The night before Blue took the number eleven bus to Central Hospital, Saint Joan of Arc visited me again and told me to give Mother’s old paisley curtains to Mrs. Duffy. The real problem with Blue has nothing to do with his brain. The real problem with Blue is that he is eight and has yet to find his true calling. No one in our house sleeps much, so Blue’s not special. It would have been a night like any other.
In the morning, Mother and Father and I were retrieving our coffee in the kitchen and hadn’t noticed Blue was gone. The telephone rang at six o’clock and Mother answered.
“Yes. I see. Of course.”
“What is it?” Father asked.
“We’ll be there in fifteen minutes,” Mother said to the phone.
Father wiped his hands on his slacks, waiting.
She told us, “It seems Blue took the bus to Central Hospital this morning and asked the volunteer at the welcome desk how a person might go about being admitted to the psychiatric ward.”
Father and I didn’t know what came next. We looked to Mother, the way we always looked to Mother. She stood there with her impressive stance.
“Well, we’re to go to the hospital,” she said. “We need to bring him home.”
Mother and Father sat beside each other in the front seats. We didn’t take drives and on the way to the hospital the back of their heads confounded me. Long ago, Mother and Father had quite a love affair. Once, Mother told me about the way Father used to try to make her favorite things—complicated endeavors like the perfect tomato bisque. The way he followed her, from city to sit-in, just to be with her. And another time, Father told me that he had fallen hard for my mother. How could he not, he said, with her heart for justice, her aversion to modern dance, her clarity of thought? I liked to imagine that I knew her then. There were polls in Alabama, organic farming, sit-ins. And we were friends. I imagined what we would have talked about when Mother still believed in fighting for the flawed and miserable world. I would pray, she would march.
But I was sure that Mother and Father were no longer lovers. Neither would I call them companions. They were loyal, working in service to their separate ambitions by staying out of the other’s way. Blue and I were simply to do the same.
When we arrived at the hospital, Blue was asleep in a small recliner in the social worker’s office. The door was slightly open and the social worker was waiting for us just outside. After the introductions, the social worker tried apologizing for Blue.
“He must be just exhausted.”
“Of course,” Mother said. Mother was being extremely polite.
“Do you mind if we just let him rest, then, and sit here a moment?” The social worker gestured to four chairs lined up in the hall near her office.
“That would be fine,” Mother said. Father remained standing.
The social worker looked down at her papers.
“Let’s just gather some basic information first, if you don’t mind.”
“Certainly,” Mother said, “go right ahead.”
What did she need to know to fill in her blanks? I could tell her if she asked me. Blue’s shining mind had failed him now, or at least he was convinced that it had. This fact might present an actual problem, as Mother revered a strong cerebellum the way she once had faith in abstract and noble things. Back when I was just twelve and Blue was only three, Mother asked an old college friend to run the standard intelligence quotient tests on us. I remember replicating geometrical shapes using red blocks. In return, Mother made her friend a set of green nesting bowls. Then she locked our IQ’s away in a safety deposit box at the credit union. Last year, when I had wanted specifics, Mother told me: rest-assured-you-and-Blue-are-both-well-endowed-in-all-things-cognitive-now-get-on-with-it.
What the social worker actually wanted to know was this: were Mother and Father Blue’s biological parents and legal guardians; Blue’s date of birth; height and weight; home address; phone number; another number where they might be reached; siblings; surgeries or hospitalizations; any allergies to drugs or medications that they were aware of? That was all she needed for now.
“Very good,” the social worker said, “on to Blue.” She looked first at Mother, then Father, and then for a moment, she kept her eyes on me. “You understand, of course, that this is highly unusual.”
“Is it?” Mother said.
The social worker sat up, straight.
“Yes, it is. First, I must ask you. Do you have any concerns regarding your son’s safety? Do you believe that he is of danger to himself or others?”
“Danger?” Mother said, “I should say not!” Mother was doing her best, keeping her passion in check. Then she turned to Father. Father had nothing to add.
“No, we have no concerns.”
“You see, Blue seems convinced that there is something terribly wrong with him,” the social worker said.
Mother said nothing.
“We would certainly like to be of help. Make a referral. You understand.” Now the social worker was looking at me. “Perhaps your daughter has noticed some behavioral or mood changes?”
I knew of Blue’s penchant for collecting remnants. He saved odd things, items that we had used like discarded tea bags, notes, tissues. When Blue had gathered enough, he shaped the pieces into abstract collages and taped them to his bedroom wall. But this was nothing new.
Blue also loved to fish. That was something. And to be kind I had let him take me carp fishing a few weeks—or had it been months?—back. Maybe there had been some indication of his pending breakdown then, but I had missed it. Blue had taken me to Grassy River. There we saw two grown men and a boy standing in the water, sitting in a lawn chair and digging at the hard dirt with a stick respectively. Blue had cocked his head toward the old man in the lawn chair and said, “He reminds me of me.”
Perhaps I could tell the social worker this at least. That my brother and I had something in common. Feeling old, that is.
Or that Blue usually lugged around a toolbox he had found by the tracks. When I had asked him what was inside, he squatted low near the gray box to show me. Inside was a block of Styrofoam, three even rows of small metal hooks and two spools of clear fishing line, bound together with a fat rubber band. I suppose Blue was meticulous about such things. But not to a pathological degree! Under the lid, he had taped an old photograph and inside the two faded black and white people were Mother and Father. They were standing together on the edge of a large crowd. Mother’s thick braid rested across one shoulder. She was leaning hard into Father, his arm tight around small her waist. Blue preserved this relic among his treasures and I wanted nothing more than to rip it to shreds.
But how to say any of this to a stranger? And to what end?
The social worker indicated that she was still waiting for me.
“Sarah is it?” I could see my full name there in front of her, in writing.
Mother and Father christened me Summer because I was born in the heart of winter, the offspring of their irony. At fifteen I became—with their permission—first, a Catholic, and then Sarah Michael Regina in my hopes of becoming a Bride of Christ. Father was intrigued by my conversion and Mother found it simply amusing.
“Sarah Michael,” I told the social worker. “I go by both names.” How I wanted to pinch her lips together!
“Oh, yes. I see that here now, Sarah Michael. Any observations about Blue that you would like to share?”
Blue was bored. I was a late bloomer, not unlike Blue, I suppose. I shouldn’t be so hasty. Maybe my brother needed some help discerning what to do with all of his time. My nights were long, too, before my dear saints arrived. I imagined Blue sitting there alone on our front step, his fishing things beside him, and waiting for the sun. I knew that I had been fasting for a while. I have some regrets. I wanted to tell Blue that I was sorry to have missed it. I should have reminded him where the encyclopedias and almanacs were shelved!
All this. But what I heard myself say: “Blue is lonely.”
“Really?” the social worker asked. Father was shifting.
Mother said, “I’m not sure that this is appropriate.” I could see that the social worker didn’t understand.
“But it’s only because he’s still so young,” I said.
The social worker’s eyebrows looked pleased and she leaned in toward me. She wanted more. “Tell me about that.”
What could I tell? No one slept much. Father spends the moonlight hours studying his William Blake and goes on examining the Illuminated Works. Plate by plate, it’s “Ghost of Abel” and “Urizen” and all the rest. Father doesn’t actually believe in Blake or God for that matter. What turns him on about Blake is the paradox: how true genius can be born from such misguided convictions. Father has made Blake his life’s work, but in the end it’s all just stuff and fluff to Father.
Mother you can find down in her basement studio. But don’t interrupt her at the wheel! She’s making her clay things. If they are not exactly right, she can smash them to bits and move on.
As for me, Saint Joan of Arc and Saint Catherine began to arrive soon after my conversion, and thus began my (fruitful!) vigil for the seen and the unseen. I almost always find it best to keep these details to myself and told the social worker nothing.
Mother stepped in, though. “Well, now. I suppose it’s true that Blue hasn’t been sleeping very well.”
Wasn’t Blue in real trouble now and wasn’t Mother bearing false witness against our neighbor the social worker? The Benedictines had told me time and again that however accurate (they allowed) I might be, it was still not my commission to ascertain, condemn, or forgive the sins of others. Still, in this case before me, I wasn’t sure whether Mother was breaking Number Eight if she had convinced even herself that she spoke the truth.
The social worker was busy taking notes. “Right. A childhood sleep disturbance for Blue then. I see. Any nightmares? Bedwetting? Allergies?”
Oh, but Mother was finished with this! “We’ll be sure to consult our pediatrician. I’m certain it will pass. We’ll be taking Blue home now.”
“Yes, of course. We just want to be of some help. To Blue.” The social worker was looking to me again. “And the family unit.”
The social worker was being ironic. She was being witty! I knew my Latin: “family” (one word) and then “unit” from the Latin “unus,” earlier being unity. It just struck me, and I had to laugh. The social worker did not join me, but rather frowned. She was not joking and may not have been familiar with the etymology of the phrase after all. I knew that our family dynamics were unique unto themselves. Did the social worker not see this? Perhaps she thought we were sitting around together in the evening playing board games? She was a fool.
Father went to Blue then, and lifted Blue up into his long arms. An almost recognizable ache began in the center of my chest and I covered it up with my hand. Blue did not wake on the way home or after Mother laid him on top of his bed or when I covered him up with my quilt. Lunch was tomato sandwiches, and no Blue.
After dinner, Mother went down to her basement studio and Father went up to study his Blake. Father’s sound in the house: an occasional steady thwap, the turning of a page. Mother’s: the humming wheel and the thick sound of wet clay being thrown down to begin or start over, again.
Visiting the sick is a corporal work of mercy and Blue was the closest thing to sick that I had ever known. I pulled Blue’s desk chair beside his bed and began to read Saint Thomas on the Seven Deadlies. The sky and then Blue’s room began to darken. I hoped that my dear saints would know where to find me. I turned on Blue’s reading lamp. Tomorrow was a Wednesday, and almost every Wednesday I walk the Labyrinth at the Benedictine Center at four o’clock. The nature of any Labyrinth is to arrive back at the exact same place you started. Everyone is welcome: businessmen and women, looking for a spiritual fix, and tourists using the ancient maze as an elevated form of recreation. My favorite company was the Sisters, strolling arm and arm. Once I had even seen our own neighbor, Mrs. Duffy, walking ahead of me. She didn’t wave, but I knew Mrs. Duffy by the slope of her back.
I remembered my charge to safely deliver the paisley curtains to Mrs. Duffy. Helping a neighbor was a charitable deed, and Blue would have understood had he been awake. The curtains were in the guest room in a storage chest covered in plastic. I removed the plastic and folded them nicely and placed them in a wicker laundry basket. It was almost midnight when I rang Mrs. Duffy’s doorbell. I would apologize for the late hour, but when Mrs. Duffy saw these paisley curtains all would be forgiven. I imagined them hanging in her dining room, the table set with china and silver. My vision grew, and there were Mother and Father and Blue all sitting down together waiting for Mrs. Duffy and me to join them. It was an improbable scene, but on a day like today, with these curtains finally where they truly belonged, who could say? The door opened and a strange man stood before me in nothing but his cotton pajamas.
“Yes?” he asked. I had thought Mrs. Duffy lived alone, but I wasn’t sure.
“I’m sorry it is so late,” I said. This man was too young to be Mrs. Duffy’s husband.
“Yes. It is quite late. Can I help you with something?” I didn’t like this.
“I’ve brought these for Mrs. Duffy.” I raised my basket to show him. I find it wise to keep my visitations and subsequent assignments to myself, so I told the man, “These are some paisley curtains she admired once. For her dining room.” He looked unclear. “Or wherever she likes.” The man lowered his head, and stood blocking the doorway. Who was this man? Where was Mrs. Duffy? “But you see, I must give them to her myself.” I needed to get inside. “I think she’ll be quite pleased.”
“I’m sorry,” the man said. He reached toward me, and I stepped back. “I don’t know what to say. The curtains are lovely. Obviously, you haven’t heard. My mother, Mrs. Duffy, passed away two weeks ago. I’m just staying a few more days until her affairs are in order.”
No. Saint Joan had been specific. Helping a neighbor was a charitable deed.
“It’s very late,” he said, “and I appreciate you thinking of my mother.” He was closing the door! “Good night.”
What could I do? I left the basket on Mrs. Duffy’s front steps, my best effort at obedience. Next time, Saint Joan would certainly catch it from me.
Mrs. Duffy used to be alive next door. Back upstairs, Blue slept. In his dark room, I tipped Blue’s reading lamp toward my page. When I came upon the deadly sin of Sloth, I began to skim. I feared no laziness under our roof! Tristitia de bono spirituali. No, no, no. Not sloth in the conventional sense, but an ancient meaning. Tristitia de bono spirituali? None of my saints came to enlighten me. I leaned in toward Blue’s small face and he surprised me with a noisy sigh that tasted like maple syrup. Tristitia de bono spirituali. Sadness in the face of spiritual good. Turning away from joy. I traced the passage, slowly, with my index finger. With the illuminated bones of my own finger—being ordered, from age to age, the distal, the middle, and the proximal phalanges.
Like Blue’s bones or my own bones or any other saint’s bones.
Here was Blue’s sweet and steady breath. Here, my new vigil. Right beside my brother’s bed. Right where I would be when he was sure to wake in the morning.