all of the selves we Have ever been
A nurse met me at my office door:
“Can you keep Stella company? Her mother and brother are in with the doctor.”
“Of course!” How could I say no to a child?
The petite preschooler let go of the nurse’s hand and approached the office chair across from my desk. The chair must have looked like a mountain, but without hesitation or request for assistance, Stella succeeded in the climb. Once in the seat, she turned to face me. Bracing her hands against the arms of the chair and mustering all of her strength, Stella extended herself into a full body stretch. With her feet planted against the seat and her back arched, it seemed she might make herself large enough to fill the giant chair. Despite all of that effort, the heels of her black patent leather shoes did not reach the edge of the seat. Stella centered herself on the roomy cushion, smoothed her skirt, and gracefully crossed her legs at the ankles. Narrow bands of lace adorned the cuffs of her tiny white socks. Stella placed her hands in her lap and looked straight into my eyes.
“Why have you come to the clinic today, Stella?”
“It’s my brother. He’s resturbed.” Stella spoke earnestly, like a concerned colleague providing a case review.
I felt a sting in my chest. This precocious child should have been at home watching Sesame Street and memorizing the words to nursery rhymes. Instead, she was hanging out in a mental health clinic and learning the jargon of psychiatry, the words necessary to explain the odd thinking and behavior of a six year old brother with schizophrenia. The condition ran in her family; Stella’s mother was “resturbed,” too. Thoughtful in her every move, Stella seemed intent on distancing herself from the condition that held her brother and mother captive.
Stella and I shared a few moments on a busy morning long ago. Now, I am the one trying to cope with the fear and chronic fatigue that comes from living in a world gone mad. Symptoms of severe mental illness have spread faster than the coronavirus: poor reality testing, delusions, chaos, confusion, suspiciousness, prolonged anger and hostility, lack of insight, poor judgment, increased violence, rigid thinking, poor impulse control, hypersexual speech and behavior, excessive anxiety, peculiar beliefs, inability to form or sustain close relationships, self-importance and attention-seeking, inability to consider the needs of others…Many days it is a struggle to hope, to believe that the world is not irretrievably broken. That is when I think of her. How did Stella do it?
Despite her growing awareness of the mental illness that surrounded her, that tiny, precious child was still so innocent, so whole. She was graceful and well-mannered, intelligent and articulate. She waited patiently for the experts to do their work, and she followed their advice. Somehow, she remained capable of trust.
Stella gave maximum effort to taking the seat assigned to her. It didn’t matter that the seat was too big; she sat up straight and tall and held on to her dignity. Though it took effort, Stella stretched and planted herself firmly in the middle of the space afforded to her. Character added to her beauty; she was the delicate lace around the rough edges of life. Stella was brave enough to hear the truth and to tell it to others. She was cautious but open. Stella could separate herself from the odd behaviors of her people and love them anyway. She was willing to make the effort to be extra good, to help balance the cargo so that her capsizing family ship did not go under. And somehow in the chaos, she found what she needed to grow and develop.
Like Stella, many us are feeling weary and outnumbered. We are trying to be extra good to balance the load, to find what we need to sustain ourselves, but the problems seem so big and so numerous. Leadership is, at best, disappointing, at worst, terrifying. Each day brings something new and disturbing. I have been disturbed so many times that maybe that defines me as “resturbed,” too. I long for peace, the restoration of dignity, the practice of common courtesy. I want the world to work again. I don’t think we can count on politicians to get us out of this crisis. I do think it will take another epidemic, an epidemic of decency--simple, persistent, contagious goodness. Perhaps a child should lead us.
Are you out there, Stella?