On Living with an Angel

A week and four days shy of a new decade, my son Allan reached his 45th birthday. On the third day of the new year he was admitted to the hospital for the third time in 18 months.


Mental illness.


Before it struck, Allan was a happy, social, active person. He played ball and courted girls. He graduated from college with a degree in international business. He traveled the far east: Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand. He brought home wonderful stories and better pictures.


But one Friday night while sitting with his mother and me, he turned and said, “Dad, God wants you to rewrite the Bible.” A little later he said, “Billy Graham wants you to call him.”


I knew immediately.


We persuaded him to go to the hospital, and he stayed three days. It is the maximum that he could be retained without his permission, which he refused to give. He came home, and since then—some fourteen plus years—he has lived with us and lived with his diseases.


Neither one of these is easy.


Schizophrenia, it is called in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. Plus, Bipolar Disorder. Both are treatable; neither is curable. Together, these conditions constitute Schizoaffective Disorder. A person with both is at the mercy of mental forces largely outside of his control. It is a messed-up brain, and nobody knows where it comes from or how it happens or what triggers it in a young adult.


Allan is an angel, or so he thinks. Appointed by God for a work with global reach and universal impact. He thinks about it and writes about it and reads about it…all day. Medicine helps some, curbing some of the voices and visions but leaving the moods swings intact.


But angels do not like doctors telling them their vocation from God is an illusion; they resent the diagnosis, the medicine, and the doubt. They refuse the medicine, often using devious ways to hide their non-compliance.


It is not easy being the father and resident caregiver of such an angel. Frankly, it drives me crazy, and now and again my oft-repressed frustration fights through the defenses I so carefully construct. I yell and stomp and curse, sometimes at him, sometimes at others. I act out in inappropriate ways. None of it is pretty: not his disease, not my behavior.


Most of all it is sad.


The road ahead shows no light.


It is not easy giving up a son you love, whose warm, sweet, happy disposition you still remember, to some other person, some other home. That is coming, but the light it promises is scattered and weak. It is still sad, especially for a man who is still so sweet, so kind, and so generous a person might never know his struggle.


Allan did not want to enter the hospital. “Dad, rather than putting me in a hospital”, read his text sent from the intake ward, “can you take me to Sarah Kate’s? I’ve been enjoying my morning walks.” Sarah Kate is his sister who left yesterday for Italy.


We went to see him on Sunday. Thirty minutes is all they allow, all week. But thirty minutes is about all I can handle, especially when his distracted, denying, distant symptoms are at full strength. Which they were. All of which pushes us to our own form of denial and distance.


It is a hell of a way to begin a new year. What resolutions can a person make in such a situation? What hope can a parent claim in face of such conditions?


Not many. Not much.


In three months or less, I will notch my 70th birthday. Mostly, I am happy, healthy, and hopeful. But this Advent-born angel interrupts my own moods with the prospects of his future. Who will look after him when we are gone? Will he end up as so many with mental illness, on some street, under some bridge, in some jail? Is there anything anybody can do for our angel, for all the other angels and demons who suddenly emerge in thousands of families around the country, millions of homes around the world?


Who knows?


God bless the social workers and nurses and medical researchers who labor long and hard to help all the angels out there who depend upon their good will, their hard work, their intelligence, their luck.


God bless them. Every one.



(January 2020)