The first time I was alone with him he scared me half to death. He was a big man, a schizophrenic, and his voices were acting up. I was driving him to have lunch at my boss’s suggestion and at every stoplight after I imagined choking her for suggesting this dangerous assignment I envisioned the many ways my body could be found if all six-foot-five of him got gnarly with me.
He laughed to himself most of the way across town and through lunch. I couldn’t wait to get done with tacos pescado y frijoles and get him back to the residential center. In hindsight, I know now he was simply nervous.
After that things got better. I visited with him for a while in the company of others or at least within sight or sound of others. I found out he really was a gentle giant.
He’d been a rising tennis star in his mid-twenties when the schizophrenia hit him. Now he was forty something and the time in between had been a blur of drugs, fast living, run-ins with the law and locked down psychiatric wards. Now he’d lost his teeth, most of his hair but not his humor. He’d never been anyone’s idea of a “good boy,” but he was charming in a Beetlejuice kind of way.
No one thought he’d follow through with the dentist but he fooled them all. When he finally realized that having teeth would be a big plus in getting a girlfriend he went religiously for months until they finished his front partial. He started caring about his clothes and cleaning himself up. Some days with his boots and white cowboy hat he looked downright handsome, even before the teeth. He was quite a presence really, like Jack Nicholson in a Western wear ad for GQ.
He loved to get on the CB radio and jive. He could talk faster than anyone on the airwaves and had a genius in the way he put words together. I’m sure he had those truckers wondering what hit them. When he wasn’t being a narcissistic nitwit I loved being with this man. I found his brilliance, humor and spontaneity enchanting. We’d developed the mutual respect and trust that makes what they stiffly call the “therapeutic relationship” work. The voices stopped coming. He even reconciled to some degree with an estranged family. He was getting his life back.
Then, because of a change of circumstances, I had to leave as his case manager. Someone else took my place. They didn’t go with him to art museums, or hang out at the greasy spoon on Main for breakfast. They didn’t visit the )(horses and feed them carrots. They didn’t ride bikes down at the beach. They didn’t take him into the Catholic church when he wanted to pray and light candles. I worried about him. Though he was “just a patient” I loved him. There was never any breach of professional etiquette but my appreciation and love of him went beyond purely clinical interest. I saw him as a human being, not just as a “sick” person. I saw beauty in his lumbering walk, in his toothless smile; I heard divinity in his laughter and mercurial associations.
He still called me for a while after I left but I didn’t respond. I knew there needed to be distance until his new relationships could gel. I’d see him around town now and then. He’d be having coffee in various places around town, smoking and fast-talking someone. I’d fade from sight quickly, so he wouldn’t see me, but with a slight ache in my heart.
When we switched care managers it was just days before he got his partial. I never even got to see him with teeth. I could only imagine his dazzling smile and all the new scams he could run now that he looked presentable. Hell, he might have even landed a job as a car salesman like he always wanted. Then last week, out of the blue I got this message on my cell phone: “Ciiiiiiiiiiiiiii-nndaaaaaaaay, this is the big cowboy coming at ya from my new place. I like it, living by a swim and tennis club, lottsa girls. Yeah, startin to muscle up and lookin good. Still got that cowgirl hat for ya. Don’t be such a stranger — come on down and see me.”
I remember his mother telling me he could charm birds out of the sky. Think I’ll just have to fly down there and see him one of these days real soon.