A Mother in Sheep’s Clothing

Old woman with sheep

“Mom, I need you to do something for me.”

I haven’t spoken with my son in almost two years. Since he abruptly cut off communication, prompting the Berkeley street search that begat this blog.

Actually that’s not entirely true. I have managed to slip in a couple of unwelcome phone calls when he was hospitalized after being hit by a car. Unsuspecting weekend-shift nurses who didn’t know better than to transfer the call through to his room where he was presumably pinioned and tractioned. A sitting duck.

Those calls all began with a long pause. Sean, I’m imagining, getting his mind around the person at the other end of the line. Then his strange, new schizophrenic voice. Robotic: “I’ve asked you not to call,” or “I don’t know who you are and I want you to stop harassing me.” Click.

Each time, I’ve whispered my desperate message quickly before he hangs up: “Honeyiloveyousomuch.”

These calls are for me, let’s face it. I am told he hates me, that he delusionally believes I am a child abuser and that he holds me responsible for all the negativity that has occurred in his life since he hit the streets and before. He refers to me by my first name only. My declaration of love isn’t exactly a balm for schizophrenia.

But I can’t help wanting to get the message through. I have to believe that a core of him still needs my love. Like all mothers, my tragic flaw is believing that my love can protect and bring comfort to my child. Against all odds.  When it’s probably me who needs his love.

Once I got a nurse to deliver a message to him that only he and I would understand, hoping against reason–or is that unreason?–that it would prove to him who I am. The message was part of a comical dialectic we used to have when I would sometime guess his thoughts, anticipate an action, or know just the right meal to make.

He would say, “How did you know that?” And I would ruffle his hair (before he got too bristly to touch) and counter: “Have I not been your mother for a thousand years?!” We chuckled over the idea of us tumbling through time together mothersonmotherson. Many incarnations, if you believe in such things.

But Sean’s familial enmity has been resolute since he cracked. And it’s not only reserved for me: Once, when his father called the hospital, he became so agitated they had to sedate him. He would instantly throw away any food or clothing his family sent to the shelter where he lived for several months.

It seemed hopeless, but then I had this brilliant idea. Grandma. They have always had a rapport, my mother and Sean. Not built on much of a personal relationship–my mother is much too awkward around children, especially boys–but they share a deep, common interest in metaphysical matters, Native American spirituality, art, mysticism.

My mother is an art therapist and over the years she has worked with Sean on drawings, writing poetry, working with symbol figures in sand tray therapy, and painting mandalas: “the great round,” as she would say.

So I found myself seated at her breakfast table a couple of weekends ago, just after Sean was conserved. My heart ached. The birds were beautifully, feverishly stabbing at the bird feeder. She crunched her gluten-free bagel. And I suddenly blurted out,”I need your help Mom, I need you to do something for me.” It took her almost a minute to figure out that I wasn’t reading the newspaper or having a random conversation, but was sitting there crying hard.

I asked her to send in her handwriting a short note from me to Sean in the psychiatric hospital. She would write what I dictated and sign it, Grandma. Hidden in her shaky hand, I prayed my message of love would have a chance of getting through. I feverishly stood over her supervising every word she wrote. I don’t know how she endured me except that her own mother’s heart hurts so hard for me she was probably glad to have something to do.

Here’s what (I)she wrote — and I even had her misspell his name, as she does:

Don’t give up hope, dear Shawn. Things will get better. You will find your own path again. There are many angels–in heaven and on earth–who are watching over you. I am in awe of your strength and courage. Love and hug, Grandma

The hug part was hers.

Whether Sean read it and was comforted, or read it at all, is just one more drop in the sea of not-knowing where my motherhood now floats. But it floats. And maybe my hidden message to him is really my mother’s message to me.


Why do I skip over the biggest events here? Not for lack of courage I don’t think. Possibly because they have so many threads that are important to write about that I’d rather not begin until I can commit myself fully.

As the writer Anthony Walton once told me, “You can’t tell any story without telling the whole story.”

But yes! and yes! and my god yes! Sean was conserved. For every time “the system” has failed him, and us, and thousands of other families begging to get even a scrap of the help they deserve in caring for a loved one with profound mental illness, they got it right one time.

Of course, it helped that Sean didn’t even get out of bed to attend his conservatorship hearing. But I don’t expect that was what could be termed an active choice, more likely the unfathomability of putting on actual clothing, leaving the hospital and going into a courtroom to defend his life.

We don’t really know what a conservatorship will look like — will it play out in years of Cuckoo’s Nest warehousing? Will his mind actually begin to quiet and find some kind of healing? Will he ever allow his family into the picture? For every problem it solves, it answers no questions.

But he will not be living on the street.