by Neesa Suncheuri
I’m at my psychiatrist’s office for a routine visit. I go every four weeks, mostly to get my prescriptions. I haven’t changed my medication dosages in months.
“Hello, Neesa, how are you?”
“I’m doing really well!” A smile on my face. “Last week, something amazing happened to me. I’ve become a Christian!”
“You have?” Dr. Schmidt looks at me with no indication of surprise, other than a raised eyebrow.
“Yes! And it’s wonderful!”
“Alright.” He starts writing notes on an orange form with his fancy fountain pen. “And what have you been doing now?”
“Well, right away after I got saved, I started reading the Bible. I can’t stop reading it now! I even went to Barnes and Noble to get a really nice study bible. I’m hoping to find a church soon.”
“I see.” More writing. “How will you find a church?”
“Well, I’d go to services on Sunday of course. Then there are bible studies sessions and prayer meetings. The whole nine yards! I have to start living my life the way God wants me to. But right now, I have to do my research. Educate myself, make sure I understand proper Christian doctrine, so that I can choose the right church.”
He looks over his glasses. “The right church?”
What a great question! I’m eager to respond. “Yes! I have to find a church that believes in the bible literally! Everything in the bible is real, you know? The earth was created in six literal days. The earth is six thousand years old. God is both one and the three persons, of God the father, His son Jesus and the Holy Spirit. And you have to believe in Jesus in order to go to heaven. If you don’t, you will go to hell, where you are tortured forever–”
“I see, I see, alright. You are enthusiastic about religion now.” He gets the idea of what I’m saying, but he’s not really feeling it the way I would like. I must tell him.
“I am! I want to go to service on Sunday, and worship with other Christians. I want to go to bible studies, where I can learn how to read scripture correctly. I want to give my life up to God, and let Him guide me where He will. This is the answer to my ills. This is the way to true mental healing.”
Dr. Schmidt is not verbal, but rather continues writing. I notice the ticking of the clock on the wall behind him. It says Seroquel on its face. I remember taking that drug a few years ago. I’d take the pill at night, and it sedated my body and my eyes like nothing else. Yet my mind would lay awake, and I’d feel physically paralyzed. When I eventually fell asleep, I wouldn’t wake up until after noon. Medicated, yet still unable to live a “normal” life.
He looks up.
“Are you still writing songs and playing your original music in bars? I know you’ve said several times that you enjoy that. That you have friends there.”
“No way, I can’t do that anymore! Do you know how sinful those places are, where the people are drinking and smoking cigarettes and weed everywhere? That is not of God. The rock music too…just think of the rhythms, the pounding drums, the unholy lyrics. It’s absolutely heathen! Like the music of indigenous tribes, before the missionaries came to them and shared the good Gospel with them. The good news, that Jesus died on the cross for you, and that if you believe in him you should go to heaven.”
Dr. Schmidt writes again. “And what about a job? Are you thinking about going back to school? It’s important that you have some sort of future planned ahead.”
“There are so many Christian colleges out there. I was thinking about going to one of them for an accounting degree. There’s also a bible college in Indiana that I’m interested in. Some previous college friends of mine are affiliated with a school there that is excellent. Everyone majors in Bible, and women can study to be teachers. Maybe I can even become a music teacher.”
He now makes eye contact, and gives me a cautionary smile. “It is good you have found purpose in your life, but don’t get obsessed with religion. Focus on going back to school, or getting a job. Make up your mind as to what you would like to pursue, and then stick to it. I don’t want you to go on disability.”
He pulls out his prescription pad and writes the first one. Then the second, and then the third. When he hands them all to me, I remember something very important.
“Hey! It ’s my mom’s birthday today!”
“Yes, I’ve got to buy her something this year. I usually never get her anything…I’ve been so selfish all these years. It is not of God to be this way. I must respect my parents, you know? It’s in the ten commandments–”
“Alright. What are you going to get then?”
“I don’t know. A flower, I guess. I only have three dollars.” I don’t mention extra $2.75 I have in my pocket, because I need it to take the bus home. I could feasibly use that extra cash to buy another flower, but then I’d have to walk home for an hour in the rain. Am I that noble? Perhaps God would advise against it, because it’s frigid outside. I might get a cold.
Dr. Schmidt opens his desk drawer and grabs a twenty-dollar bill. “Here. Buy your mother something nice.”
I suddenly feel ashamed. “No! I can’t take that. That’s wrong!”
He smiles, but his eyes don’t crinkle. “Don’t worry about it. It’s alright.”
I smash the bill in my pocket, along with my other wrinkled singles and quarters. “Thanks, Dr. Schmidt.”
“No problem. Tell your mother I say ‘Happy Birthday.’”
The air is so refreshing as I step outside. The gentle, warmish rain is a welcome signal that winter is closing and spring is approaching. It’s a good feeling. I even managed to take a shower this morning, so my skin doesn’t feel at all sticky as usual. I usually struggle with showering because I don’t like water too much. But now God is helping me with hygiene. My body is a temple of the Holy Spirit. So it is written.
My mission now is plain. I need to find a flower shop in the area. This part of Queens is one that I’m not familiar with, given that I only come here once a month for my psychiatrist’s appointments. This place is not at all close to my house. I ended up here because this psychiatrist takes my Medicaid insurance, and also because a friend of my mother’s said this guy is good.
But is he? He prescribed me Abilify two years ago, and now I’ve gained about eighty pounds. I guess that’s to be expected if I want to be mentally well. No success without sacrifice. I hate being obese though, and the pounds keep coming on without stopping. And I feel emotionally flat. I can’t relate to people when they smile or laugh. When I hang out at the bars on open mic nights, people chatting and all, I feel so isolated and detached. I stand on the outskirts of conversations, listening in, forcing myself to pretend interest when really I don’t give a shit…
Oops! I cursed! God would not be happy with that! But He would be pleased now also. I swear to never go to those bars again. I will never see those depraved people again. Saved Christians are my new brethren. And I am lucky that I have a psychiatrist that understands me. He even gave me twenty dollars for a nice gift! God is good.
But for now, I have to find a flower shop.
I spot a halal food cart at the corner of the street. As I approach, I see the menu on the side of the cart, masking tape covering printed prices with new ones written, a full dollar higher.
“Hello there!” A shy wave, my back hunched. I’m always apologetic when I ask for directions without buying anything. “I’m sorry, but can you tell me where there’s a flower shop around here?”
“Go down that way!” He points with his scalpel flipper thingy, in the direction that the avenues get higher. South.
“Thanks! Have a nice day!” I force my frowned self to smile.
It is important to show gratitude to others, because this is me being thankful to God. God is good. I could say this forever. God is good, good is God. God is good, good is God.
I walk a couple of blocks in the right direction, but I start to get worried I’m lost again. I’m bad with directions, and I lose my way frequently. But there! I see a storefront with tall plants! Upon closer examination, I also see red hanging decorations with gold Chinese writing. It is Chinatown after all. When I go in, I see some skinny young guy at an old computer, donning big plastic frames colored black. I don’t think he sees me.
“Hello? Excuse me?” My voice is small, and I give my sheepish wave again. “I’d like to get some flowers. I have twenty-three dollars?”
Without looking up at me, he gets up and dashes towards the door in the corner of the room. When he opens it, there is revealed only a flight of stairs that descend into pure darkness. He runs down without hesitation. As I stand there waiting for him to return, a small prayer runs through my head.
Thank you God, for the wonderful gift of Salvation that you have given me. Mere flowers are only a miniscule fraction of the glory you have promised me and the other Christians who are saved. Your promise of Everlasting Life, of heaven…what a beautiful, bountiful place.
Along with these words in my head, there is a feeling of happiness and safety in my heart.
“How much you have!?”
I am surprised by this woman now tapping me from behind. I turn abruptly.
“Um… $23. I’d like something colorful.” My mom likes absurdly bright color schemes because she grew up in the 60s. So it seems with her.
The woman goes into this clear-doored refrigerator room, and I see her pick various random flowers. Several differently-colored carnations, three lilies, non-red roses and a purple daisy. (The daisy is completely out of place, yet it is the flower that fits my mother best.) She then steps out and lays them all on a table on top of a sheet of pink plastic wrap. The bouquet looks like the most mismatched thing ever, and a bit skinny besides…
“Excuse me? Can you add some of that?” I point to a bunch of little white flowers. I think they’re called Baby’s Breath. That would fluff out the bouquet more. But before she adds them, she takes out the purple daisy. I’m somewhat disappointed, but now the arrangement looks a lot better. And anyway… this is how God has worked out. He wants my bouquet to look like this. I should not question His judgment.
The woman finishes up the project by wrapping it in a sheet of transparent pink plastic. Then I hand her my money and take the bouquet.
“Do you have flower food?” I’m shy again, but I want this bouquet to last as long as possible. Because when I set my eyes on it, I will be reminded of His everlasting glory. And my mother! Maybe it will result in her salvation as well. Some way, some how….
As I step outside, the happy, light rain greets me again.
Dear Lord… I’m so happy I took a shower today.
I arrive home. Home: that battle field of dementia, incontinence, and wretched fearfulness which brews within my ninety-four-year-old grandmother’s brain.
“GRANDMA! LOOK, I GOT FLOWERS FOR MOM!” I speak loudly because she is very hard of hearing. Deaf in one ear, and impaired in the other.
“OH NEESA! YOU’RE HOME!”
She doesn’t ever like being left home alone. It scares her, so my arrival makes her the happiest creature ever. And I admit, it’s becoming unsafe to leave her alone now, so I feel guilty too.
“GRANDMA, I GOT FLOWERS!” I hold them in front of me so that she can see. Her eyes are very bad, afflicted with Macular Degeneration.
“OH! THEY’RE SO BEAUTIFUL!”
It makes me happy when I have these moments with her, where she still has some remnants of her old personality. But it saddens me too. She likely can only see a blur of colors, and not at all any specific petals. I wonder what is life like, when you know that you only have a short time of life left, with the remainder of life bearing diminished senses. Is it frightening? How do the elderly cope? The aged should be commended for carrying this burden. Us modern types do not give them credit as once before.
Contemplating this quandary makes me fearful. But God loves me. He will soothe all my fears, and give me answers for all that I question. And as for death? There is none. There is only Eternal Life.
“NEESA! WHERE DID YOU GET THE FLOWERS?”
“A FRIEND GAVE ME TWENTY DOLLARS!”
Wait a minute. She asked me “where” I got the flowers, not “how.” I should listen to her more carefully. She is not just an annoying, batty woman. She is my grandmother. My elder. I must respect her, and cherish her for these last few years, maybe even months of her life.
“A FRIEND GAVE ME TWENTY DOLLARS SO I COULD BUY IT.” So I answer her actual question.
And then I think to myself…What friend indeed? Dr. Schmidt is not my friend. He’s my psychiatrist. And God would not like for me to lie about this. I should tell the truth. No lies.
“ACTUALLY, IT’S NOT A FRIEND…I GOT THE MONEY FROM MY PSYCHIATRIST.”
“PSYCHIATRIST? WHAT? ARE YOU SURE YOU NEED THAT? I KEEP TELLING YOUR MOTHER THAT YOU DON’T NEED THAT MEDICINE. YOU DON’T NEED THAT STUFF…NO, NO NO…”
Within me shouts a big hurrah. That’s right! I’m not a schizophrenic anymore. I’m not a bipolar. I don’t need medications to “correct” my personality. There’s not even such thing as mental illness, because there’s no mention of it in the bible. All that there is, is…
Demon possession? But I’m not demon possessed! No, never! I don’t need medications! God made me the way He wanted, and I’m sure He did not make me in such a way, that I would need medications.
There is something more pressing for me to worry about though.
“GRANDMA, I NEED A VASE! CAN I GO IN YOUR CLOSET?”
“Oooh…DON’T GO IN THERE! WAIT! WAIT!”
It’s hard for me to go over her head and just barge into her room without her permission. Not because I am disrespecting her, but because she makes a noisy and confused fuss if I do so.
“GRANDMA! I NEED TO GO IN YOUR CLOSET TO GET A VASE!” Repetition helps to make sure she understands.
I let her walk ahead of me into her bedroom. She hurries in at a slow pace, shuffling with little steps. On her feet are light blue plush slippers, with much of the light blue fabric ripped off. She always likes to save things until their final dregs.
I am familiar with her closet in general. Every week or so, Grandma has me go through all her belongings in there, and I tell her exactly what I find. She has to know exactly where everything is, and then she has to make sure that I put it back in the right place. She’s the little director who tells me what to do, so it were. I say little because she is about four foot ten. These organizing sessions have become more frequent lately, because the dementia is making her forgetful. And when she forgets what is in her closet? This makes her feel terrified and unsafe.
I admit, it’s bugger annoying. And yet I do it because I don’t have anything else to do, so it were. I don’t have a job. I’m on disability for mental illness. Yet now…God does not want me to find my Grandma annoying.
“GRANDMA! I’M GOING TO OPEN YOUR CLOSET. I’M GETTING THE VASE.”
I see the box on the top shelf. Last year, I wrote the word “DELFT” on it with a black permanent marker. The box contains a bunch of dishware from the Netherlands, which she bought years ago on a cruise ship before I was born.
“NEESA! BE CAREFUL!”
She has always been short, and so high shelves have likely been a source of absolute fear for her. I’m tall, so shelves are merely an annoyance for me.
“NEESA! DON’T MOVE ANYTHING AROUND! WAIT!!”
I ignore her. I get the box and heave it onto her bed.
“NEESA! DON’T MESS UP THE SHEETS! DON’T PUT IT THERE! WAIT! I HAVE TO FIX THE SHEETS…”
I sigh and roll my eyes. I wish I could give her everything she wanted, so that she would be happy. Or quiet. Sometimes, her voice can be so shrill…
“NEESA! DON’T OPEN THE BOX! I HAVE TO WIPE OFF THE DUST!” In earlier days, she would have been eager with a scrap of fabric in hand, ready to wipe off the dust the box had accumulated. But now, she is only left with impulses, now turned to utter fears.
No. No, I can’t think this way. She is an old, ailing woman. And I must care for her. God is compelling me to care for her. I have no other job, so why should it not then be my job to care for her till her last days?
I pull out the vase from the DELFT box, wrapped in newspaper, and then swiftly put the box back up exactly where it was. As I unwrap it, I see its detail: It is an off-white ceramic piece painted with royal blue. A windmill is its main image. Its varnish is moderately crazed.
I bring it over into the kitchen and prep the dining room table by putting a sheet of newspaper on it. Then I unwrap the flowers on it. I cut their stems on the diagonal, and then place them in the vase. During this entire process, my grandmother is standing behind me, watching. At times, I feel her white wispy hair brushing eerily against my arm.
“NEESA! DON’T GET THE TABLE WET! DON’T GET THE TABLE WET!” Like me, she is also afraid of water. I probably learned the fear from her as a small child.
The bouquet is finished after I pour in one of the flower food packets. A pretty picture! I put the vase in the living room right next to my mother’s chair. She’ll see it when she goes to watch TV.
With my mission accomplished, I return to my room and sit back on my bed, ready to read my bible again. My mother was nice enough to give me money to get a big fat study bible. Although, I sort of regret my purchase now. In my enthusiasm, I neglected to thoroughly research which translation is best. I realize now that I got the New International Version from 1984 (NIV), which is not the best translation. Sure, it’s on the conservative side, but there are better ones. There’s the New American Standard Bible (NASB), which is supposedly the closest modern translation to the original Hebrew and Greek, or the New King James Version (NKJV), which is a modern rendition of the original King James Version (KJV), the first English translation of the bible. Of course, the KJV itself would be better, but many find the older style of English to be difficult to understand.
I digress. And yet, I can hardly contain my excitement about God’s word! It is the most glorious document ever known to man. It is literally written by God! He directly influenced the minds and the pens of the men who wrote it. He softened their hearts, and they followed His command.
I turn to the Gospel of John, which I’ve already determined to be my favorite. Something about the words, the rhythm of it. It is incredibly entrancing.
And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another advocate to help you and be with you forever. (John 14:16, NIV)
The verse seems strangely familiar. It sounds like the lyrics of a song I once sung in high school, a song called “If Ye Love Me” by renaissance composer Thomas Tallis. But the lyrics–immensely more beautiful. Assumedly from the KJV:
If ye love me, keep my commandments. And I will pray the Father, and he shall give you another Comforter, that he may abide with you for ever; Even the Spirit of truth. (John 14:15-17a, KJV)
Maybe I should read from the King James Version. People online say it is a purer form of scripture–
Suddenly I hear a crunching, munching sound coming from the kitchen. Grandma must be eating her crackers and jelly. That’s really the only thing she likes to consume these days. I know she struggles eating too, because her dentures don’t quite fit right. They click and flop at times.
Dear God…why am I so critical of her? Please, I pray in Jesus’ name, that I leave behind my criticisms, and find only love for her.
I continue to read God’s word until I notice that the sky is dark. A peaceful calm overtakes me, and I look out the window with the same wonder that perhaps affected Abraham when he spoke with God, looking at the stars, numbering his endless descendants. Although in New York, we don’t see stars so much. Perhaps Orion’s Belt, and a few airplanes.
The house is quiet enough for me to hear the front door clicking, indicating that my mother is home. Now is the time! With excitement, I wait for her… she is taking off her shoes and coat… stepping onto the wooden floorboards, creaking towards the living room. But I cannot hide my anticipation any further. I walk out of my bedroom towards her.
“Mom! Hello! How are you? Happy Birthday!”
I hug her, as if I am still a toddler in her arms. But her eyes are half-closed.
“Neesa, I’m really tired. I almost crashed the car on the highway. I have to sleep for a little while.” The griefs of working in Brooklyn, and living in Queens. Commuting is just as stressful as the job itself.
She sits in her well-worn recliner in front of the TV, next to the flowers, and falls asleep almost immediately after she leans back. As long as I have ever known her, she is always exhausted. From being a single mother twenty years ago, to now being close to retirement age without any savings in sight…a bouquet of flowers is the least I can do. It’s also the most I can do. I have no job. I have no career. I have no boyfriend. I have no future. All I have is my mother’s love, and the house that she has provided me. And now she is sleeping. She has not seen the flowers yet, but no matter. Patience is a virtue. Always, I must honor my mother, just as she is. God expects me to follow this commandment, which He once bestowed unto Moses.
My disappointment is unimportant. Instead, it’s back to the beloved bible, although now even I am tired. I’m discovering that reading the bible is very exhausting. So much is required of my attention to really absorb it.
I see a bonfire, tall orange flames licking the night air. I try to see the people sitting on the other side of it, but the air shakes and I can only make out their basic forms. They are wearing the outfits of pilgrims. Stark black clothes, perhaps some blonde hair under a tall hat… Something indicates to me that they’re teenagers, or young adults. People my age, yet I am not one of them. I feel like an outsider.
I poke at the firewood with a long stick, ignoring everything around me with an attitude of solitude. There is only me, and the fire. To watch it move, is to clear my mind of worry.
But then I look up. I see now, those people approaching me slowly. They bear the steady, judgmental glares of Puritans, and they look upon me as if I am a blight. But why? Is it the color of my skin, a shade too dark? Is it my personality, more deviant than rule-following? Maybe it is my hair, hued black and a bit too curly. Maybe I am too tall to be a woman. Or maybe I am not a real Christian. Maybe I am a pretender. That would be the greatest shame of all.
I start to see their faces more clearly. There is the face of–who is that? Oh! It is Avery Scott, a boy that teased me in grammar school, so long ago. Once he accused me of putting gum on his shoelaces, which I never did. Come back to haunt me, has he?
I see another face forming, a girl I can tell. The darkness clears and her identity becomes apparent. Annabelle Friedman! Again a character from my childhood. What a witch she was. Her voice croaked as wrongly as a frog’s, and she once commanded me to run around a tree repeatedly. I obliged, because I wanted to be her friend.
One by one, the faces reveal themselves, each representing a dismal memory of a past tormenter, an injustice done me wrong, times when I felt bullied and marginalized. Perhaps my subconscious still carries these burdensome memories.
The leader of them all now comes towards me. He steps into the flames unscathed, and suddenly, I feel a puritan hooking an elbow into each of my arms. I am kicked behind the knees, forcing me to now kneel in pity.
The leader comes through the flames, and I realize that he is holding a big skin, perhaps once was a sheepskin rug, or some other mammal. It now too is completely on fire. And now the effigies approach closer, circling around me smaller and smaller.
“Be cleansed by the Lamb of GOD!”
The leader throws the flaming skin on me, and I perish.
What a curious dream. Was it a good one, or a bad one? Did I need to be cleansed because I am evil, or is this cleansing simply a process of being saved? I continue reading from John, and incidentally read:
If you do not remain in me, you are like a branch that is thrown away and withers; such branches are picked up, thrown into the fire and burned. (John 15:6, NIV)
I don’t want to be thrown into the fire of hell. I must cling to God, and believe in His son. But perhaps this dream is good. His noble decision to have me saved has even entered my subconscious! Even in my dreams, God is there with me! I am truly blessed.
I am unaware of the hour, except that it is sometime between nightfall and that moment right before twilight. My mother is sleeping, although the television is on. I can hear it from my room. But whatever movie she was watching on HBO has now ended, and there is instead softcore pornography playing on the TV. I can hear it from my room.
How absolutely dreadful. What sin. Never again will I deign to look on pornography.
I click the TV off, and immediately my mother wakes up.
“Nee… Neesa? Wha?” She’s half-awake, still coming to.
“Mom? Hey Ma? Hey!” I poke at her. Admittedly, I have a terrible habit of not respecting her need for sleep. She sleeps at whatever chance she gets, and I miss her company at times because of it. And she’s just been out for a few hours…I figure she’s okay for now.
“Ma! Hey! How are you? What’s up?” I kneel down next to her.
“I’m okay…what time is it?”
“In the morning?”
“Wh–why did you wake me up?”
I don’t really have a good answer. Do I?
“Neesa…what’s this? Are these flowers?”
I had completely forgotten. The bouquet stands next to her, uninterrupted.
“Oh! I got it for your birthday! Happy Birthday Mom!”
“You actually remembered? I almost forgot it myself!”
“I know. I’ve been a horrible person about it. All these years, I’ve never gotten you anything. I hope you like this present now.”
“I do.” She does not thank me. It is not her style to do so. Instead, I give her a warm hug, and she hugs me warmly back. No thanks is necessary. I simply love her for being herself.
Neesa Suncheuri works as a mental health peer specialist at a housing agency in Queens, New York. She is the founder of a Facebook discussion group for peer specialists and other recovery enthusiasts, entitled “What is Wellness? A Mental Health Discussion Group.” Much of her creative inspiration is rooted in her now-tamed schizophrenia. She is a singer/songwriter, and performs in various venues in the city. She writes poetry, maintains a blog and is currently working on a memoir. Follow her on Twitter at @aquariumspeaks.