I knew a boy once that traveled by skateboard. He would glide effortlessly through life over rough terrain. Poised in the air, hovering for a second over the backrest of park benches. The wind would blow through his sun bleached hair and cool off his sweat soaked neck on most summer days. Living on macaroni and cheese and swilling Gatorade with his rag tag group of skater friends. He was captured once by a local photographer and featured in his hometown newspaper. The photo depicted him in a kick flip with the board a foot from his feet just above a local sign that said ‘one way” as he was facing in the opposite direction. His fifteen minutes of fame garnered much criticism by local folks for ‘defacing” town property. His only crime, grinding his skateboard on curbings and town benches. It was amazing to watch him “flying high” in those youthful carefree days. He dreamed aloud of slinging a backpack over his shoulder and skating his way across the country like a modern “Jack Kerouac” after high school graduation. Not knowing his carefree days would end well before graduation commenced.
Throughout the late summer days of 2002 his skateboard spent more time parked in his back hallway. The storm clouds had begun to gather long before that in his mind. Secretly, he harbored doubts about the world as he knew it. Common gathering spots and trusted friends presented themselves as strangers off and on. The country he had dreamed about exploring for so long became something to fear. His skateboard held no more magic or adventure. The faces of his friends and family held no more warmth or familiarity. The school he attended for over three years became a new frontier that he could no longer navigate. As the months wore on he seemed to become a shadow person. A shell of someone that we used to know. His eyes were too wide and held too much fear. His mouth had all but ceased to move excepting when he would push down food at another’s insistence. If only he could find his words again. His words and thoughts and ideas had been buried under the storm clouds that continued to gather in his mind.
Finally, in the fall the storm broke. His words began to gush forth and force their way into our lives. They were hard to control and gather up. They swirled around us like the autumn leaves pushing and insisting their way into our home every time the door opened. He would open his mouth and they would tumble out. Not making any sense to us anymore. If only he would pick up the skateboard again and go flying. Why couldn’t he just sail through this turbulent sea of emotions. Somehow, stay ahead of it like a skater boy outrunning a train on the steel tracks. Some trains are just too fast. Some engines are just too strong. That was never a fair match to begin with. A freight train verses a boy on a skateboard. Luckily, we caught him just before he gave up and laid himself on the tracks. We stopped and listened to his words. We “heard” his fears, we saw his pain and let go of our own.
Sweeping away the dead leaves and broken thoughts we lifted him up off the tracks. Weeping as we entered the facility that would help sort out the disordered thinking. Leaving him there, even as he begged us not to. You understand we had no choice. The dam had broken and he was being swept away from us any which way we turned. That is what happens to a young man as schizophrenia splinters his reality. There is nothing left that is familiar. There is no safe haven in the mind of someone slowly descending into unreality. His skateboard stood in the corner of the back hallway like a soldier standing at attention. Waiting to be called into service. Never daring to move it personally for fear it would send him the message that he would never get back to “normal”. As the first year blended into the second he began to make sense of his new life. His remarkable intelligence afforded him the ability to understand the disorder and accept it for what it was. He learned how to weed through the forceful, unwelcoming thoughts of his illness and function to the best of his ability. Never questioning why this happened to him. He just trusted those who love him unconditionally to seek out the best possible care.
As he entered the third year of his illness he spied the skateboard that had gathered a thick coating of dust. Still standing like a sentinel, guarding the memories of his carefree youth. He glided his hand along it’s rim, wiping off the dust on his pants leg. Then, he hoisted it up and slung it across his shoulder. I winced knowing that was where the backpack of his dreams would have been. A man now, he turned to no one in particular and said, “hey, let’s give this skateboard to my cousin, little Michael”. “He skateboards, doesn’t he” ? I watched him load it into the backseat of the car. He just shoved it into the car like it was a bag of groceries. I wanted to scream, “be careful with that,” as if it would break. Finally, we arrived at our destination but he made no motion to get out of the car. He had done the very hardest part already, I reasoned to myself. It was only fair that someone else finish it for him. I opened the back door of the car and reach in for the skateboard. It’s only wood, I kept telling myself. As I passed it off to my sister to give to her grandson I tried to find the words to tell her what this meant. How, it felt like we were passing on an Olympian torch of sorts from a retired Olympic champion. In the game of life it seemed to me that my son had met his match and held his own. Before I had a chance to say anything I heard the car door open. My son had stepped outside the car with a big grin on his face. After giving his aunt a big hug he said, “do you think Michael would like my old skateboard”? “It’s really old but it’s a good one and I used to have a lot of fun on that thing”! She understood the significance because she squeezed my hand long and hard. Her eyes were brimming when she said, “Michael will treasure it, I promise you”.