Carl arrived on my radar screen about 20 years ago. Originally he was part of the rag-tag bunch that made up Sweet Little Sister’s posse. You know those years of your life when your friends mean EVERYTHING to you? Sweet Little Sister had A LOT of friends during those years, and Carl started out as a face in the crowd.
But it wasn't long before Carl went from “face in the crowd” to "that punk dating my sister." To be fair, all boys who wanted to date my sister were instantly granted “punk” status. I had just recently escaped my teens, I knew what boys were like, and I have been fiercely protective of my little sister since the day she was born. (Yes, even when I was beating up on her when we were kids. That’s all normal sister stuff, right?)
And also to be fair, Sweet Little Sister was already a third degree black-belt in rebellion and shocking behavior before Carl came along. But still, it was easier to blame the boyfriend than the sister. They skipped school a lot together, they got caught drankin' a lot together, and there was at least one occasion when my dad caught him in my sister's room, threw him out of the house by the scruff of his neck, then chased him around the front yard while Carl cussed my dad out and ran for his life.
Carl was what you'd call a troubled teen. He acted out a lot. And he got in trouble a lot. He had an arrest record. He’d been to jail at least once. And it seemed to me that he was dragging Sweet Little Sister (the third degree black-belt in rebellion and shocking behavior) along for a seriously bumpy ride.
Then something miraculous happened: The birth of my awesome nephew almost 17 years ago. (We shall call him Awesome Nephew #1, as I have two other awesome nephews who are younger. Where was I? Oh yeah...)
The grudging respect I had for Carl did not begin to take root until Awesome Nephew #1 was actually born. For the nine(ish) months leading up to that hot July day, Carl was the punk-ass kid who knocked up my teenage sister and therefore deserved wrath and scorn. But the day Sweet Little Sister went into labor, I saw a side of Carl I had never given him a chance to show me before: loving, tender, and responsible. Not only was he a dedicated partner to my sister, he was fiercely determined to be a good dad.
My grudging respect for Carl grew into acceptance as I saw how much time he spent with the baby, and how involved he wanted to be as a father. The day he broke my sister’s heart when Awesome Nephew #1 was about six months old, I not only wanted to hulk-smash the motherfucker (seriously, don’t mess with my sister), but I was sad that he wasn’t going to be part of the family any more.
But he didn’t exactly go away. He wasn’t Sister’s Boyfriend any more, but he was still very much Awesome Nephew #1’s Dad. Like so many other teen fathers, he could have walked away without a backward glance. But he didn’t. Not only did he remain a consistent presence in Awesome Nephew #1’s life, but he dated a girl who embraced Awesome Nephew #1 as part of the Carl package. When they eventually married, she was a devoted stepmom who treated Awesome Nephew #1 as one of her own. When Devoted Stepmom and Carl had two children of their own, Carl and Devoted Stepmom went out of their way to nurture the bonds between Awesome Nephew #1 and his half siblings. They didn’t all live in the same house together, but they got some good quality time together.
As time marched on, Carl outgrew his troubled-teen persona and grew into the responsible adult he wanted so badly to become. It was at that point I realized that even though he wasn’t my sister’s boyfriend anymore, I still saw Carl – and now Devoted Stepmom and the half siblings – as part of the extended family.
But then life, as it so often does, brought Carl and those who loved him to his knees. He was in his early 20s, and had started to have some odd behavior. I didn’t realize how serious things had gotten for him until the day he climbed to the top of the highest roller coaster at Six Flags, where he was a ride mechanic, and stared at the ground for two solid hours. I don’t remember if he was talked down or someone went up there and got him. But he spent 3 days in the hospital after that (72-hour hold, for those of you familiar with the world of mental illness) and emerged with some medication that was supposed to make him all better.
To give you the reader’s digest version of the diagnostic process, it took awhile for the doctors to nail down the right diagnosis. But ultimately we learned that it was not depression, not anxiety, not even bipolar disorder. What he had was schizophrenia, and it would rule the remaining years of his life.
If you have never had to navigate the world of mental health care, count your blessings. Finding the right diagnosis and treatment is a process of trial and error, not to mention knock-down drag-out fights with the insurance company. It took awhile, but the doctors finally found the right medications at the right doses to allow Carl to be lucid enough to live a normal life. But as with so many other mental patients, he would stop taking the meds when he felt normal again. And each time he went off the meds, he ended up in a darker place than he was when he had started taking them. His behavior became dangerous. And as with so many other mental patients, his marriage to Devoted Stepmom ended in divorce as she sought a safe environment for herself and her children.
As Sweet Little Sister and Devoted Stepmom set up house together so the children could live together as siblings, Carl fell off my radar screen again. I knew he was living out of state somewhere. I knew that his treatment was on-again, off-again. And I knew that his relationship with his kids was on-again, off-again. He was absolutely forbidden to see the children when he was off his meds – he had become too unstable. But even when he was on his meds, his version of reality made him fairly unreliable. I don’t think he ever stopped wanting to see his kids – there was just this roadblock called schizophrenia in the way.
In the interest of helping them understand what was going on with their dad, the children were counseled on his illness and how they could cope with their feelings in a healthy way. The underlying message, which was true even when Carl was in the grips of his greatest delusions, was that their daddy loved them with his whole heart, and they didn’t do anything wrong to make him go away.
I hadn’t heard Carl’s name in awhile when I learned that he’d gotten remarried. My first reaction was shock. Was she nuts?? Did she have any idea what she was in for??? But then I learned that yes – she knew about his illness, she had learned how to best support him, and she loved him enough to take on the challenge. When they first got married, he seemed to be doing really well. Beloved Wife was a positive influence on him, and stayed involved in his treatment enough to help him be OK. They moved to a far-off state because they had been offered a combination job/living arrangement that was too good to pass up. They were there for a couple of years, and one Thanksgiving Sweet Little Sister took Awesome Nephew #1 out to visit. From what I understand, a lot of much-needed bonding took place because Carl was present. His treatment was working. And Awesome Nephew #1 got to know the version of his Dad that I saw all those years before.
But then. And isn’t there always a “but then”??
Carl and Beloved Wife had to move back to his home state for reasons I’m still not really clear on. When they lived in the far-off state, he was in the social services system. They helped him pay for his meds and therapy, and he was in their job-training program as an auto mechanic. I know there are people in our society who go on about tax-payer dollars, grumble-grumble, why don’t they just get a job, grumble-grumble. But when someone is rendered incapable of working because of their illness, they need a little help getting the intervention they need to become a productive member of society again. He met that criteria in a huge way. But when he moved back to his home state, his meds ran out before he could get established in that state's system. He had no way to renew his prescriptions. Before anyone knew it, he descended once again into the abyss.
One day I got a phone call. “Carl tried to kill himself again.” In previous attempts he had used pills. But this time he had climbed to the top of a streetlight with a noose. Luckily he had made enough noise to draw a crowd, and had made the rope long enough for them to catch his legs after he jumped from the light pole. But they did not catch him before the rope snapped. They lifted him up enough to keep the noose from suffocating him. But by then a great deal of damage had already been done. His windpipe was crushed. He suffered a stroke. He had a severe neck injury. He was in a top-rated hospital for three months as he recovered. And he was released the minute Medicare said they were done paying for his treatment - on Christmas Eve.
He was never the same after that day. Instead of putting him on the meds that had worked so well for him in the far-off state, the hospital doctors had given him something that didn’t work so well. No matter how passionately Beloved Wife advocated for him, the doctors did not listen. “We know what we’re doing,” they said. “Trust us,” they said. When Beloved Wife first took Carl to his old psychiatrist when he got out of the hospital, hoping to finally get the right mix of meds for him, the doctor told her he honestly wasn’t sure he could bring Carl all the way back. There had been too much trauma. Too much damage. Too much time.
Carl limped along for several months after that. He and Beloved Wife moved in with Sweet Little Sister and Awesome Nephew #1. (Devoted Stepmom had since remarried and moved out with Half Siblings) Beloved Wife fought like hell to get Carl the care he needed. We all held out hope that he would keep recovering, and get back to the stability he enjoyed when he lived in the far-off state.
But it was not meant to be.
Last weekend, Carl went to a nearby hospital to receive treatment. But as soon as nobody was looking, he snuck away from the hospital with a bottle of pills in his hand. He wandered around for God knows how long, and ended up behind the apartment building where he and Beloved Wife had once lived. He sat down in the shade of a dumpster, swallowed that bottle of pills, and went to sleep. The police found him later that afternoon, far too late for intervention.
I was standing in the soda isle at Safeway when I got the call. I cry-shopped through the rest of my list and then howl-cried on the drive home. I knew he was on thin ice, but dammit, he was supposed to get better. He had so much promise before the schizophrenia took hold. His life never should have ended this way.
Knowing what I know about suicidal mental illness, and knowing how much love he held in his heart, I think Carl honestly believed he was doing the right thing. I don’t think it was a selfish act, either – I think he believed his family was better off without him. If only he were capable of believing otherwise.
I spent a few hours at Sweet Little Sister’s house the next day, along with many other friends and family members, hugging, crying, and remembering. As the three most influential women in Carl’s life – Sweet Little Sister, Devoted Stepmom, and Beloved Wife – pooled their resources to make the funeral arrangements, old pictures began to surface. Pictures of a younger, happier Carl. Some with his kids. Some with his friends. And then the picture that almost stopped my heart: Carl was Awesome Nephew #1’s age. He looked so much like Awesome Nephew #1 that I had to ask which one of them it was. Carl had long hair and a big, genuine smile on his face. This was about the time he showed up as part of my sister’s posse. Had I seen this picture 20 years ago, I’d have thought, “Stay away from my sister. Punk.” But not now. The Carl in this picture is so young – his whole life stretches out before him. I see the light in his eyes – and so much potential for a rewarding life. And it makes my tears all the more bitter to know how his life will play out – and how the light in his eyes will come to be extinguished forever.
And so I pray. I pray for healing, comfort, and peace for those who loved him the most. As much as my heart hurts from how Carl's battle with schizophrenia ended, theirs have shattered a thousand times over. His three children. His three wives (official or not). His sister. His parents. Aunts, uncles, cousins. May they feel God’s loving arms around them as He carries them through their grief.
My most fervent prayer is that Carl has finally been released from his nightmare. May his weary soul be troubled no more, finally resting in the peace that so eluded him in life. And may his finer moments live on in our memories.