State Home for the Holidays is a bittersweet Christmas tale, the story of a mother’s enduring love for her child, in the face of insurmountable challenges. I’ve posted it before, but in the spirit of Christmas reruns, I’m posting it again this year. The story is written in two parts. Today’s post is part one of the story, Timothy’s Mother. Come back tomorrow for part two, Christmas Connect-the-Dots.
“God, I hate this,” Christina said to no one in particular, when she was startled from her reverie by the sounds of glass breaking, nurses screaming and Timothy’s infernal hooting. She looked around at the assortment of waiting room faces – faces transformed by Timothy’s tantrum from boredom to entertainment to condemnation – and realized that she had long since surrendered the luxury of public embarrassment. After years of these incidents, the only response she had left was fatigue.
The day had started normally enough. Timothy ran around the house, half dressed, while she struggled with breakfast. Long ago, Sunday mornings had been her favorite time – sleeping late, making love and relaxing over a late breakfast and the Sunday paper, but that was a lifetime ago. Now she was alone with Timothy who would be up and running before dawn.
Christina climbed out of the seat and girded herself for the scene she knew awaited. When she reached the examining room, she found Timothy and a nurse lying on the floor, struggling in a pool of blood and broken glass, Timothy’s right hand clutching the front of the nurse’s blouse and four orderlies lying on top of them in varying degrees of uselessness. Meanwhile, an assortment of interns and residents watched from a corner of the room.
It all started because of the chili cheese omelet. You see, Timothy had to have a chili cheese omelet for breakfast every Sunday morning. Somehow, I wish I could give that last sentence more emphasis.
The Sunday morning chili cheese omelet was only one of many obsessions by which Timothy measured the passage of time. Timothy had rituals for everything – eating, dressing, going to the bathroom. He loved to watch toilets flush. He especially liked to clog the toilet before flushing. Timothy would flap his hands and giggle at some private joke, while the water cascaded over the side of the bowl, creating eddies around his sneakers.
It was no use trying to ask him why he did what he did. Timothy didn’t talk to people. He repeated what he heard, TV commercials, mostly, which was odd enough without trying to figure out how Timothy memorized commercials, since he never really watched TV.
Christina had overslept. She jumped out of bed, threw on her robe and headed straight for the kitchen. Timothy’s omelet would be late. He was sure to pitch a fit. Still, Christina had no choice. Timothy’s tantrum would not end until his first, delayed, bite of omelet. So she was busy blanching peppers and browning ground beef when, instead of screams, she heard silence in the house. Bad as it was to hear Timothy screaming, Christina never really worried until it was quiet. At least when Timothy made noise, she knew where he was.
“Mrs. Hargrove? Mrs. Hargrove?” Christina suddenly realized that she had not heard a word that the doctor had been saying. She looked across the desk at the orthopedic surgeon who had set Timothy’s arm, why can’t I remember his name, Christina wondered, a boyish, good-looking man, undoubtedly older than he looked since he looked to Christina barely old enough to be out of high school let alone be a doctor and a specialist at that but, when things got out of control in the emergency room, he had taken charge, lifting the orderlies off her son and disentangling Timothy and the nurse, who grateful to escape with her blouse ripped, but her modesty intact, disappeared into the nurse’s station to repair the damage to her uniform and her psyche, and he had set Timothy’s arm, all the while talking to him in a soft, soothing tone, that seemed to calm her son and anesthetize the exposed nerve endings of the emergency room nursing staff.
“Mrs. Hargrove, your son has a simple fracture of his left ulna. I’ll want to see him in three weeks. In the meantime, don’t let him get the cast wet and try to keep him from getting so worked up.”
“I don’t mean to pry, Mrs. Hargrove, but it must be awfully hard to raise Timothy without any help.” The boy surgeon hesitated, unsure how to continue. “You seem like a nice lady… The state has homes for children like Timothy. For his sake as well as your own, I think you ought to consider letting the state take care of your son. I hope you don’t mind, but I’ve asked the hospital social worker to join us.”
“Hon, I know this is hard for you,” Ms. Crandall empathized during the awkward moment that followed the boy surgeon’s introduction.
Christina looked the social worker over. Ms. Crandall was a large woman, statuesque as we used to say, dressed in a white pants suit and iridescent green blouse, clutching at a manila folder and constantly pushing her oversized glasses up her equally oversized nose.
Ms. Crandall continued. “I know this all sounds heartless right now, but that’s only because we care about you and Tommy. I put together some information about the state hospital. Here. Read it. Think about it.”
‘Tina, after you read what’s in the folder, I’m certain you’ll understand what the doctor and I are saying. I’m sure you’ll see that it’s really all for the best. After you’ve had time to think about it, I want you to call me – I think we should talk some more.”
“God I hate this,” Christina screamed, her complaint echoing in the empty house. It had started with a phone call from Mrs. Alvarez, the school’s vice-principal and disciplinarian.
“Mrs. Hargrove I’m afraid we have a small problem. We seem to have lost your son.”
“What do you mean, you lost my son?”
“Don’t get so excited Mrs. Hargrove. I’m sure it’ll be okay. It’s just somehow he slipped away from the other kids on the way to gym class and, well, to make a long story short, we don’t know where he is. But I’m sure we’ll find him any time now.”
“How long has Timothy been missing?” Christina seemed to recall that gym class was in the morning.
“Since about 10:00.”
Christina looked at her watch. It was almost 1:00.
“What! Timothy’s been missing for three hours. What the hell have you been doing all this time?”
“Mrs. Hargrove, please. I realize this doesn’t look good, but we’ve got all the teachers we can spare looking for him.”
“Doesn’t look good,” Christina screamed into the telephone. “I don’t give a damn what it looks like. That’s my son. I’m coming down there now.”
“No, please, Mrs. Hargrove. We need you to stay by your phone. The police have three squad cars out looking even as we speak. They’ll call you as soon as they find him.”
For the next two hours, Christina waited, helpless and hopeless. She vacuumed her rugs; she mopped and waxed the kitchen floor. She polished the furniture and the flatware. She scrubbed the bathtub and scraped mold off the tiles. She cleaned out the litter box and the refrigerator. Finally, the phone rang.
“Mrs. Hargrove?” an unfamiliar voice inquired. “This is Sergeant Crum.”
“Yes, yes. Is Timothy all right? Did you find him? Please, tell me he’s okay.”
“He’s okay, Mrs. Hargrove. We found him north of town out near the Interstate. He must have been walking for hours. The boys told me he was just sitting at the side of the road when they found him, scooping up pebbles by the handful and watching them fall, one by one, back to the curb. He didn’t seem to hear them when they called, but they put him in the patrol car and brought him back to the station. He’s here now.”
“I’ll be right there.”
When Christina arrived at the station, it took her a moment to spot her son. He was sitting on the floor next to the sergeant’s desk. Handcuffed to a table leg, Timothy was contentedly dunking chocolate chip cookies in large glass of milk.
Timothy didn’t acknowledge the arrival of his mother until she interrupted his cookie dunking. Then, looking at her fleetingly out of the corner of his eye, he remarked with utmost seriousness, as if trying to convince her to let him return to his cookies and milk, “You’ll wonder where the yellow went, when you brush your teeth with Pepsodent.”
“I’m sorry about the handcuffs, Mrs. Hargrove,” Sergeant Crum began when Christina introduced herself. “All of a sudden, he started screaming and punching himself in the head and I didn’t know what else to do. Sitting there now so quiet, it’s hard to imagine how such a little kid could raise such a ruckus.”
“It’s okay, Sergeant. I’m just glad he’s okay. I guess I could use a set of these at home. He’s getting to be more than I can handle.”
“You know, I’ve been a policeman for eighteen years. Before that, I served in Korea. Any situation, no matter how dangerous, I’ve always been in control, always known I could handle whatever I had to. I’m kind of embarrassed to admit I couldn’t handle your son. I don’t understand, Mrs. Hargrove. Pardon my asking, but what’s wrong with him?”
Christina was touched by the sergeant’s confession. She wished she could do something to make him feel better, wished, at least, she could answer his question.
“I don’t know, Sergeant. I just don’t know.”
“God I hate this.”
Christina was sitting in Ms. Crandall’s office at the Red Toad General Hospital signing papers that would place Timothy in Buena Vista, the state mental hospital.
“I realize how difficult this must be for you.” Ms. Crandall stepped out from behind her desk. She was even larger than Christina remembered. In her black pants suit, she reminded Christina of her ex-husband George. “I was so glad when you called about Buena Vista. I didn’t think you were going to.” Ms. Crandall smiled sympathetically. Christina appreciated the social worker’s support.
“I guess I always knew it would come to this one day.”
“If you don’t mind my asking, Tina – may I call you Tina? – why now?”
Christina had been asking herself the same question. “It’s no one thing. Certainly not the broken arm. You know, Timothy got lost recently and the police had to find him. He’s been a terror at school, got kicked out, but that’s not it either. It’s not Timothy. He hasn’t changed. He never changes. It’s me. I just can’t handle it any more.”
Ms. Crandall came over and stood next to Christina, who was seated at the desk. She patted her on the arm. “It’s okay, Tina. You needn’t blame yourself.”
“Thank you Ms. Crandall.”
“Please… call me Sydney.”
“Now,” trying to sound upbeat, Ms. Crandall asked, “how are we coming on those forms?”
“Well, I signed this one” – handing Ms. Crandall the medical authorization form, “and this one,” – the consent to photograph, “and this one and this and this” – the visitation agreement form, the bank account authorization form and the liability release form.
“Okay, that’s great.” Ms. Crandall smiled conspiratorially. “That just leaves a few more.”
Christina signed the religious preference form, the field trip consent form and the authorization for experimental therapies. She sat staring at the one remaining form – the surrender of custody – unable to bring herself to sign it.
Noticing her hesitation, Ms. Crandall asked, “Is there a problem Tina?”
“Do I have to sign this one, Ms. Crandall?”
“Okay, Sydney. Do I have to sign this one, Sydney?”
“Yes Tina, you do. This is the form that gives the state the authority to place Timothy at Buena Vista.”
“I don’t think I can sign this one.”
“I know how hard this must be for you, Tina, but you have to believe me, you’re doing the right thing.”
“Tell me again about the care that Timothy will receive at Buena Vista.”
Sneaking a peek at her wristwatch, Ms. Crandall tried not to sound impatient, but couldn’t quite manage it. “Buena Vista is a model of modern psychiatric care. You know you’re lucky to get Timothy in. He’ll get everything he needs there.”
“Will he get a mother’s love?” a touch of bitterness unmistakable in Christina’s voice.
“Buena Vista has a very caring staff.”
“I hope you’re right Sydney.”
“I know I am.”
“I’m sorry that I’m being a pest, but” –
“It’s okay Tina.”
“Will they put him on drugs? I don’t want Timothy on drugs.”
“The doctors will do whatever is best for him. Look Tina, I don’t mean to sound cruel, but I think it’s time you signed the paper. Timothy needs the program at Buena Vista and you need to get on with the rest of your life.”
Christina signed the paper. She drove home alone.
“God I hate this.”
The rest of her life. For the first time, she would be completely on her own. No parents. No husband. No children. She went to the bathroom and retrieved a bottle from the medicine cabinet. Without her family to need her, who would she be? Christina washed her face, brushed her hair and stared at the bottle of painkillers.