Friday, March 1, 2013

Jacob: A Short Story

My cup of coffee was still warm this Monday morning. Some birds were chirping outside, full of spirit and spunkiness. I haven’t read the latest edition of the Bordenville Herald yet. The Marlboro Light cigarette I had in my mouth should have calmed my soul. It didn’t. Sitting at the kitchen table, I took the cig out and threw it into the kitchen sink where the basin was almost filled with soapsuds and dirty water. The hissing sound was soft and sweet.

Jacob’s dead.

He was my son. My son. My beautiful, tragic son, Jacob Wallenquist, committed suicide six months ago. He would have been in college by now. He would have been eighteen on November 16th. I always had some concern for him since he was born. He used to hit his head against some walls in the house and tear out his hair when he was two. Our old family physician, Dr. Henry Finkel, looked at Jacob and diagnosed him with ADHD (attention-deficient/hyperactivity disorder). “The terrible twos”, I thought. Jacob appeared to get better when he got older. By fourteen, though, he got very depressed. So I took him to a counselor twice a week to talk about his problems. I believed my son was going through the “growing pains” while going to Bordenville High School, and how he was treated like an oddball in his classes. I used to be that way because I used to have nosebleeds in the sixth grade. “Nosebleed Nancy”. The other girls called me that. So did the boys who did the best to avoid me.

But I was surprised (and happy) how “cool” Jacob was when I heard his fellow classmates talk about him during at his wake. He would do his best to make people laugh. When there was a special day to dress up (Toga Day, Pajama Day, Zoot Suit Day, Hawaiian Day, etc.) at the school, Jacob went to the local Salvation Army to get clothes. He once showed in a pink bathrobe during Pajama Day. Jacob was also a member of the Teen Spirit Club. It does volunteer work, including cleaning abandoned lots, reading to young children at the library and attending events at the Bordenville Retirement Home. Jacob was a trip there, one of his classmates recollected. He danced with some of the elderly, wheelchair-bound women, donning a top hat and bowtie and carrying a cane. His classmates voted him “Most Spirited and Optimistic” at the start of the year.

They never knew what I knew, though. He was very depressed. He later spent less time with his friends (with the excuse of hard studying posed towards them) and more time in his bedroom, writing some prose or watching VHS copies of “Scarface” and “Mr. Deeds Goes to Town”. Extreme and frequent were mood swings, and he complained of headaches. Some late nights, I would find in the living room, in the dark, staring at the night sky. One day, I bought a copy of His Bright Light: The Story of Nick Traina by Danielle Steel. It details the romance author’s son’s tragic struggle with manic depression. He killed himself at age 19. There were parallels between Nick and Jacob, but I wasn’t too sure. A few weeks later, a friend of mine showed me an article in Time magazine. It was about teenagers who are bipolar, explaining how some are misdiagnosed of having ADHD when they’re kids. There was also a list at the end of the article, detailing the warning signs: “has irritable mood states”, self-isolation”, “easily distracted by extraneous stimuli”, “sleeps fitfully” There were signs I noticed in Jacob.
I took him to a psychiatrist. She saw him as bipolar and prescribed Depakote, an anticonvulsant that acts as a mood stabilizer.

“Why can’t you just leave me alone?!” Jacob was angry at me and the whole situation,
“Why do you think there’s something wrong with me?”

He said the pills made him feel sick and lose his hair, after taking some in the following days. The doctor warned him about the side effects. I wasn’t so sure Jacob told the truth, but I knew he stopped taking the pills within a week.

“No more pills for me,” he said, “I’m not bipolar.”

A month and two weeks came by. My boyfriend, Stewart, came home from work when I was out shopping on a weekend (Yes, I was married, but I was too young and too naïve and my husband, Taylor, had wandering eyes.) It was before 4 p.m. Stewart found Jacob in the basement, staggering about and his speech was warbled. Stewart thought he was drunk, at first, but there was no alcohol in the house, let alone an empty bottle. Stewart called 911, then me on my cell phone. Jacob spent the next three years in the hospital’s intensive care ward. The doctors found a poisonous liquid in his system. He made it after learning about it on the Internet. It had ethylene glycol, a colorless, viscous liquid that’s used as antifreeze, solvent and in resins. It almost killed my son.

A staff psychiatrist at the hospital talked to Jacob. He told me my son was upset that his suicide attempt failed. I tried to confront him about it during his six-day stay, but he wouldn’t say anything to me. Taylor received the same treatment. They were close before and after the divorce. Jacob would even hang around his father’s house, five blocks from mine, during some weekends. Change is good, some say, but I can’t agree with them.

After the hospital stay, I sent my son to Seven Doves, a private mental hospital in the nearby town of Nelson. Meanwhile, I decided to clean Jacob’s bedroom, in order to make him he was getting a fresh start when he came home. It took almost seven days to get rid of the food wrappers, soda cans and empty Hershey’s chocolate syrup bottles from the carpet floor, desk and under the bed. Five days later, Jacob came home. The poison damaged his kidneys; he couldn’t take Depakote. Instead, one of the mental hospital’s doctors gave him Lexapro, an anti-depressant. I then stopped working at Green Light Financial Services as a global clearance clerk and started working at home, doing the same work while keeping an eye on Jacob.

The mental hospital arranged Jacob with a social worker that was part of a practice with psychologists, but I felt my son needed someone who can prescribe medication for him as well. I looked for a psychiatrist; the search took too long. Some doctors never returned my calls; some didn’t accept the insurance and some were too busy to take a new patient who needed intensive therapy. I started to wonder if the health insurance system was the wall between my son’s mental health and me. Some insurance companies limit one’s access to mental health services, dealing with a certain amount of visits per year. Psychiatrists know the insurance business; I would have gotten one with no problem, if there were no limits. However, a co-worker of mine at the office told me he has a cousin who’s a psychiatrist and knows that there’s a bleak shortage of therapists who treat teenagers. Three to four months was the average a waiting list can be.

Some days, I called Patricia Sheldon, the pediatrician who treated Jacob as a baby. Dr. Pat, as I called her, couldn’t prescribe his medication, but knew of the seriousness of the situation. Two of her former patients killed themselves in their teens. Dr. Pat visited Jacob in the Bordenville General Hospital when the first suicide attempt occurred and after, in her office.

“I was depressed once, but I’m okay now,” he said to her.

Dr. Pat wasn’t convinced. She told me he had a sweet smile but pain in his eyes.
In February, a guidance counselor from the high school heard from a student that my son was cutting his arms. The counselor brought Jacob into her office. She saw cuts from his wrists to his elbows. She then called me. I cried a little. Then I took Jacob to the hospital’s psychiatric room and swearing under my breath along the way. He stayed throughout the night.

Two weeks came. Stewart’s son, Harry, from a previous marriage, visited us. He was eight years younger than Jacob; they didn’t get along. When he went to the bathroom, Harry noticed on his way a paper next to the computer in the living room. The page was blank, save for the bottom. It had a Web address and a date: April 20. Harry visited the website, finding instructions how to make a hangman’s noose. Harry told me. Jacob, meanwhile, was out at Fanboy Central (and Other Stuff). He probably lied to me about where he said he was going. I called my brother Frank, who drove from Nelson and stayed in a motel. He, Stewart, Taylor, Harry and I conducted a suicide watch, looking after Jacob around the clock for some days.

By April, Jacob seemed better. I finally found a psychiatrist-psychologist team willing to treat him. He agreed to go them. After the second appointment, we went to the Javelin Multiplex Cinemas and saw “Phone Booth”, the movie with Colin Farrell trapped by a sniper in a phone booth in New York City’s Times Square. Jacob held my hand throughout the film.

It was 5:00 a.m. in the morning when Taylor called me. He was crying. I was going to ask him what was wrong, but I stopped and felt a cold shiver by my back.
“Jacob?” I called out. No answer.

I left my room and went to Jacob’s room. He wasn’t there. I then ran to my ex-husband’s house. I knocked on the door. Taylor opened it. His face was tearful, painful.

“N--Nancy! O--Oh God--!”

Taylor, where’s Ja--”

I remembered that Jacob, during his visits to his father’s house, liked that big tree in the backyard, climbing and swinging from it. I ran through Taylor’s house to the back. I came outside. A bloodcurdling scream came from my mouth. It woke up some of Taylor’s neighbors. I shook my hands madly and knelt to the grass. Taylor held me. We both cried under the tree that our son, Jacob Wallenquist, hung himself from.

I drank my cup of coffee and sighed. Stewart left, but Taylor came back into my life at a slow pace. He knows I need some space to regain my balance. It’s hard, but I’m getting there. The silence in the house is painful. I miss Jacob going through the halls, listening to either Howard Stern or some rock band like Metallica or P.O.D on the radio or playing our golden retriever, Gavin. It took three months for me to go back into Jacob’s room; I just had to get closer to him.

I finished my coffee and went to Jacob’s room. Sunlight beams bled through the room’s only window. Brittney Spears poses sweetly and seductively in a photo pinned to the door. Al Pacino sits at a table with a gun in his hand in a “Scarface” poster over the wooden bureau. Another movie poster, promoted the film “Fight Club”. It had images of a grinning Brad Pitt and a grim Edward Norton; it hung over Jacob’s bed. I sat on the bed. A stack of loose-leaf notebook paper was besides me, each page filled with my son’s thoughts. I took one page and read it:

Today’s just another day
where I don’t feel good
and if I could find another way
you know that I would

I’ve spent lots of hours going over his writings: poems, prose, song lyrics, essays and short stories that touch on pain, misery, rape (with a romantic sense), murder and suicide. I see a lot of myself in the writings, a younger version of myself. Suicide has been a…ritual in my family. Taylor’s uncle, Gregory, a truck driver, drove drunk one night and killed a family of four five years ago. After getting fired from his job, Gregory visited some friends at the Aldrich Lumberyard. When no one was looking, he took a chainsaw and drove it into his chest.

My mother almost died from an aspirin overdose. She was very depressed after she gave birth to Frank (he was four years younger). I watched Mom leave home in an ambulance when I was five. Suicide and depression were taboo topics in the Baldwin household, never to be discussed, but part of me felt suicidal, and I wrote about that through stories and poems and songs.

Jacob was also quite an artist. There were some drawings tacked on one wall. One was a simple figure with all the body parts disconnected. Others had things associated with death: a tombstone, a crucifix a noose, etc. There’s also an art portfolio lying under the bed that Jacob used to secure his work he did in art class. It was part of the contents found by his classmates, after his. . .One sketch was of a young man seated on a coffin’s end. I’ve never seen Jacob’s art class sketches before he. . . He used to draw cartoon characters like Bugs Bunny and Popeye and others. When he turned fourteen, the drawings became darker in tone.

I then reminded myself of a news story I’ve read. It happened in Nelson a while ago. A five-year-old girl was suspended from school for drawing a picture of her kindergarten teacher being pelted with rocks by monsters. I shook my head at the inanity of it all. Children are human beings. Why shouldn’t they express themselves? Why shouldn’t they?

Leaving the bed, I sat in the chair in front of Jacob’s TV/VCR/DVD combo set. Taylor bought for Jacob’s 16th birthday. It was on an old liquor case my father used to have. I opened it. Inside were some of Jacob’s DVDs and videotapes. The one I wanted was marked HOME VIDEO. I took it from the case and slid it into the VCR slot. The TV turned on with an electric blizzard. Jacob then appeared on the screen. He’s thin, with wide, brown eyes and messy, brown hair. A hat made of tinfoil with horns was on his head. He’s alone in his bedroom.

“A room with a view,” he said.

I smirked an inch. The driveway is the only thing that can be seen through the window. The camera shifted downward to the carpet, then to a copy of Penthouse magazine. The camera closed up on a photo of a naked woman, the Pet of the Month. Next is a shot of his two, red lava lamps. Then the bed.

“The bed. Nothing really happens here. Except wet dreams.”

My grin became a smile. I chuckled a little. Jacob removed his tinfoil hat and put on a Shriner’s hat. He sat in the same chair I was in, faced the camera, picks up an old ukulele he had since he was seven, strummed a couple times and put a cigarette between his lips. He coughed, tried to blow a smoke ring. I laughed. I’ve seen this video twenty-three times in recent months; this is where Jacob is truly alive. Seeing him trying to smoke makes me laugh. He was on my case for my smoking habit, and I think he has succeeded.

Jacob took a condom to his mouth and blew into it, inflating it.

“Ok,” he said, “That’s enough of that. Time for some serious shit.”

The next prop was a pair of leopard-print girls’ underwear. Jacob put it on his head, grinning. Then, he jammed six cigarettes into his mouth, picked up a lighter and tried to light them all. No such luck. I smiled a wide smile.
“I’ll be right back.”

The camera went off, leaving me with an electric blizzard. I picked up the remote from the floor and pressed the rewind button.

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