It isn’t easy to visit one’s child in a psychiatric facility. Especially when one has only recently emerged from such a facility oneself. Especially when the child in question is ten years old, and is fully aware of what has happened to him, and what may still happen to him.
I hope most of you will never experience this sort of event. But I also hope that, if you ever do, this brief post will make its immanence seem less ghastly and more hopeful than it would otherwise.
Levi’s facility is located in Falls Church, about an hour’s (confusing) drive from our home. Dara made a commitment to Levi when he was admitted this past Tuesday that she would not allow a single day to pass when either she, me, or another loving friend or relative would visit him during each scheduled visiting session. Thus far, she has kept her promise. Saturday was my first opportunity to join her on a visit to my son.
A friend of ours was kind enough to take in our two younger boys for a sleep-over with her grandchild, allowing Dara and me to have a night to ourselves, a luxury we haven’t enjoyed in many months. Despite our first destination, Dara dressed up for a special date, picking out an outfit much more attractive and sexy than might be expected for a visit to a psychiatric facility. She served as my guide; Fairfax County can be bewilderingly confusing, especially during the heavily trafficked holiday shopping hours.
The facility was neat, uncluttered, and well-organized. We were required to leave all our possessions, save car keys and one form of photo ID, in our automobile. We carried in a bag of short sleeve shirts and short pants for Levi, because due to the unseasonable warmth, the ward had been hot. I also packed him my yellow smiley-face stress ball I’d received during my own recent hospitalization. I wanted Levi to have something personal and tactile of mine, so that he could squeeze it in his fist and remember that I am there with him in spirit, if not in body. My own father did something similar for me when I was about Levi’s age and had been missing him terribly, our only meetings being our scheduled weekly Sundays together and furtive lunch rendezvous at my school. My father gave me a pair of his cuff links, which I stored in a clear pill bottle and hid atop the wooden slots which held up my upper bunk, so that it would always be right above my head. I kept those cuff links for years. They always reminded me of my father’s presence in my life.
Levi introduced us to his two roommates, both of whom he said he liked very much. Unusually, all three boys shared a passion for origami, so Levi had been “loaning out” much of his origami papers. Dara promised to bring him more on her next visit. Levi showed off several origami boats he had made, and he spoke proudly of having started reading a Fritz Leiber short story from a collection I had Dara bring him called The World Turned Upside Down, a collection of stories chosen by Jim Baen and David Drake as the stories which had had the biggest impacts upon their childhoods. During the past couple of months, Levi had developed a voracious appetite for science fiction, and to my delight, the authors he gravitated to were all “old school”– Asimov, Jack Williamson, Heinlein, A. E. van Vogt, and Edmund Hamilton. My oldest son was blossoming into what old-timers would call a TrueFan.
Dara and I accompanied Levi into an empty activities room so we could have some private discussion. Whatever new medication he had been placed on had made him jumpy and hyper, but he was alert, talkative, and very happy to have us both there. He explained that he had been assigned his own nutritionist to help him keep kosher, that all of the staff were friendly, that he had made some new friends, and that he looked forward to art therapy, music therapy, and popcorn movie nights. His one fear was that his psychiatrist had told him he would not be released from the hospital until he had gone five days straight without a crying fit. Levi feared this would mean he would never be discharged. I explained to him that, no matter what his doctor might have told him (in an effort to scare him away from his fits), the insurance company would never allow him to remain hospitalized longer than two weeks.
Levi enjoyed squeezing the stress ball. I asked him if he’d been thinking at all about Grandpa Frank, my mother’s father, who had invented “Grandpa Frank’s Magical Back Rub.” He said he would need to begin thinking about Grandpa Frank. I asked him to sit in a chair so that I could give him one of those magical back rubs and back scratches. He really enjoyed this. I asked him if he remembered that G-d was always with him, whether he was in the hospital or not. He said he had remembered this and thought of it often. He said he was looking forward to additional visits with Dara tomorrow, when she would be accompanied first by Levi’s older sister Natalie and later by his younger brother Asher. Levi thought he had gone two days straight without a crying fit, and he was proud of this. Dara and I were allowed to stay for one hour.
After leaving the facility, Dara and I indulged in our first date we’d had together in months, a special dinner at the Sunflower Vegetarian Restaurant. Eating delicious vegetarian food together, talking and laughing about the past, even past incidents involving visits to psychiatric hospitals, we were reminded of why we love each other so much and why we have remained such a strong couple, one which pulls together in times of adversity, rather than pulling apart. I made a commitment that we would schedule at least two nights per month as date nights, no matter how much we would end up spending on baby sitters. After dinner, we stopped by Ross and Barnes and Noble to buy a newborn gift for our wonderful neighbor Larry’s new grandson, winter vacation activity gifts for Asher and Judah, and a new box of origami papers for Levi. I felt remarkably calm, placid, and filled with a sense of general well-being.
As often happens with me, I experienced my delayed emotional reaction to the visit the following morning. I awoke already in tears, bitterly missing my Grandpa Frank, my first best friend, who had been taken away from me by heart disease when I’d been five years old. I mourned his absence because I knew that if he could, he would be an enormous help and comfort to Levi. I consoled myself by reminding myself that I had made Grandpa Frank a presence in Levi’s life, even though Levi had never met his great-grandfather. Levi showed much wisdom at his next meeting with Dara when he requested that my father, his Grandpa Dick, call him at the hospital right after visiting hours ended. He wanted to tell Grandpa Dick about his roommates, his new friends, and his sense that he had been making progress in the hospital.
So my oldest son and I, who already share so much (a love of old-time science fiction writers, a strong interest in history and travel, and many symptoms of Asperger’s Syndrome, which had gone undiagnosed during my childhood), now shared something new — a stay in an inpatient psychiatric facility. But just as my six-day stay allowed me to make tremendous strides towards a resumption of emotional equilibrium and mental health, so am I confident that the same will prove true for my oldest son. He says his stay thus far has been “like a hotel for kids.” He approaches his challenges with at least as much courage as I was able to muster. And so he makes me proud… not at all ashamed.