IV. Stairway to Heaven
We are entwined in bed when the phone rings. We let the machine answer, annoyed by the interruption but determined not to lose focus. Seconds later the phone rings again. Reed mutters something, and I silently curse whoever is lame enough to call repeatedly at 10:30 pm. When it immediately rings again, Reed lunges out of bed, grabs the phone from the computer desk and barks a hello.
I brace myself on behalf of the caller, probably one of the kids’ clueless friends, who’s about to get an earful. But Reed doesn’t say much. All I hear is “yes” and “okay” and “thank you” in a tone of voice I can’t identify; I can see the outline of his upper body in the window’s faint backlighting but I can’t see his face. After half a minute he hangs up the phone and turns on the light. “Get dressed,” he tells me.
Ten minutes later I’m backing the car out of our driveway, my head buzzing with adrenaline, my hands white-knuckled on the wheel. Ben is in the passenger seat. I drive as fast as I dare towards the nearest hospital, leaving Reed behind to watch over the little boys. When we’re two blocks away, Ben groans and clutches his stomach. I pull over and he opens his door and vomits on the side of the road. His shoulders heave again and again. I lean back against my seat, limp with sudden relief. Once the retching stops I get out of the car and study the pool of vomit on the asphalt. In the yellow light of the streetlamp I see what I was hoping to see: intact capsules, blue and white, at least a dozen.
These are the capsules he swallowed without water minutes before, from the prescription bottle with his name on it, holding a ninety-day supply of antidepressants. When I tossed the bottle on his bed that evening, reminding him to refill his pill case for the week, it was jammed full. An hour later, when Reed and I burst into his basement bedroom, it was half empty. Ben sat on the side of his bed, still holding the laptop he’d used to compose a suicide note and email it to his best friend, who (thank God) is not clueless and didn’t hesitate to call us, or to call us again, and again.
I get back into the car and turn the ignition. Since the urgent medical crisis has passed, our best bet for treatment is the pediatric hospital half an hour away, so I flip a U-turn and head east toward the freeway. Ben sits quietly next to me. I-215 bends and curves like the road we drove together the summer before last, a rural road leading from the Utah side of Bear Lake to Minnetonka Cave, a limestone formation tucked high in Idaho’s greening hills. We had the van windows cranked down and the iPod cranked up, and I played him “Stairway to Heaven” for the first time. Tonight the windows are shut tight against the February chill, and there is no music playing.
As soon as I’m able to form sentences I begin asking Ben questions, and he answers me calmly and candidly, both of us pretending that words can help, that words can explain.
His voice sounds just like my brother’s in tone and cadence. His words are ones my brother might have spoken. I try not to notice, but at sixteen, Ben is more like George than I can ignore. Thankfully he has a stronger family, a stronger identity, a stronger support system—but he’s haunted by the same grim melancholy, the same crushing self-doubt. Like George, he carries an ink-black void in his heart that light cannot reach. Sometimes when I catch a glimpse of Ben in his Led Zeppelin T-shirt, or hear him laughing from the other room, I think he’s the ghost of my brother, and I shiver. Tonight, I am shivering.
The hospital rests on a mountain bench overlooking downtown Salt Lake City. It’s past eleven when we arrive. The ER parking lot is full and the parking garage feels too far away, so I pull into a deserted loading zone. Ben follows me through the sliding ER doors to the triage desk. The admit nurse asks me why we’re here. I’m not sure how to answer. We’re here because Ben is having an acute psychiatric crisis. We’re here because I handed this kid my mental illness, and then handed him a potentially lethal dose of medication. We’re here because my son wants to die.
I stammer something about an overdose and produce the half-empty prescription bottle from my coat pocket. A blonde nurse takes charge, peppering Ben with questions until she’s satisfied that he’s not an immediate threat to himself or others. He is stripped and gowned, weighed and measured, bled into a test tube, drained of urine, pumped with IV fluids. We are questioned by another nurse, a physician’s assistant, the resident internist, and the social worker on call. When the lab reports indicate no toxicity, we’re put out to pasture in a room at the end of the hall. “It’s been a crazy night around here,” warns the social worker. “I might not be back for a few hours.”
She shuts the door behind her. The room is cramped and dark, windowless. Ben passes out on the narrow cot, overcome by fatigue. I slump in the vinyl armchair in the corner, panicked by the closeness of his pain, this dank despair heavy enough to stop a heart. I try to pray. In my mind I envision that one, God himself, who came down among the children of men and embraced the gloom, alone. That one who, in due time, will lead his children out of the earth’s gaping mouth and into the clearest of nights. But as I sit in this pinch point of a room, my view of that future redemption is faint, too faint, a dim light flickering at the back of a cave. I can only cling to the hope of things unseen for my son, my brother, myself.
I’m startled awake when the door opens with a rush of fresh air. The social worker apologizes for taking so long; she was needed by a bereaved family in the pediatric ICU. I look at my sleeping child, broken but alive. The resident has cleared Ben for discharge, and an ambulance is waiting to transfer him to the neuropsychiatric inpatient unit down the road. Within minutes the EMTs arrive with a gurney and strap Ben down for the ride. He looks so young beneath the restraints, so weak and so pale, shrouded in the hospital’s white woven blankets. As he’s wheeled away I wave to him, but his eyes are closed.
I gather Ben’s discarded clothes and walk through the sliding exit doors into the last vestiges of the night. It will soon be dawn. Approaching my car I inhale the thin winter air, icy like menthol, which clears the staleness from my lungs. As I pull out of the hospital driveway I see the vast valley spread below, its edges curved up into mountains that touch the overarching heavens, veiled by haze. When I look up I see nothing but black. But when I look down I see wide swaths of white and gold, countless lights forming constellations of cities and towns and neighborhoods, each bright spot marking a street, a home, a life. And it shocks me anew that so much goes unseen in the light of day, that only darkness can reveal these stars, these souls, glittering on the ground as if the earth has become the sky.
Originally published in Irreantum as an entry for the 2011 Charlotte and Eugene England Personal Essay Contest. The deadline for the 2012 contest is May 31.