”
“A bed? What do you mean, a bed?” My hand tightens. “He needs to be in the hospital—Cary, put down that knife.”
The doctor’s is very busy, all booked up. There are no beds. Perhaps he can refer me to another doctor. He does not comprehend my child’s illness.
The knife is ordinary, a long blade used for slicing meat. It has been lying in the kitchen sink next to the telephone. I keep talking to Doctor
Number Four, holding the receiver to my ear, pleading with him for a bed.
Cary lifts the knife. Everything is in slow motion. He is sinuous, confident. “I’m going to kill you.” I know that this is not an empty threat. I drop the phone and it twists on its cord. Is the doctor listening? Can he hear my screams? “Don’t do it. You’ll be sorry,” I scream, again and again until I am hoarse and then mute.
He holds the dark brown handle in his hand; the blade, long and thin, points down. How right it looks. The hand that grips the knife is the same hand that curled around my finger, so warm and soft, so many years ago. Can this be the same hand that gently cupped the monarch butterfly, its wings pulsing slowly? Some twenty years have passed, and it seems that I’ve been waiting for this moment.
How did this happen?
Cary is determined. He stabs and slashes, pummels and chokes. I crawl to the door, trying to get out, but he’s there. I grab the blade and twist it away. I think, if I can only turn it I’ll push it into Cary.
Kill my son?
The steel edge curves smoothly through my hand, but I feel nothing. We are very close, staring into each other’s face. His face is rigid. My son has disappeared somewhere behind his eyes. I can’t find him. He doesn’t hear me. Our struggle is silent.
Is this my son? This intense, mechanized force?
Kneeling on the blood red rug just inside the door, I look down to see a pair of dull black shoes.
“Hurry, get up, get out.”
A tight-voiced policeman darts his eyes here and there, alert, on duty to apprehend the assailant. He guides me to the front lawn. I find myself stretching out, face up on a cool bed of grass.
It’s a beautiful fall day. Directly over me, a sugar maple fills the sky, spreads its golden orange arms. Shafts of bright yellow sun filter through the tree’s shifting autumn leaves. All around are white faces, still and fixed, open-mouthed, bent forward, staring down at me, and at the same time, pulling back. There is a terrible silence, a failure of some sort.
And now our first-born child runs stiffly through the neighbors’ yards, his face waxen, his clothing soaked with blood, his arms and hands wet and red, the dog playfully running alongside him, running at his heels, just like they used to run together, in another time.
And even at this moment, I love my son.
Lorelei Glaser lives in the Chicago area and is a retired special education teacher. She is an accomplished watercolorist and participates in current event and book discussion groups. She recently sold her car and has evolved to getting about via Uber. Her new home in a retirement facility continues to surprise her with all its friendly, cheerful staff. She's also intrigued by how many different forks and spoons she's offered at meals in the dining room. Activities that bring her the most joy are those she shares with her children and grandchildren. She proudly and gratefully celebrates her 90th birthday this year.