I've decided to write about my very special friends, to honor them. If you find that you do not appear in this series, don't take it the wrong way. It probably means that you are my "special" friend. Live with it. And count yourself lucky not to appear on these pages.
The very first friend I ever had was Clay. He had little choice in the matter, since he was my older brother by 2 years. And we had another older brother, Wade, who acted as the common enemy and thus sealed the deal between Clay and me. I like to tell people that Clay taught me how to walk, talk, read, and write. Only Clay had a speech impediment: lots of mispronounced consonants and vowels. I talked exactly like him. At about the age of four, having been exposed to enough normal talkers, I changed my speech. Clay was becoming competitive enough at this stage to follow suit, not wanting to be bested by a little sister. Today, neither of us talks funny, but we often talk crazy.
Clay and I spent hours and hours together as young children. We fought intensely with each other but could leave it behind us within minutes. I was a very shy child; Clay was probably the only human I trusted completely. Of course, he betrayed that trust. He must've been 10 or so when he realized that big brothers were cool and little sisters were uncool. He switched allegiance to Wade and my heart was broken. We went our separate ways.
Our ways were so separate by the time we were in high school that when Mama was called in to meet the principal and was informed that we had been seen together at school smoking pot, the most she could muster was a raucous guffaw. What a preposterous concept. Together? Hahahahahahahahaha. (Full disclosure: We never got stoned together at school, so somebody was making up some shit. But Sunday nights were truce night. Wade, Clay and I got wasted and watched Battlestar Galactica. Yes, the original, shitty sci-fi show rocked our stoner world.)
After high school, we gradually reestablished a genuine friendship. Over the years Clay has been uncommonly kind to me. We still have some serious disputes around gender issues. And our battles over racial matters are legendary. Not too many years ago, while watching Clay and I go toe-to-toe over some newsmaking racial incident, my husband, Jimmy, stood up, announced, "I've seen this movie before." And left the room. Well, yes, that movie has been playing for years. Some classics are worth repeating. Of course, the part where it gets personal has become embarrassing for both of us. How many times can you have a children's fight and leave it behind? We still manage it, but we fight less now and we share as much love and respect as possible.
Clay has frequently been the glue that held together the many disparate personalities of our family. No one doesn't love Clay. No one couldn't love Clay. No one doesn't owe Clay something for the years of support, of quiet suffering, of meals, of cheerful hellos, of taking responsibility for cleaning up the shit that no one else wanted to touch. When I was a teenager, my mother's father, The Creeper, moved into our house. We called him The Creeper because of his slow, unsteady pace up and down the hallways of our home, usually jingling dozens of coins in his pockets. The Creeper wasn't a cheerful fellow and his bitter diatribes slowly ate away at Mama until Daddy determined that it was time to cut and run. So Mama and Daddy sold their house, to Clay, on the condition that The Creeper came with the house. Clay literally cleaned up The Creeper's shit for several years.
I could tell dozens of stories like this. Stories where Clay stepped in when others were too tired, afraid, busy, or just plain selfish to do the right thing. And that's why it is so hard to understand the suffering that has been put on Clay. You see, two months ago, Clay's schizophrenic son, Austin, killed himself.
Everyone in my family is casting about for answers right now. My nephew killed himself. He meant to. How do you fill the big gaping hole left behind? How do you explain why it is there? Some of us are taking less conventional paths than others. My oldest brother, Austin's ne'er-do-well uncle, posts some pretty weird shit on Facebook. Who am I to judge? When it comes to the spiritual I waffle between outright scoffing and clinging to conventional notions. I think there is no God. Then I want to light a candle. Say a mass. The language and the notions of the New Testament may seem archaic (or full of hocus-pocus), but they capture something essential. The truth there is not literal, but it is there.
The truth. The truth is that Austin was a beautiful baby. He looked so much like Clay that I could do nothing but adore him. From the day he was born Austin was a daredevil. A very cute daredevil. At the age of 3 he would trot out to the pool and literally fling himself into the water. He knew how to have a good time. He knew how to laugh. He cared about his friends.
The truth is that we lived thousands of miles apart. Austin became a teenager and we shared little more than quick greetings. He became a schizophrenic and I never knew him again. I couldn't connect. The best I could do was give him one of those rubber bracelets that said, "Never give up" and tell him to quit smoking. I gave him a car and prayed he wouldn't die in it. He didn't. Some prayers are answered, but apparently I was praying for the wrong thing.
At 3 fearless. At 20 consumed in a fiery hell of demons. Demons. Give it another name if you like, but does it matter? Our cure rate these days is only marginally better than 2000-years-ago. Are demons real? They are if you think they are so strongly that you'd rather die than live with them any longer.
These days Clay putters around the house on weekends, hoping no one will stop by and interrupt his solitude, his mourning. On Mondays, he drags himself into the office and slowly pulls himself back into the land of the living for five days. I try to help my first best friend.When I'm being purely rational, not to mention hopeful, I think that if we got our shit together we could make a big difference when it comes to mental illness. That's why today I made a contribution to Mental Health America and I hope you will consider doing so, too.