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Shaking the Dead Geranium 

Harriet Rzetelny

I was sitting in my office staring at a column of travel expenses when the call  came in. 

“This is Marushka.” Hearing her voice on the phone for the first time, it  sounded harsher than I remembered it. “You’d better come. Your brother’s very  bad.” 

My stomach lurched. “What happened? What did he do?” 

“Just come.” 

I closed my eyes and took a deep breath. Then I went into Ellen’s office and  said, “I have to go. It’s Ben.” 

Ellen is a dynamic-looking blond who, at forty, is only a few years older than I. She owns the small but successful consulting firm where I work as her  executive assistant. She shot me a look full of questions she knew better than to  ask, and said, “Keep me posted, Molly.” 

Ellen’s willingness to let me go when Ben needs me is the main reason  I work for her. In return, she gets an efficient, college-educated person who comes in early, stays late, and is willing to work for far less money than she’s  worth. In the beginning Ellen would invite me out for drinks and was full of curiosity and well-meaning advice. But I’ve gotten very good at evading people’s  attempts at friendship. There are so many things I can’t talk about, I’ve learned  over the years that it’s not worth even getting started, no matter how well meaning people may be. 

The last time I’d seen Ben was two weeks ago. I’d gone to check up on him  as I do regularly, especially during these times when his mind loses its mooring  and he stops taking care of himself. I’d let myself into his tiny two-room  apartment and walked through the cramped kitchen into the bedroom-cum living room. He was stretched out on the daybed with his back to me and his  head on Marushka’s voluminous skirt. Marushka, a widow with several grown  children, must have once been quite beautiful. She was sitting propped up  against the wall, her face framed by a mane of rust-colored hair, like an edging  of autumn foliage around a crumbled bouquet. Her neon-purple blouse was  open and he had one of her still magnificent breasts in his mouth. Our eyes met; hers were full of defiance. I guess she thought I wouldn’t approve. 

Marushka was one of a large tribe of Gypsies who lived on the first floor  in my brother’s Lower East Side tenement building. She was usually out on the stoop when I visited him, and occasionally we passed the time of day. I had never  seen her talking to Ben, so I was quite taken aback when I walked in on them. I  didn’t know why I thought Ben’s mental illness had wiped out his sexuality along  with his ability to balance a checkbook. I also didn’t know how she’d gotten past  his pervasive mistrust of people that kept him so isolated, I being the exception.  But I was grateful he had a connection with somebody, anybody other than me,  and that he was getting at least a modicum of pleasure in life. 

Ben was eight years older than I, tall, with hair that curled tightly around his  head and a hawk’s nose always poking into something. When we were younger,  Ben had been my friend and protector, my buffer against the world. But that  was before the illness began ravaging his brain. Back then, the spotlight of my  mother’s love had focused on him, the brilliant son; she had little to spare for  me, the quiet child, nor for my father who had finally stopped coming home. I  kept hoping she would discover in my secret self something unique and special  to love; it never seemed to happen. She died ten years ago from lung cancer, still  mourning the son she’d lost, hardly aware of the daughter who sat dutifully at  her bedside. 

Ben was dazzling and fierce. He fought my fights for me and taught me  how to look beyond the surface and see beauty. I adored him. By age sixteen, he’d won awards for his poetry and a full scholarship to Emory College. By the end of his eighteenth year, he’d had his first psychotic episode: convinced that  my mother was sucking the life fluids out of his brain, he went after her with  a bread knife. By thirty he’d been hospitalized three more times. He was now  forty-three. He never graduated from Emory. He never held a job, published  a book, fathered a child. Between hospitalizations, he lived as a minimally  functional, oddly brilliant, but always reclusive eccentric; a kind of semi-life  made possible by modern pharmacology. 

All the men in my life—with the exception of my brother—come and  go rather quickly. One of the men I dated briefly once asked me where it was  written that I had to be Ben’s mother. I couldn’t explain it to him; my feelings  about Ben are only a part of the story. I was the one who called 911 that first  time, when Ben tried to attack our mother. I was ten years old. After the police  wrestled him to the ground, and he was chained up like a dog and carried,  kicking and screaming, out of the house, I locked myself in my room and cried  for so long that the doctor had to give me a sedative. After that, my mother  faded away, little by little. Mostly I remember her hunched over the kitchen  table, cigarette in hand, playing solitaire. The doctors diagnosed it as depression,  but I knew what it really was. The one person she truly loved had hated her so  much he tried to kill her. She never forgave me for making that call, for telling  the world about it, although I don’t know what she thought I should have done.  

That day—my brother’s murderous attack and my revealing it—lives in me like  a jagged wound that won’t heal. It was so gut-wrenching for both Ben and me,  that it forged an unbreakable bond between us and he’s come to rely on me as  the one constant in his otherwise erratic existence. 

After that, I took a vow of silence. I’d betrayed my mother once and I  would never do it again. Throughout my childhood, I found it easier to say  nothing than to possibly say the wrong thing. And her death hasn’t changed that  fact. It’s left me isolated and pretty much alone, except for Ben. Fortunately, I  truly like my brother and enjoy spending time with him—when he’s not actively  psychotic. His mind is like an old suit of once-excellent quality, that has been  patched and re-patched with odd pieces of material that don’t quite go together,  kind of like a crazy quilt. Some people might think it belongs in the rag bin. But  not I. I’ve always been drawn to the odd and unusual in life, and I find Ben’s  mind endlessly fascinating. 

The next time I tried to visit Ben, after the primal scene I’d witnessed  between him and Marushka the week prior, he was out, probably on one of his  long rambling walks. I knocked on Marushka’s door and thanked her for being  kind to him. Her eyes flashed, undoubtedly at my choice of words. I realized  then how hungry I was for someone I could talk to about him, someone who  already knew him and needed no explanations, and who might understand  what it means to love him. But she didn’t have much to say, or if she did, she  wasn’t going to share it with me. I scribbled down my phone numbers and told  Marushka to call if Ben ever got to be too much for her. She took the scrap of  paper and tucked it somewhere inside her blouse. 

I wasn’t really surprised when she called. It’s always just a matter of time.  But it was the tone of her voice that made the decision for me. I took a deep  breath and dialed Tony Baretti. He was the intake social worker at Marble  Heights, the small, private hospital in suburban Westchester where I decided to  hospitalize Ben, if and when the time came. Tony had been the speaker at one  of the many group meetings for families of the mentally ill I’d attended over the  years, and we became friends—sort of. At least I trusted him. And he did share  my amusement at some of Ben’s wilder delusions—such as the one in which  he decoded a fortune cookie that told him Billy Collins, our little known Poet  Laureate at the time, had blown up the World Trade Center to prove that poetry  still mattered. Also, Tony doesn’t tell me I need to get a life. 

As I waited for Tony to answer, I began to hope that I was over-reacting.  Maybe I had read the signs wrong. Or Marushka had. Or something. But I didn’t  want a repeat of that terrible first time. Or the ones after that. Altogether, Ben  had been hospitalized five times. Each time he’d been taken by the police to  a city psych ward. The last one was a horror show. The building looked like a fortress and the entranceway into the unit was through a dark, narrow corridor  with filthy, scuffed walls that smelled like the public bathroom in a bus station.  Someone—one of the inmates, I supposed, but it could easily have been one of  the staff—kept screaming “I’m not gonna take it anymore” over and over again,  until I was afraid I’d start screaming myself. 

Tony finally answered and I explained the situation. 

“Perhaps he needs to have his medication adjusted,” Tony said. “Has  anyone been following him in aftercare?” 

“Ben’s stopped taking his medication,” I said. “The most recent one they  gave him was fogging his brain out so much he insisted they were shooting  guacamole in through his ears.” 

“Okay,” Tony said, as though guacamole in the ears was a normal, everyday  occurrence. “We’ll get the paperwork started.” 

My resolve evaporated again. “Maybe he doesn’t really need it yet. Maybe  I should try to reach the psychiatrist at the aftercare center.” But I didn’t even  know who the current psychiatrist was—they flitted in and out of the center  like fireflies on a hot summer evening. The last one I’d met, who was gone now,  had been a young, well-meaning Pakistani who viewed Ben’s long, rambling  discourses which were full of historical, philosophical, and poetic references as  a symptom that needed to be extinguished by increased medication. He didn’t  understand that these discourses were all that remained of my brother’s once  fine mind; destroy them, and you leave him with nothing but his illness. 

“Molly,” Tony said gently. “I know this is hard for you.” When I didn’t say  anything, he went on: “I wish you would talk to me a little more.” Oh Tony, I thought, sometimes I wish I could, too. But the habit of silence  is so hard to break. The words just disappear off my tongue like snowflakes  melting on my hand. 

“Well,” he sighed, “it will all be in the works if you decide to bring him here.  But remember that this is a private hospital, which means you’ll have to get him  here. City cops won’t bring him.” 

“I know, Tony. But Ben hates hospitals.” 

“It’s a tough call, Molly. But if you let him go without help too long, it’ll be  worse for both of you.” When I didn’t respond he said, “Well, if you don’t do  it now and he gets really bad, you may just have to let the police take him in to  one of the local hospitals. Maybe after he’s stabilized a little, we can have him  transferred.” 

No, I thought, the images of his earlier commitments in the city hospitals  flashing through my mind like scenes from the theater of the damned. Not that.  “I’m going over there now. I’ll let you know.” 

A thin afternoon sun filtered down from the autumn sky as I climbed the  stairs from the subway and turned the corner onto Ben’s block. The run-down  tenements lining the street leaned into each other like a row of old alkies trying  to hold each other up. Marushka stood outside the building waiting for me, her  arms hugging her chest. She wore a thin sweater over a low-cut blouse, and was  shivering a little in the chilly air. 

“Couple days ago, he came into my apartment and started accusing me of  being the devil’s harlot,” she began before I could get my mouth open. “When I  yelled at him to get out, he got wild, threw a lamp at the wall, made a hole as big  as a soup bowl. Now why does he want to go and do that?” Two curved lines,  like parentheses, appeared above her eyes. “Niclos had to chase him out with a  baseball bat.” Niclos was the brother of her dead husband. “He’s been locked  in his bedroom since then. He won’t come out or answer me. I don’t think he’s  eaten. I hear him mumbling through the door. Niclos is up there.” 

“Oh, Marushka, I’m so sorry,” I said, wishing I could just shake some sense  into my crazy brother. “Of course, I’ll pay for any damages.” I’d genuinely wanted to take Ben’s relationship with Marushka as a sign that maybe the slow, steady decline of the past couple of months was miraculously  reversing. I was always ready for a miracle. I searched for positive indications in  his behavior and appearance. Failing that, I pounced on his daily horoscope for  possible portents in the stars. I didn’t want to have to hospitalize him. Now I was angry at him; despite his fear and terror of hospitals, he was  incapable of staying at least minimally sane. And I was angry at myself because  my love was inadequate to protect him, as if love could be equated with some  amulet—a cross, a Star of David, a crystal. I knew this was irrational. Chemicals  were exploding in his brain and blowing out his synapses. The power or potency  of my love couldn’t change that. But I felt as though it should. I called Ellen on my cell phone to tell her I’d need the rest of the day  off, and then started up the stairs with Marushka following me. The door to  Ben’s apartment was open and Niclos was standing in the kitchen, baseball bat  in hand. He watched us come in without saying anything, but his face clearly  said, “You’re both crazier than he is for not putting him away a long time ago.”  Remembering the force of Ben’s terror-driven rages, I was just grateful Niclos  was there. 

The bedroom door was closed. I knocked gently and tried to turn the knob.  It was locked. “Ben, it’s me, Molly. Please let me in.” 


I knocked again, a little harder. “I’m worried about you, Ben. I just want to  see that you’re okay.” 

“The voices are coming in through the walls.” Ben’s voice. “The walls are  the stalls where they keep the words. Molly it’s not. It’s the words of the voices  that say Molly, but how can you know evil from the mouth of a sister?” 

My heart, hammering in my chest, pounded so loud I wondered if Ben  could hear it through the door. “Ben, I don’t want you to be hurt. Please just  open the door.” 

“I can only live by dying.” 

“He’s been talking a lot about dying,” Marushka whispered sharply. I hadn’t  even realized she was behind me. I could see this was no easy decision for her,  either. “Niclos can break the door down,” she said, her voice catching a little.  “Maybe you better call the police.” 

No. Not the police. “I’ll be back soon,” I said to Marushka and hurried  down the stairs. 

Instead of going home, turning off the phone and burrowing under the  covers, which was what I felt like doing, I headed towards a car rental agency  I’d noticed on the main street, a couple of blocks away. After signing what  seemed like an endless number of papers, I picked up a car and drove back  to my brother’s building, pulling up in front of a no-parking sign. Two older  black men sat on the next stoop arguing with each other and drinking wine out  of a bag-wrapped bottle. They looked up as I got out of the car. The curtain  in Marushka’s first-floor window flicked, and in a moment she was out of her  door and following me up the stairs. Niclos, still holding his baseball bat, sat on  a chair in Ben’s kitchen. Everything in the room was black, including the sink,  the refrigerator, the stove, and the window—a kind of tenement Hades. Or  the eternal midnight of a lost mind. The only spot of non-black was a dying  geranium in a small green plastic pot on the windowsill, its drooping flowers the  color of old, dried blood. 

Midnight shakes the memory as a madman shakes a dead geranium. Who wrote that?  My brother, the madman, was always flinging lines of poetry around as if they  were perfectly reasonable explanations for his irrational behaviors. I took a yoga  breath to calm the trickle of anxiety that always hit me in the stomach whenever  I behaved in any way that might be an indication that I, too, could be crazy. I  knocked on his bedroom door again. “Ben, it’s me, Molly, please let me in.” 


“So should I tell Niclos to break the door down?” Marushka whispered. “No,” I whispered back. “That would frighten him even more.” “So what are you gonna do?” 

I thought for a minute. “There’s a fire escape around back. Maybe I can get  in that way and talk to him.” 

We retraced our steps down to the first floor. The hallway stank from old  garbage and the unwashed bodies and stale urine of homeless people who used  the stairwell for shelter. The back door leaned crazily on one hinge. I went  out into a rear courtyard full of stained mattresses, abandoned furniture, and  discarded food containers. 

Ben lived on the third floor, which meant climbing up two flights. I  wondered briefly whether the rusted, crumbling fire escape would hold me.  Then I forced myself to think about the dozens of neighborhood burglars who  used these fire escapes, quite successfully, as their personal accessways. 

By the time I reached Ben’s landing, I was filthy from the grime and flakes  of rust. I wiped my hands on my skirt and looked in the window. Ben was  sitting barefoot on the floor in half-lotus position, surrounded by burning  candles, like someone about to be sacrificed in a primitive ritual. I was shocked  at how old his body looked—stooped and scrawny—although it was only two  weeks since I’d seen him last. When had his hair gotten so gray? He was dressed  bizarrely—never a good sign—in a checked shirt and dirty striped pants. An old  orange beach towel, patterned with a big starfish in the middle, was tied with a  cord around his waist. He sat watching the door, so he didn’t notice me out on  the fire escape. 

The wooden window frame was so rotted I could easily have removed it,  but a metal gate covered the window. Without any real hope I pulled it and,  wonder of wonders, it slid open; my paranoid brother had forgotten to lock it,  another sign of his increasing derangement. 

As I was attempting to slide the window frame out of its track, the glass  suddenly came out in my hand and went tumbling down into the courtyard  below. At the sound, Ben shot his head around, his face shiny with terror. We  stared at each other, and for a moment I could see the scene through his eyes:  some filthy apparition who had taken on the visage of his sister was trying to  climb through his window to do God knows what to him. 

I felt a quick stab of fear; after all, I knew full well what he was capable of.  But, I reminded myself, in all the years of his madness, he’d never tried to hurt  me. At least, not so far. I just had to convince him that I was who I said I was. 

“Ben, it’s me, Molly.” I tried to smile. “I climbed up the fire escape because  you wouldn’t let me in. That’s why I look so dirty.” It sounded lame, even to  me. 

Ben yanked two candles off the floor where they had been attached by,  I assumed, melted wax and sprang up to face me, a candle poised like a fiery  sword in each hand. 

“Ben,” I said, trying to sound enticing and a little mischievous, “I have a car.  Remember how much fun we used to have when Daddy would take us for car  rides? Put down the candles and let’s go for a ride.” 

“The lies shine through your evil eyes,” he said, jabbing the candles  toward me. 

I should have known that lying to him was not the way to go—he was  too smart. I searched my mind frantically for some way to calm his fears and  convince him of who I was. 

“Do you remember the song you used to sing to me when I was a little girl  and would have nightmares?” I began to sing: 

Rock-a-bye, don’t you cry
Go to sleepy little baby.
When you wake, you shall have
All the pretty little horses.

The candles wavered and he thrust his head forward to peer at me, as if  a tiny flicker of recognition might have penetrated his psychotic haze. Not  because I knew the words to the childhood song—an evil imposter would  certainly know that—but because I sang it in the atonal, off-key voice that he’d  always teased me about. 

“Ben, I want to get you some help, so you’ll be safe.” My voice sounded  eerie and hollow to me, like a ghostly echo in empty house. “I’m worried about  you and I love you. You’re my big brother.” As I said the words, I suddenly felt  them so powerfully that my body began to shake. I grabbed the sill so I wouldn’t  fall off the fire escape. 

By now, he was staring at me intently. I knew him so well that I could almost  read what was going on inside his head, or I thought I could. He was desperately  trying to hang onto whatever ability he still had to distinguish what was actually  happening from the jumble of voices in his head that were telling him crazy  things. Was I really Molly? It must have been terrifying for him not to know. 

“Ben, if you just come with me, I promise not to let anyone hurt you.” I  hoped it was a promise I could keep. “If you won’t come, I’m going to have to  call for help.” 

I never got to find out whether or not he understood me because at that  moment a blob of hot wax plopped onto his bare foot. 

He jumped back and dropped the candle. As he did, the candle in his other  hand went out. I climbed in through the window, murmuring in a gentle voice,  the way you would calm a frightened animal. 

“Come on, Ben,” I said. “Come with me. You can take your candles with  you if you want. Marushka and Niclos are in the kitchen. I’m going to tell them  to move away.” The words from one of the Family Skills group meetings I’d  attended flooded into my mind: approach gently, but with assurance. Tell the  patient exactly what you are going to do before you do it. 

Ben’s eyes were full of suspicion as he tried to plot the plots that would  protect him from a world he could no longer cope with. But after stooping  down to pick up an unlighted candle, he straightened up and moved in my  direction. I knew better than to try and touch him. I simply murmured in the  same calm voice, “That’s right, Ben. Come with me.” I could almost smell the  fear radiating from him, but I could also see the lines of strain running down  his face. He wasn’t nineteen anymore; perhaps he was just too tired to fight  anymore. Whatever it was, he let me lead him to the bedroom door. 

I unlocked it, gave him a reassuring smile and said, “Marushka and Niclos,  please move back. My brother and I are going out for a little while.” I shot  a quick glance over my shoulder. Ben was watching Niclos and the baseball  bat like a child watching the closet where he knows the bogeyman is hiding.  Continuing to murmur reassurances at him, I stood back and allowed him to  precede me through the kitchen door and out of the apartment. 

When we got to the stairs he stopped. I waved him on, wondering if he  would bolt. But where could he go? Niclos and the baseball bat were in back of  him. He started down the stairs with me trailing along behind him like the rear  guard. We must have made a strange spectacle—Ben in his bare feet and his  ridiculous beach towel, still clutching his candle, and I, the filthy betrayer with  bits of rust clinging to her clothes. I was still trying to convince myself that I  was doing the right thing, still telling myself that he would never hurt me. All the  while I continued to murmur calm reassurances at him. 

Everything was moving along until we got onto the street. I don’t know  whether Ben had planned all along that it would be easier to get away from me  once we were out of the apartment, or whether the noise and activity on the  street were just too much for him, but he gave a yell and started running up the  block, his skinny legs pumping as hard as they could under the flapping of his  orange beach towel. 

Like a fool, I stood there and shouted, “Ben, come back!” 

“Girl.” One of the two elderly wine drinkers looked up at me with a big grin  on his face. “Man don’ want you? Find one who do. Plenty of us around.” The  other old man laughed, slapped his bony knee, shook his head and said, “You  listen to my man here. He be tellin’ you the truth. Don’t be chasin’ him up no  street. Ain’t dignified.” 

But chase him I did. I heard a motor jump into life behind me. A black  Lincoln driven by one of Marushka’s sons roared past me. Marushka had her  family in readiness. 

With a screech of brakes, the car pulled up with one wheel on the sidewalk  in front of Ben just as he got to the corner, effectively cutting him off. The kid  jumped out of the car and rounded the corner so that Ben couldn’t run that way. With me coming up behind him, he didn’t have too many options besides  jabbing at the air with his candle. 

Once again, I approached him with gentle reassurance. I guess he decided I  was the better of the choices he had right then, because he let me lead him back  to the rental car. But his eyes watched me with low cunning. 

I heard a vroom-vroom and saw the tail-lights of the Lincoln, now in reverse,  pass me as it backed up the block. For a moment, the fear came back and I had  a flash of Ben going after my mother with the knife. I pushed the thought away.  He won’t hurt you. He’s never hurt you. He’s your brother Ben. 

I unlocked the passenger side door of the rental car and told Ben to get  in, wondering what I would do if he didn’t. To my surprise and relief, he did. I  dragged the seat belt over the faded starfish on his beach towel and buckled it  as one would do for a small child. My clever brother, however, had been making  his plans. By the time I got around the car to get into the driver’s seat, he was out  of his seat belt, had jerked the door open and was sprinting down the block. 

“Some women just can’t take no hint.” The voice of the first wine drinker. “Yeah,” the reply came. “What you think so turrible ‘bout her that he got to  get away so badly, can’t even wait to put his shoes on?” 

The kid was out of the Lincoln and about to tackle Ben by the time I pulled  the car around again. Once my big brother would’ve fought like the devil, but I guess he truly was burning out as he got older, because after I gestured the  kid away and said, “Ben, you have to get into the car,” he stopped resisting and  climbed back into the car. Maybe he’d decided I was really Molly after all. 

The trip to Marble Heights went surprisingly smoothly, but my fear was that  Ben would open his door and run out into the parkway and there would be no  way I could save him. 

He didn’t. What he did was look at me out of accusing eyes and ramble  on about “lying sister words” and a plague of dead rats, dead frogs, and dead  vermin that he claimed were crawling around in his body. 

As soon as we pulled up in front of the hospital, the accusation in his  eyes turned to alarm. Ben had never seen Marble Heights before, and I hadn’t  mentioned where we were going, but he could spot a mental hospital at one  hundred paces anywhere on this earth. 

“You go in,” he said, shrinking back from me with one of those rare  moments of lucidity that are completely unexplainable. “I’ll wait here for you.” I coaxed him into the building and murmured reassurances while Tony and  the admitting psychiatrist were being paged. 

Marble Heights didn’t look like your typical psych hospital. It was a low, gray stoned structure that sat on a beautifully landscaped lawn surrounded by trees  and bushes in early autumn shades of yellow and burnished red. The lobby and  
reception area were carpeted in forest green; the walls were beige with matching  green and rose trim and were hung with attractive paintings. Upholstered chairs  and low tables with magazines added to the air of quiet normality. But you  couldn’t fool Ben. His crafty eyes darted around the room as if he was ferreting  out the fiend that he knew was hiding behind one of the walls. 

Tony was good with Ben, asking his questions in a calm, friendly way and  simply accepting Ben’s strange and disjointed answers. I’d just begun to relax  when a short, dried-up looking man in a starched white coat entered the room. “I’m Dr. Koster,” he said. 

His eyes had the slightly bulging look of a toad, and he tended to punctuate  his sentences with a clearing of his throat which, unfortunately, gave him a  slightly accusatory tone. 

“Ehrm! And you are Benjamin Lewin?” he asked. A look of alarm came  into Ben’s eyes and he stood mute. Not a good start. 

“And you are…?” he asked me. I looked down at my filthy, disheveled self  and wondered if he was determining whether I, too, was there to be admitted. Before I could answer, he glanced at the papers in his hands and said,  “Molly Lewin, sister.” 

“I apologize for my appearance,” I said. “I had to climb up a fire escape.” He nodded as if this was a perfectly normal occurrence in the lives of his  patients’ families. Then he turned to my brother. “Hello, Ben,” he said in his  nasal voice. “I have some questions I’d like to ask you, okay?” He paused for a minute, but when Ben didn’t answer, he went on with the  standard list of questions. “When were you born?” 

I knew the doctor was trying to assess Ben’s mental state, but I also knew  how suspicious it would sound to Ben. My brother didn’t want people to know  the date of his birth because he thought it allowed them to have power over  him. 

“Birth…the birth of vipers in the raging torrents of the mind battles.” As  Ben spoke he watched Dr. Koster through narrowed eyes and began to swing  his arms back and forth, a sure sign of his increasing agitation. 

Dr. Koster stepped back and took a very visible breath. Then he cleared his  throat again. “Do you know why you are here?” 

Another bad question, one I could have kicked myself for not realizing he  would ask. This was, after all, supposed to be a voluntary commitment. Come  on Ben, I thought desperately, say something at least halfway normal. But even  as the thought crystallized in my brain, I felt a sinking feeling in the pit of my  stomach. 

Ben stared back at the doctor and started to mutter. He hunched his  shoulders forward and his hands became fists. Swinging them, he began to pace  around the floor. This interview was going downhill fast. 

Dr. Koster turned to Tony and said, “I think we’re going to need some back up to get the patient down on the unit. I’m going to radio for Code Team.” He pulled a small walkie-talkie out of his pocket and spoke into it. Looking  back at it later, I realized that the black box with its strange, crackling noises was  probably the match that set off the tinderbox. It fed right into Ben’s paranoid  delusions. Behind me, the Admissions people began to clear out the area:  receptionist, visitors, other staff were all being herded away. The hospital was  readying itself for the violent outburst from my brother. 

And my brother did not disappoint them. He was emitting small, growling  noises from his throat which sounded eerily similar to the ones made by the  good doctor. The hair on his head stood straight up, as if his terror had set  off voltages of electricity in his body which were charging through him like  lightening. 

As Dr. Koster backed away, he beckoned Tony and me in the direction of  the door. “Why don’t you take Ms. Lewin into your office?” 

Tony took me firmly by the arm. “Come on, Molly. The Crisis Team is  trained to deal with Ben. It would just upset you to see this.” “Mind vermin, rats and frogs!” Ben shouted, making a lunge for the walls,  banging and kicking against them in his rage to get out. Since he had no shoes  on, I was afraid he would break his toes. I wanted to run over and put my arms  around him and stop him from destroying himself yet again. But I knew he was  over the edge, and that I had become part of the hostile, terrifying world against  which he had to protect himself. And there was nothing, nothing, I could do  about it. 

“Patient rapidly decompensating.” Dr. Koster continued talking into the  walkie-talkie as he hurriedly left the area. “Seventy-five milligrams of Thorazine,  I.M….” The rest was garbled as Tony pulled me away. Four burly men were  running up the hall towards us pulling a Reeves stretcher on which to secure  the dangerous patient. The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. A woman with  a stethoscope around her neck trailed after them. 

I collapsed into a chair in Tony’s office as he ran back to help the staff begin  an involuntary commitment of my brother. What I’d been hoping to avoid was  happening after all. I had been through enough psych hospitals to know that  even in the most private and presentable of them, there would be no carpets  and pictures on the walls of the room where they would be taking Ben now.  He would be wrapped in a “camisole”—a pretty word for a strait jacket. There  would be a mattress on the floor and four bare walls. And he would be alone,  screaming in rage at his demons and his terror, until the medication took hold. 

The lights were off in the room and I sat staring into space, enveloped in  a world of gray fog, hearing and feeling nothing. Gradually I became aware of  
the slanted rays of light filtering in through the window. For a long time I sat  exhausted, demolished, watching the late afternoon sun mute the autumn sprays  of yellows and reds on the birches and maples dotting the lawn. The autumnal  equinox was past and the sun was low in the sky. On the windowsill in Tony’s  office stood three pots of geraniums, past their prime, but obviously well tended.
Midnight shakes the memory as a madman shakes a dead geranium. I shuddered, as if a cold wind had suddenly blown through the room. A  small pulse started up in the corner of my eye, like the slow beat of a dying  heart. Behind the geraniums the leaves drifted lazily down from the trees as if  they had all the time in the world to reach the ground. It struck me then that  my brother was in the midst of a long, slow autumn, and it wouldn’t be long  before winter settled in for good. I started to cry, first in giant, gulping sobs and  then more quietly, the tears running down my face and off my chin like water  dripping from the trees after a heavy rain. 

Tony walked into the office. He handed me tissues, waiting patiently until I sopped up my face. The medication had taken hold, he told me. Ben was quiet  now and I could visit him. Did I want Tony to come with me? 

I said no, I’d be okay. I’d done this lots of times before. Tony told me where  to find Ben, and asked me again if I was okay. I nodded. After giving me another  quick look, he grabbed his jacket and left. 

I sat for a while longer, thinking about my brother. I knew exactly what I  would see when I visited him. They would have transferred him to a bed with  raised sides, like a metallic crib. He would still be in restraints, his wrists tied to  the sides of the bed, and he’d be lying on his back staring up at the ceiling out  of vacant eyes. The quirky, sly, fearful, funny, suspicious guardian of the last  remnants of his mind—my brother—would not be in that room. My heart was  breaking from the loss of him. 

You can’t bring back the geraniums once they’re dead, no matter how much you shake  them. Suddenly I saw my life laid out before me, like a diorama in the planetarium:  Ben in his crazy paranoid brilliance was the sun, and I was the moon, revolving  slowly around him, living in his reflection, with no light of my own. I was thirtyfive years old, and the most important relationship I had in my life was with a  brother who, on his best days, believed that mad King Ludwig of Bavaria spoke  to him through the drainpipe in his sink. Shouldn’t I have more than this? Did I  still owe my mother the vow of silence I’d taken as a very little girl? Even nuns,  dedicated to a life of service, have been known to leave the convent. For a long  time I just sat, watching the shadows on the lawn lengthen and flatten until it  became so dark I could no longer distinguish their shapes. 

Finally I took a deep breath, got up, and walked out into the hall. My heart  still felt as though it was breaking, but whether for Ben or for myself I couldn’t say. After the gloom of Tony’s office, the sudden glare of the fluorescent lights  made me blink. It was late and the area was deserted. I should check on Ben  and see how he’s doing, I thought. But my legs felt heavy, too tired to move.  Another poetry fragment, another one of my brother’s favorites, came into my  mind. Over the tumbled graves, about the chapel/ There is the empty chapel, only the wind’s  home. Whichever way I looked, I faced an empty room. Not knowing where to  go or what to do, I pulled my coat tightly around my shoulders and walked out  into the night.