Wednesday, March 07, 2007

Unanswerable Questions

When I was growing up my best friend, Elizabeth, lived about two blocks from me and we did everything together. We rode our bikes all over Oak Cliff. We explored the creek in front of her house in the summer and made snow forts in the winter. We tormented the bus driver in junior high and double dated with the two most patient boys in high school. She would say or do just about anything. She would cook up squirrelly ideas then convince me to go along with her. She was Lucy to my Ethel. About the only time I ever turned her down was the hitch hiking trip to Mexico our second year of college. Even I thought that one was stupid. She went without me and the newspapers wrote about her trip.

I loved to go over to her house because it was so interesting. Her mother once collected their dog’s fur, spun it into wool with a real spinning wheel then knitted a sweater from it. She wanted to change the color of her living room furniture once without buying new stuff so she painted the couches with house paint. It was an ingenious idea and except for the brittle nubs this created, did the trick—the couch was the color she wanted. You just had to expect the sensation of sitting on a prickly pear when you sat down. There was a mural on the hall ceiling (a pretty good one, too—kind of like the Sistine Chapel), a world map on the wall of the laundry room and a lemon tree painted in the kitchen.

In high school Elizabeth had a white Pontiac convertible. We could start at the top of the hill by my house, slip the car into neutral, sit up on the seat backs while she steered with her feet; and coast all the way down the hill. We pretended we were beauty queens in a parade and waved at people we passed. It’s amazing we didn’t get arrested.

She was known in our schools by the names “Dizzy Lizzie” or “Crazy Liz.” These nicknames were mostly joking references to her outlandish personality. It wasn’t until we were grown that I realized just how well these names would fit her

All this time, Elizabeth’s mother was so wacky that she was a constant source of interest to friends and embarrassment to her daughter. I think I was the only one who knew her mother was periodically hospitalized for mental illness. Elizabeth would confide in me that her greatest fear was that she would grow up to be just like her mother.

After college, she married and moved to Oklahoma. When it came time for our 10th class reunion I called her. Her husband was beating her, she said, and declined to go. She had moved all her furniture into the street and was waiting for Fred Sanford, the junkman on TV, to come get her. The pieces began to fit together. “Crazy Liz” really was crazy. She had become her mother.

She surfaced in my life briefly a couple of times after we grew up. Both times it was good to see my old friend and we would discuss her mental illness. She trusted me after so many years of friendship and would tell me what it felt like. There were voices telling her horrible things and sometimes she would see angels in the stall at the public bathrooms. Once we had a conversation about the medication she needed to take. She hated taking it. She told me about one time she was off her meds and was convinced that Elvis was alive. And I asked if she knew he was dead when she took her medicine. Oh yes, she said, she knew he was dead as a doornail when she took the medicine. The conversation came to a chilling end when I realized that logic was of no use to her. It just didn’t exist for her.

One of the last times she appeared in our lives was the day she burst into the WFAA-TV station reception area and asked to see Beaven. She was dirty and disheveled and even had bags full of stuff with her to remove any doubt that this was a real live bag lady. She shouted some gibberish about the conspiracy to assassinate President Kennedy and left as suddenly as she showed up.

I spotted her later that week on the curb of a downtown Dallas street holding a sign about the Kennedy Assassination Conspiracy. Her normally immaculate blonde hair was limp and lifeless. She had gained weight and looked dirty. There was my childhood best friend, the girl I grew up with, included in my wedding, shared deep secrets with, double dated with -- and I could not make myself stop to talk to her. She had become scary even to me.

She comes from a very wealthy family. They would be willing to spend it all on her care if she would let them. But this disease is a tough one. You can medicate a person into reality but once her brain was cleared she would fail to see the reason to keep taking the meds. And without them, her life is a living hell.

I say all of this because our homeless guy, Mitchell, is starting to cause problems at church. Check my blog posting of August 23, 2006, “Be Careful What You Pray For.”

Because of my experience with my crazy friend, mental illness doesn’t scare me like it does some people. But I also know how little use logic is when you deal with them. Mitchell pissed off a bunch of the men in our church and they tried to use logic on him. And it’s come to a testy situation. He doesn’t like them and they don’t like him being around.

I remain as convinced as ever that sometimes Jesus dresses up like a homeless man and goes around visiting some of his congregations just to see how they treat him. I’m afraid we’re about to slap a restraining order on Jesus at the First Presbyterian Church.

I can’t blame the other folks who want to get rid of him. I talked to a friend from another church that had their own homeless guy for a while. They bent over backwards to help him but it backfired in the end as it usually does. At this stage in the science and art of medicine there remain some problems we just can’t fix. We’ve sent a man to the moon but can’t crack the code on mental illness. We’re just not there yet.

We gave Mitchell our best shot. I haven’t heard from my friend Elizabeth in five years. I can’t fix them; I can only pray for them. Spring is here and sleeping outdoors won’t be so bad for a while. Elizabeth always enjoyed camping. May God watch over my friends Elizabeth and Mitchell.

I read a book by Rachel Naomi Remen called Kitchen Table Wisdom a few years ago and I found the most awesome quote in it. It’s been on my mind lately and I’ll leave it with you today.

“Perhaps the secret of living well is not in having all the answers but in asking unanswerable questions in good company.”

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