When Visiting Your Father In The Psych Ward of the VA Hospital

“Asylum” by Matteo Bona

Your father is on the eighth floor in the east wing. You didn’t know this at first because you and your siblings call it the looney bin. You make this joke with each other to keep from crying, which is sort of helpful for your mental health, but not very helpful for getting around at the VA Hospital. You’ll get lost and not know exactly what to look for when you get inside.

“Excuse me, I can’t seem to find the floor I need.”

“Which floor is that?”

“Well my dad, James Holmes is there. He’s staying there. He’s been staying there for a while I think.”

The orderly will look at you sideways. He’ll need more information from you please. Look down at the ground.

“Right. Ok. He came in because he was really, um, drunk, but he’s not detoxing anymore. He’s not there (I know that floor), and he’s not here for rehab or anything (I know that floor too). He’s on a floor where he can’t leave. Ya know, like the…. looney bin?”

He nods knowingly and smiles a little smile. “Go down this hall to THOSE elevators. You are looking for the EAST elevator. Eighth floor.”

“Thank you. Thank you so much.”

You really have to be overly nice and normal as a visitor to Eight-East in the VA hospital. People know your story, and they are expecting you to have no teeth, or mispronounce basic words, or not know how to act, or any other string of white trash attributes one might have acquired from chronically addicted parents. It is important, when visiting Eight-East of the VA hospital, to shower and look your best. Wear the earrings your mother-in-law bought you and use your college vocabulary. Don’t let on that their suspicions are correct. Even if your pants are from the Goodwill, and you grew up eating pancakes for dinner. Even if your mother smoked Kools while she was pregnant with you and still does. Even if she uses double negatives. Can’t nobody tell you’re white trash unless you show them. Even if all your furniture was and still is second hand, and all your dogs (and there were lots of them) always had fleas that jumped up your ankles, and you drank Kool-Aid and ate Hamburger Helper, you must not let on. Head high.

When you get off the elevator on the eighth floor, you are immediately met with a set of glass doors. These doors might be bulletproof. They are almost totally soundproof. I say almost because there are still notes that escape the glass. They are the hair-raising screams—short intense bursts of emotion that only the institutionalized make. You have to buzz in and wait for a nurse to come open the door for you. Then you have to sign in. Then you have to wait until your father, strong, athletic, side-splittingly funny, finish-the-Sunday-New-York-Times cross-word puzzle-smart, shuffles out of his room and comes to meet you.

You will be surprised by what you see. You will tell yourself, “this father is not the father I know,” but at the same time, you know this is the only father you’ve ever known. You’ve seen his face in black and white WWII liberation photos at Nazi concentration camps. Today his eyes are sunken back into his tiny skull and gelatinous puffs of wrinkles pool above his cheeks. He wears a shredded baseball hat. His skull, diminutive, is soaked by that hat. It gives him a childlike appearance. His jeans, cinched tight and high around his waning waist, still sag and need to be pulled up, again and again. They are dirty and have that sandpaper grit caused by layered dirt and grime. He has the look of starving African child: Kwashiorkor. You’ll look that word up later. It’s the disease that makes those bloated bellies. Crack cocaine and whiskey have sucked the meat from his bones. The circumference of his biceps are similar to that of your wrists, but 70 days of looney bin portions and extra pudding cups for good behavior have given him a pudgy, distended belly.  This image will scare you. You will feel like you cannot breathe. Diagonally from you, a man with a long ZZ Top beard is screaming into a pay phone. He has pissed himself. You look down at your dad’s shoes. There are strips of shiny silver duct tape wrapped around his beat-up cross trainers.

“What’s up with your shoes, Dad?”

“No laces allowed kiddo. They think I’ll, ya know.” And he mimes the act of hanging himself. “But I’ll tell you, I bought some shoe laces at the gift store downstairs, I mean, I had to leave them at the reception desk on my way back in, but when I get out of here, I’m lacing my shoes back up!”

You will be uncomfortable. You will remember how you always laugh at the inside jokes in institutions. As a teenager, when you were hospitalized for slicing up your wrists and overall shitty teenage behavior, your Noxzema face-wash was confiscated at check-in. When you told him about that at visiting hours he said, “I’ve heard you can make napalm bombs out of Noxzema.”

You are going to hug him, and he will feel the same as he always does. You’ve hugged this man in so many states of emotion, health, weather, time and place, and know him by his hug. He is shorter now, somehow more than he ever has been, but even still, he has never been a tall man. 5’9’’, and your head always falls right onto his chest, and your nose always hits right at his shoulder blade, so your memory has burned into it the smell he wears in that place. Across space and time you could find that smell. Sober or drunk. Winter or summer. Homeless or settled. Friend or foe. You would bet your life on that smell. Stale tobacco. Fresh dirt, the kind that comes from a long day and night of playing outside. The pungent smell of pages of used books. Stale beer, faintly. It is home. When your home smells at best like books, and worst like booze, it makes sense that you are as comfortable inside the four walls of a therapist’s office as you are in a library, as you are surrounded by nothing but air and openness or dim lights and bartenders. And it makes most sense that you are not really comfortable anywhere. Remember this. You’ll tell your therapists about this later.

From the sign-in desk, you’ll move to the visiting area. When you try to pull the chairs out, you’ll fall back a little, and have to use both hands.

“What the fuck, Dad? These chairs are heavy as hell.”

“It’s so the crazies don’t throw them at the nurses, or each other, or at the windows to escape. But that’s crazy really, because these windows are bulletproof. It’s going to take a lot more than chairs to get through these windows.”

Yes, you’ll think, that is what is crazy.

When he introduces you to his roommate, his favorite nurse, the doctor that is coming around to do rounds, the janitor who is talking to himself, remember your manners. They will all say the same thing, “Is this your daughter, Jimmy? She’s pretty. You have one hell of a dad you know, young lady.”

When being introduced to people inside of the institution it is important to be the best you’ve ever been. Slip in comments about your master’s degree to the doctor if you can and try not to react when their eyebrows dart up in surprise, or say something overly complimentary to the toothless patient who is drooling on himself. It is important to show these people that your father was once, is still, could be again, the type of person that could raise the type of person you can really pretend to be.

You show him the photo album of your wedding, pointing out the flowers and your dress. You say, “We had BBQ. It was really great,” as if he was out of the state, and not locked up for getting so drunk and high he doesn’t remember trying to burn his apartment down. He doesn’t remember going to your brother’s job and punching him in the face. He doesn’t remember when your wedding even was. You’ll show him and when he cries, big sloppy tears down his old, pathetic face, you’ll hug him even though you don’t want to. Because you do want to.

The doctors will come around for their rounds. They love your father. The doctors are always rooting for him. He is always a leader among the other patients, and the nurses are always gently touching him on the shoulder as they talk to him. They see he’s crying and come over.  They tilt their heads to the side, “You doing ok today Jimmy?” As if it’s your fault that he’s crying.

You will stay for as long as you can take it. It’s okay to leave when you can’t take it anymore. You’ll sign out, and whichever crazies are in the lobby will flop their hands at you and wave. Your father will hug you and weep. You will feel his heart beating in his chest. You will feel it thump against you and remind you that you are the same.

On the other side of the glass, you will wave to him one last time. He will be standing on the other side of the glass, weeping, wiping his tears and mucus together across his face. You’ll give him a thumbs ups. He’ll blow you a kiss and it will take everything you have to not swat it away, smash the glass, give him the finger, and you wonder how much of a scene you could make before they lock you behind the glass with him. You won’t be able to pry yourself away from the thick glass until finally, a nurse will come and wrap her clean, thin white arm around his shoulders, bouncing up and down from the heaves coming from his chest, and take him back to his room. She will give you a small smile. You will nod back. Head high. You still have to get down the elevator and out to your car. Listen to your heels click-clack on the marble floor and try to convince yourself that it’s not your fault.

By Stacey O’Connor