Having covered the topic of homelessness ad naseum for the past few weeks, I figured my son was taking a break from the difficult questions. Sure, he still wanted to know exactly how deep into the earth is the hot lava and whether anyone has ever dug that far, but questions like those felt like softballs.
Sometimes in the afternoon, we go for a long walk. His brother likes to stay home with the au pair because, hey, it means he gets all the toys to himself. So, Zachary, Lilah and I head out with the double stroller. Keep to yourself your opinions about my letting an almost-five-year-old ride in the stroller. It is late in the day, he could use some down time, and I want to get some real exercise, rather than stopping every 72 seconds to remind him to keep walking.
We were on our usual route, but I crossed over to the other side of the street to keep the baby in the shade. Our neighborhood, while modest by West L.A. standards, is for the most part well kept-up. There are a few more impressive houses (I hear Tori Spelling lives in one), and there are definitely a few that have seen better days. We pass one crumbling house, such as exists in every neighborhood, with paint peeling and overgrown grass browning in the yard. Piled high all around it are bags and bags of rubbish, all neatly tied away in plastic grocery bags. They are along every side of the house, stacked several feet high, even blocking a couple of the exits.
We have stumbled upon the home of the neighborhood schizophrenic.
I have seen her about, rummaging through people’s bins and making off with their recycling. A friend told me she cannot stop herself; she feels some compulsion to take trash home with her. She is a harmless embodiment of the “one man’s trash” maxim.
“Look, Mommy. Look at all that trash!” Zachary says. Lilah, as usual, kicks her feet and smiles.
“I see, baby. That’s a lot of trash, huh?”
Predictably, he asks me, “Why do they keep all that trash?”
Fuuuuuck. We just finished with homelessness. Now, we’re on to the related topic of mental illness? But, of all the things I have done as a parent, the only one I have done right is be honest. I don’t tell more than I have to, but I always, always answer him truthfully. He knows that and relies upon it, and I will not betray that trust.
“OK. You know how sometimes people get sick in their bodies? You know, like when you have a stomachache?” I look down and see that sandy head nodding. “Well, sometimes people get sick inside their brains, too. And the lady who lives there is sick inside her brain, so her brain tells her that she needs to collect lots and lots of garbage and keep it at her house.”
“That doesn’t seem reasonable,” he replies, which is kind of the point here.
“Well, because she is sick inside her head, she isn’t reasonable,” I reply. “That’s exactly it.” Now, I know my little dude, and I know there is a very good chance he is sitting there in that stroller trying to figure out if maybe he is likely to get sick inside his head. Assessing the likelihood that he will end up wandering the neighborhood, rummaging through recycling bins. “But don’t worry. Mommy and Daddy are too old to get schizophrenia. And you are too young,” I assure him. Strictly, this is untrue, but the onset is usually in the twenties, and for him that is far, far too old to imagine ever being.
I consider it wise to avoid mentioning that my aunt had schizophrenia so severe that I spent much of my tween years fearing I would become like the woman who terrified and disgusted me. I also leave out the part about schizophrenia running in families. There is truth and then there is too much information.