Although I never knew it at the time Thanksgivings growing up were perfect. Now that is not to say they were not without incident. There was the time my mother a celebrated cook fed us rancid squash casserole. All of us so convinced that the casserole had to be good since Mom had made it ate several bites before we looked at each other and knew something was amiss. This was not a new recipe. That was the year the great can food purge of the 20th century occurred. My mother growing up poor on a farm in the Great Depression could not bear to throw food out but she also hoarded food as if she knew the apocalypse was right around the corner. Cans were discovered that were over ten years past their expiration date. What made that even worse was that meant my brothers and I who had spent a long day of toil to move our parents six years ago had loaded and unloaded these old cans to their new home. It was with great delight we emptied the pantry of these offensive canned goods as we astonished the guests by reading the dates of expiration out loud to the humiliation of our Mother. Of course a few hours later Mother Nature reminded us it was not right to treat your mother that way.
Besides the great purge we also had the great plunge. The plumbing in the house was not working and my parents could not find a plumber to come and the house would soon be filled with hordes of people. Luckily my nephew was a contractor and knew what to do. He took my brother, his father, outside to dig where the pipe was and they would unclog and replace the pipe because it was too small. Before they did this they warned everyone in the house to not use the toilets. They closed the bathroom doors and placed assorted objects on the toilets and went out to fix the pipes. They dug a hole in the front yard big enough for both of them to stand and were sawing the sewer pipe in half. I was out for a walk because my brother had been getting on my nerves and I wanted to cool down. When I returned home I went into the bathroom to clean up. I noticed the stuff on the toilets and thought who made such a mess and cleaned it up. Then because I had as always when I was at home with Mom ate a lot I decided to take a dump. It was a particularly big dump. I did my thing and as any decent person I flushed the toilet and walked outside to where my nephew and brother were in their hole with the pipe freshly cut. It was then something occurred to me was that the sewer line to the house they were working on? About this time they both looked at each other as the pipes began to flush and the hole they were in filled with feces and urine. I heard screams of agony and disgust and laughed as they try to get out of the hole but it was too slippery at first so the first attempts made them fall back into the hole. I snuck back into the house. They both came storming toward the house to execute the offending party. But by now everyone had gone to the door and saw them (except for me I was in the back room reading obviously oblivious to the goings on anywhere else) my mother took one look and one smell and told them politely but firmly they were not coming inside and even with shit covered shoes and pants and a need to seek out vengeance on the offending party they could not override she who must be obeyed. Later that day I confessed to the deed and explained my innocence which they seemed not to believe especially since we had had an earlier altercation. I thought Karma is such a bitch guys you should not have argued with me in the first place. The next day we were pairing up for the annual football game and I noticed they both chose not to be on my team as they glared at me. I thought Karma’s not only a bitch but she will turn on you in a second.
Yes those were the good ole days of Thanksgiving. We no longer have the crowds we had at my Mom and Dad’s house. They were loving people who people sought to be with. But each of the sons have their own tradition a friend or two and immediate family no big gatherings anymore. At my house we eat and hike in the woods or on the beach. There is no purging and plunging anymore. I now only have a thankfulness of a home that once was where everyone felt welcomed and wanted to be. Mom and Dad wherever you may be thanks for the memories.
Okay I was new to everything as you would have it. I was a new seminarian. I was newly married. It was my first professional job. I worked at a place called Schizophrenic Foundation Inc. They had one group home for those with manic depression and treatable schizophrenia. It was a huge success and had garnered national attention. I did not work in that home. I worked in the new radical cutting edge home that was taking people who would have been institutionalized for life if not for this new home. These residents were paranoid schizophrenics in whom treatment had little if any effect. This was where I worked.
When interviewed for the job the boss had asked if I knew about Freud and Jung. I said proudly I was an amateur expert on the two. He nodded then said forget them and join the world of pharmacology and bio-chemistry. Although I was confused I pretended I understood. He said for the most part the residents I would be working with had no ‘psychological’ issues but had a clearly defined brain ailment. Then because I think the pickings were slim and my referral was strong I got the job. I was the lead house manager for this home for eight to ten men who were paranoid schizophrenic. As part of my job description I was to supply social outings for the men. This part of the job description would be the cause of the “incident.” At least that is what I called it; I talk as little about it as possible.
The people were harmless and needed protecting more than they needed to be kept from society. But I quickly saw how they were a ‘problem’ for society. One of my first outings was to the movies. Now I took with me rocking Sam (called this because he had the side effects of the medication which caused him to rock back and forth when seated), Jim who would hear of some far off catastrophe on the news and break into tears as he was convinced something he did had caused it, Mike who was just so close to having a recording of his go international in which the governments would all be exposed and by the way you may not see it but they are recording me right now, and the list could go on. They all had tragic lives all belonging to the finest families of Louisville, Kentucky (thus where the money came for the program) but in their late teens or early adulthood schizophrenia had stolen all their hope and promise. So as they all stood in the lobby of the theater I saw the very uncomfortable and fearful people maneuver to the other side of the room. The manager even remarked could I do something about their unusualness. Which I replied they were customers just like anybody else. But I learned outings were not good for them because they felt like everyone was looking at them. Which regretfully they were.
This was the nucleus of a very bad plan. One of the parents who was a founding partner of a major law firm in Louisville stated he had a fishing cabin in the woods that could house everyone if ever we needed or wanted to take the group there. I did not think much of the idea until his son a resident began to regale the other residents of the great times he had had there as a child. Because of the pressure and my thought how it might be good to take them into the woods to experience the healing of nature and away from the nervous onlookers wherever I took them to a public place. Little did I know this was the start of the very bad plan. Now I am proud of my planning skills. I have even been praised in a book for my planning skills. But these great so called skills took time to develop.
When I suggested it to the boss, the trained therapist, he did not think it such a good idea. But I persisted and the resident and his father would prod the boss and he gave a very reluctant maybe. He began to put stipulations I am sure he thought would prevent the trip. Everyone in the house would have to go because the budget would not afford staff for both places. We had never had a hundred percent participation in anything even meals. Their illness often made them seclude themselves and it took a lot of effort to make them unseclude themselves. But even those who had never spent a night in the woods were coached to enthusiasm by Mike the resident who had been there as a child. This hurdle cleared the boss said they could miss no appointments and their families had to agree with the trip. Securing these things, he required that two staff had to be there. Now the rest of the staff were looking forward to a weekend off. Jackson told me he did not do nature and if he did nature it was not with men who were _________ unprofessional term placed here. And besides have you not watched any horror movies about trips to cabins? The black man’s the first to go and any staff are goners too. Jackson was one of my hopes for a successful trip. His strong firm hand helped a lot around the house when arguments rose. This was the first sign unheeded. The only other staff who I had a chance of convincing to go was Doc. Now Doc was a peculiar animal. How Doc ever got hired was beyond me. He did not believe in mental illness. It was all an act that gave the residents a reason to check out of life. When I told him I was a new vegetarian he said he knew of someone in order not to kill anything lived off of only the microbes found in the air. I reluctantly asked if he would come. He thought it was a great idea and knew it would help the residents normalize and be ready to join the world again. That he was the only staff interested was yet another sign unheeded.
So we were on. The day came; we were to leave that afternoon after everyone had met their required doctor’s appointment. In the morning though before we left we got word from the local mental institution that a resident who had been hospitalized because his psychosis had increased to a level that he was not functional was being released. It was Friday, a typical day for hospitals of all kind to release their patients. Now we had a problem; we had no one to supervise him at the home and we had not seen him in two weeks and did not know if he would or could come. It was then my noble self came forth and said he should not be the only one in the house who missed this opportunity. So I told them I would come pick him up. So off to the hospital I went.
Although I had been on the hospital grounds before, I had not been on any of the wards so when they said I should meet him in his room so he could pack his belongings I was intrigued. After getting my visitor pass I walked to the ward. There was a button on the outside to press for an attendant to come. They did not immediately respond so I peered through the square window in the steel door. A patient saw me and put his distorted, menacing face in the window and screamed, “You are ugly go away.” He startled me and I fell back a step. Ugly you are ugly he continued. At last the staff arrived, told him to step aside and let me in. He glared at me and yelled, “ugly.” By this time I was more than ready to get Terri and leave. I went into his room and said hi and asked if I could help with anything. He shook his head no. We made our way down to the car and drove to the home. He did not speak more than three words the whole trip back. Terry was usually reserved but not quite this much. But in my head I credited his lack of communication to the medication and the place we had just left.
I had arranged for a large passenger van to take the whole crew to the cabin. I wanted one vehicle for everybody to help create an esprit de corp. We loaded up and away we went. Excitement was in the air. Everyone was chatty but Terry. He looked out the window the whole time. Doc gave me his “we are doing a great thing here” look. They have lost all signs of their illness. After a two hour drive we finally arrived. It was more in the woods than I thought. I had not noticed any cabins or other signs of civilization for quite a few miles. But there waiting for us with a huge smile was the lawyer which assuaged any fears I may have had. We started unloading the van. He took us around the place; it was large and not too primitive, more like a lodge than cabin. He was proud of the place. It was close to a lake and he had a pier and he told me of a couple of trails we could hike. After he gave us the grand tour he slowly made his way out to the car. I asked, a bit puzzled, where was the phone, this was before cell phones, he replied there is no phone here but if I needed one there was a store about thirty minutes-drive away that was open during the day. It was already past five. I asked if it was open on the weekends. He said no. Bad planning on my part I thought.
We bid him farewell and after everyone had settled in we decided to take a walk to the lake. Everyone was excited about this. As we were walking to the lake I noticed Terry had disappeared. He is a grown man and probably decided he preferred to stay at the cabin. We skipped rocks and walked out on the pier and sat awhile and then began the trek back to the cabin. Terry was not there when we arrived. Fifteen minutes later after starting a preliminary search for him, he came marching out of the woods with a solid walking staff in hand. I thought: a real woodsman. I went to greet and tell him he needed to let us know where he was going. But before I reached him I noticed the look. He was not well. He took one look at me and pointed his finger and said Satan. Now I am not known to be an alarmist but Jackson had planted the seed of horror movies in my mind so my mind was off to the races. When I told Doc what happened he said you know these guys are not sick, it is all a show. I thanked him and wondered how did he get hired again.
I decided to open the file box that had everyone’s case file in it and read Terri’s file. To my dismay I read for the first time about his delusions. He believed himself to be some kind of Demon/Satan slayer and would often go into the woods for days in his deranged state in search of Satan until he was hospitalized. I decided I needed to talk to him. Doc was not bothered by this at all. So I started up to the cabin; as I reached the steps into the cabin Terry stood at the top of the steps with his chin resting on the substantial walking stick blocking the way. He had a queer smirk on his face that said do not come in Satan you are not welcome. Doc looked at me rather dismayed. I looked at Terri, told him to put his stick down and let me pass. He looked disgusted at me and threw his stick to the side and let me by but not before muttering under his breath Satan.
I immediately went to the lock box where the medications were. On the other side of the room Terry eyed me carefully. I took out his medicine. Now if we had a second vehicle Doc could take him back home to the hospital while I stayed with the men. But I had planned for camaraderie not emergency. Bad planning. But even if we had two vehicles could I trust Doc to handle the situation? As much as I liked Doc I had my concerns. The other idea was we could call our boss and let him help us but there was no phone for at least thirty minutes away if not further. And we would be left with Terry and the others no car and no phone. Bad planning. So I decided what any other person would have done; I would medicate this problem away. I called him outside and gave him a healthy dosage of thorazine. We checked his mouth to see if he had indeed swallowed the medicine; all indications were he had. But he was so calm about my request I knew something was up. But now all I had to do was wait for the meds to kick in. He would fall asleep or be in such a stupor he would not be a bother.
Two hours later as we all sat outside around the fire talking and making s’mores, Terry sat across the fire with his best creep face glaring at me. He held one of the smaller logs in his hand and patted the log in the other hand all the while not averting his gaze from me. Kumbya might be a good song to sing at this time. Strangely the rest of the residents had not noticed and were having the time of their lives. I could see though in Doc’s eyes a little concern, maybe? I gave Terry two more pills before we went back in the cabin to eat and go to bed. No man could stay awake with the amount of medicine I had given him. I knew also this was the most I could give him in good conscience.
As we ate and people laughed Terry’s gaze never left me. He would mouth a word over and over which seem to be Satan. It was time for lights out; I placed my bed against the wall and Doc’s bed between me and the rest of the room. Doc was acting his usual it was all a big show self although I noticed he had secured a steak knife from the kitchen and placed it in his pocket when he thought no one was watching. Terry laid in bed for about five minutes before he rose and began pacing around the room and making gestures toward my side of the room. The medicine never kicked in. He was literally up all night as I in turn was. It was the longest night of my life but morning came. Exhausted but realizing we were heading home in the afternoon I was relieved.
We were on the van on our way back home when Mike the resident whose family owned the cabin said to me how much of a good time he had had. He said he hadn’t been up here since his illness; his father and mother did not think it was safe to be alone with him up in the cabin because there was no phone or neighbors close. I thought, yes it’s true, only someone with a very bad plan would come up here with so many medically needy people without a good plan.
‘Insanity is a sane person’s response to an insane world.’ R. D. Laing
James was what my unprofessional self would call crazy as a loon. He was the only black resident in a group home for paranoid schizophrenics. He had grown up on the west side of Louisville in government housing. No one knew exactly which event had pushed James over the edge but everyone knew he had long since lost sight of the edge.
James would often tell the staff that the white man and his institutions were out to get him because he was black. He told the white staff it was nothing we could help; it was in our blood and we couldn’t control it. When he became upset he would walk around the house wide-eyed with his pupils dancing form one side to the other with his chest stuck out like a rooster and he would preach in a deep sonorous voice. The unnerving thing about his preaching was it would have moments of brilliant teachings of MLK and Malcolm X in the midst of his general ravings. “MLK says we cannot wait,” he would start” because justice for all must come before we can say there is any justice.” He would continue with thoughts of Malcolm X,” The white man says we should not resort to violence but I tell you if the white man uses violence to keep us subdued in an unjust world. We would be promoters of injustice if we did not respond with the strong hand to quelch their violence be it through non-violence or even through violence.” Then his voice would trail off as he spoke how the white man was trying to read his thoughts but they could not be read by humans. And he would become stranger and stranger.
James the staff was told was very risky and we were to keep a close eye on him. He had a history of violence. He always seemed to us like a volcano ready to explode. Yet we were told the group here needed a black to fill the law of racial quotas. Thus James had entered our doors.
At the first, James was not happy with all white residents but he took solace in the one black staff member. Jackson was a middle-aged black man who had grown up in the projects. Jackson was a scrapper who had managed to survive outside of the projects though sometimes this meant working three jobs. He looked at his co-workers and employers as people who were to be hustled. He always had a smile that looked forced on his face. Jackson and James would talk often about life when they were alone but if someone entered the room they would become quiet.
After a while James’ story slowly unraveled in his long discourses. He had grown up in the projects. At the age of eight he had been offered his first doobie. At 13 he had been in his first knife fight that had left a gash in his ear. He had been arrested at the age of sixteen for selling drugs. The selling of the drugs deeply disturbed him. He went to a Baptist church every Sunday to hear the gospel story. But he wanted only a few of the things that he was constantly being pounded with from the airwaves of TVs and radios and the ads in magazines. He was sent to a juvenile detention center where he had a hit a security guard for calling him nigger. At eighteen he was released and he joined the Marines to prove his manhood and to get ahead in life. But the projects were not good preparation for the military life. He was constantly talking back to the drill instructor. He resented the condescending attitudes of the sergeant. He refused to be molded into a proud Marine. The Marines decided he was not one of the few.
He dreaded returning home. His grandmother who had raised him would be there. She was the one who always took him to the Baptist church every Sunday. She was the one who had doctored his ear after his knife fight. She was the one who had preached to him on the evils of selling drugs. “You’re just bringing your own people down,” he remembered her telling him. She was the only one who visited him at the juvenile detention center. He had a reverence for her.
When he returned home to his grandmother’s house with the news of his discharge. She had looked James in the eye and said,” James you will never be anybody.” She was eighty. It wasn’t in him to sell drugs anymore and the military had not worked out. He worked at a few odd jobs at McDonalds and other places. He couldn’t keep a job or an apartment. He was soon on the streets. Until one day the police had found him furiously beating an elderly woman screaming, “I am somebody.” He had been in the hospital for nineteen months. They had warily released him to our place.
Slowly he began to adjust to the group home. He had a good relationship with Jackson. Jackson constantly told him how important it was to show white people that black people are equals. James was trying to be the model black mental health resident.
To everyone’s surprise he began a relationship with one of the white residents. We were later to find the connection the two had. The white resident always had money; James had no money. He would take James to the store and buy him a coke and some chips in return James would go to the nearby projects and get drugs for the white resident.
At his trial James had told the judge “he was not obligated to the white man’s law. He was above their law. In fact the judge was talking to Jesus X and he had best be careful. The judge asked him if he was serious about his claims to be Jesus. James quoted “LK22:70 you are right in saying I am.” The frustrated judge had ordered James to receive psychiatric treatment.
James would still have his bouts of preaching. Jackson would ask James not to preach so much. “He was scaring the white folks,” Jackson would warn him. Although he made it clear he understood where James was coming from.
James in three months’ time was slowly rehabilitating. He had even gone to vocational school for a week. He was attending group therapy where he was learning how to relate appropriately with others.
It was late on a Friday afternoon that Jackson received the call. The frantic voice on the other side was from the Center where James received group therapy. Apparently another client had exploded at the meeting shouting expletives at James for taking his seat. He had sarcastically told James to take a seat in the back of the bus (room), James had been hit by a chair over the head. Panicking James ran furiously out of the building and was seen running back to the house with blood streaming down his face. He was running to Jackson.
Jackson had immediately left the house in the hopes of meeting him and calming him down. Two blocks down the road he saw flashing blue lights and an ambulance. Two staunch white police officers were heaving James in the back of the squad car. Jackson slowed down as he came closer. On the ground with a paramedic was an elderly woman who had obviously been hit several times. James had slammed into her while he was running back to the house. Jackson was scared. The police officer suddenly stood in Jackson’s face. “Do you know him?” Jackson nodded and explained who he was. The officer berated him for letting an animal like that on the street. He told Jackson he should have never been let out of his cage. Jackson slowly retreated. He wanted no part of this. The officer stared after him in disgust. He glanced at the squad car. James sat leaning back to escape the angry stares of the gathered crowd. Jackson saw Jame’s face caked with blood. Jackson watched his lips moving he was muttering, “I am somebody.”
It was a desperate call by a teenage girl from a hotel room. Her mother was dying of AIDS and could barely get out of bed. Tomorrow was the last day they could afford to stay in the hotel. She did not know what to do. We asked for the hotel name and room number. The hotel was not one of our finer establishments. I said I would go and discern what was happening.
The scene I found would have turned even a Scrooge’s heart into mush. The dank, dark room with a woman lying in bed dying, a teenage girl trying to hold it together, a young adolescent boy with fear and hardness in his eyes. The woman in the bed greeted me with a smile. They told the story of leaving their home in another city after the father had died of AIDS; they had come to Savannah to be with relatives. But once the relatives discovered that the mother had AIDS the relatives offered no hope or refuge. And so they had been stuck in this hotel for a couple of weeks. I asked the children if they were going to school. The girl said yes. I would later find out she was an honor student. She had assumed, with her mother dying in bed, the role of parent. It was up to her for the family to survive. The boy said yes he was going to school but I would later find out he was roaming the streets during the day. The mother would die in a few weeks in the care of hospice. But for now she needed help to secure a place for her children. I agreed to help.
He was the equivalent of Savannah’s matinee idol. He had boyish good looks and a charm about him that always worked. His charm probably worked too well for him. He could sing, dance, and was one of the local thespians. He was a lawyer. He was gay and out before that became a cliché’. He wrote a column for the paper. He worked for Georgia Legal Services as their HIV\AIDS services lawyer. His life was a stage and he was always performing, acting as though he did not have a care in the world. There was nothing he could not do.
I had called him to meet with the family and me as we tried to find government housing for them. I called him because we never knew when and where AIDS phobia and discrimination would occur. I wanted this process to be as simple as possible. The mother only had a short while to live. I also needed him to work with the family on living wills and custody issues.
I had developed a small rapport with the family but it was nothing special. The moment Robert stepped in he clicked with the family. The children loved him. The mother trusted him fully. It was magical. Robert was a good friend but his life was lived as a party and he always excelled as the party boy. I liked Robert because, although he could live on the edge and be frivolous, there was a depth of soul longing to come out. He was out as a gay man but he had not come out as soulful man. He was still closeted in that category. We secured housing for the children and as expected the mother died soon after. Robert had arranged, at the mother’s request, for the uncle to be the children’s benefits payee. He quickly took the children’s money and spent it for his own uses. The house the uncle provided them was furnished with a chair, a table, a television that sat on the ground, as did the two mattresses he had furnished. The pantry was empty. I found this out when the boy called and said they were hungry. I brought them some food and slowly they confessed that they seldom saw their uncle and he never bought them food, clothes or anything else. The money they had between the two of them, while not living the grand life, should have given them the basics. I called Robert once again; they needed a new payee. In the midst of this, the housing authority revolted against leaving the two children together without their uncle supervising (a sad irony) in what was now their home. If the girl had been a teenage mother she could have stayed, but being an honor student and not pregnant she was too young to remain in public housing. She and her brother would have to be separated and moved to foster care or an orphanage. Robert, at this point, became an aggressive advocate. The absurdity of the case would hit national news. The conservative local politician, feeling this could provide some fanfare, used his influence to help get a stay on the eviction and Robert worked with the courts and the housing authority to get a resolution. The case was settled with the children being allowed to stay in their home. Robert became their payee and he arranged for a local mother, also in the housing authority, to watch over them. The two children who had seen and experienced so much of life and had nothing but each other would not be separated.
Then something surprising happened; the glamour boy became soulful. He had developed a relationship with the children through all the trouble and he grew to love them. One day he asked them if they would come live with him. They said yes. He became their father.
The story, as seldom happens in life, was no fairy tale; they had been “into the woods.” The new father would struggle with an alcohol addiction. He would struggle giving up being the life of the party for another life. He was slow to learn that all of life is not a stage. Sometimes it was a struggle behind the curtains. His son would grapple with being raised by a gay white man who seemed to be so rich and he a poor black boy felt as though he was Robert’s trophy. His painful past left him with a hole he could not fill. His daughter would go to college, build a career, and start her own family.
But out of the woods a family had been birthed. They would spend holidays together. His son would have a father to rebel against and rant about. His daughter would have someone who looked after her, who parented her. Grandchildren would be born. And Robert exits the stage to find his soul and start a new journey.