My brother and I recently visited my father in Florida for a super quick two-day visit to pre-celebrate his 80th birthday in July. The late April heat and humidity were thick enough to make the trip feel like it lasted a month. Something about the barometric pressure and below sea-level-ness intensified each moment, elongated it, made time yield. Melbourne Beach has a womb-like quality with all that salty ocean air mixing with the Indian River breeze, but without the sun-protection a mother’s body offers. And, this was the first time I visited with my father since my mother died.
Perhaps the visit felt lengthy because it was with family. Dad is still mentally ill. He lives in a safe and sweet rural home with other mentally ill, geriatric folk. The people who run this home are professional, and exceptionally kind. My heart is gladdened by their services. By “rural” I mean the half-way house is at the end of a cul de sac on the outskirts of Palm Bay, where palmetto scrub, pine trees, and live oak house every sharp, stinging, prickly plant or critter you can imagine, magnified by a sun that expresses the meaning of radiation in its morning hello.
I have genuine affection for my father. He is a gentle man with good manners and thoughtful responses. I used to be scared of him and mad at him. He had an exceptional excuse, being mentally ill, and that debilitation made childhood hellish. Once our family fell apart, I did not attempt contact with him throughout my twenties. But by my thirties, and after I got sober, we began a written correspondence that lasts to this day. I began well-supported visits to him even though at that time, he was institutionalized. The fact that he is doing so well so late in his in life should not come as a surprise considering his family tree is full of schizophrenia and alcoholism, longevity and taking a mouthful of one’s own teeth to the grave.
Because of this determination to know my father, to know myself, and value what I’ve been given, I’ve gotten fairly comfortable hanging out with Pops. We both love ice cream and hugs, we both consider ourselves writers, and talk easily about God and publishing. From behind the steering wheel, on our way to Sonny’s BBQ for lunch, I asked, “Dad, if you could be a bird, what kind of bird would you be?
“I’d be a mockingbird, Sandy,” he replied without hesitation.
“Why a mocking bird?” I asked, thinking, maybe because they can sing anything.
“They’re courageous,” replied Dad.
In the yet-to-be published novel I’ve written, WHAT YOU CARRY, the father, Lyle Thompson, is schizophrenic. I worry that the snapshot -- the summer and fall that the novel inhabits when the family falls apart — that it may not shed the best light on the people who suffer the most. I fear that the stigma of mental illness could be furthered, instead of ameliorated. The father's crazy was strong in the novel. My hope is that the overlapping perspectives of the other family members show that we are all in this together whether we like it or not. I’m fairly certain every family carries illness, that we are full of pre-existing conditions, and that the way forward is by embracing our frailties and treating ourselves well instead of unwell.
To finish the conversational circle, my brother would be any kind of bird that soars high above, and I would be a pelican.