We went to see Uncle Joe at Chedoke Psychiatric in early December. This was before they turned out all the mental patients and made it into a non-acute care centre. That's what they called them back then: mental patients.
Uncle Joe had suffered an episode earlier that week. He had walked out of his house one night while my cousins and my Aunt Teresa slept, dressed only in pajamas. He made it all the way to the harbourfront, a good hour by foot. That's where the police found him next morning, squatting by the water, shivering from the cold and mumbling to himself about a boat. "I missed the boat," he kept saying. "I missed the boat."
No one knew what he was talking about, and he could never explain this boat.
My mother, my sister and I waited for him on a rough orange couch in the visiting area. Red and white and Christmas lights had been strung along the walls. A small artificial tree surrounded with boxes wrapped in silver and blue foil occupied a corner. From the sounds of it Uncle Joe wasn't out of the woods yet; my mother had told me wasn't leaving Chedoke any time soon, that he still had some things to work out. He appeared after a few minutes with an orderly, both in pale green hospital wear, Uncle Joe sporting green paper slippers, his salt-and-pepper hair crudely cropped.
He smiled when he saw us and shuffled over to our couch. The orderly, a squat latino fellow with a pleasant face, grabbed a chair for Uncle Joe and positioned it across from us, like a prisoner facing a tribunal. But we weren't there to pass judgment.
"I'll be in the staff lounge," the orderly said. "Back in thirty."
Uncle Joe made a face as the orderly departed. That was Uncle Joe, always mugging, never taking anything too seriously. I loved his irreverence. He'd been one of the few constants in my life. My earliest memory is of him catching me during a fall down a flight of stairs. We were living on the second floor of a boarding house back then. My mother said I had slipped on the landing and fallen, but Uncle Joe, who was coming up the stairs, had caught me before I broke my neck. My memory of it consists of a tumbling, flashing panic, and the smell of men's aftershave and whisky.
Truth is, he hadn't been feeling right for some time. Nothing like the recent episode, but bursts of rage or moments of confusion and forgetfulness had grown in frequency. As had his inexplicable drying jags. My mother said it had to do with their father, whom Uncle Joe had witnessed get gunned down in the old country.
We hugged and kissed Uncle Joe. He smelled of antiseptic soap, and seemed, I don't know, fragile, like he had aged 20 years in the span of a week. His eyes were watery; his shoulders all bones; his pallid hands trembled. I noticed that a bandage covered the top of his skull.
My mother inquired about it.
"It's nothing," he said. "They removed that stupid lump. Remember the lump, Sammy?"
I remembered it, with some revulsion. He'd had it as far back as I could recall, but it had recently almost doubled in size.
"I saved it," he said. "Want a souvenir?"
"Oh, gross," said my sister.
My mother chuckled. My uncle hadn't lost his sick sense of humour.
"So what else?" my mother said.
"I've been getting the treatments."
My mother looked alarmed. "You mean—"
"Yeah, yeah." His moist eyes blinked. "They calm me down. I'm calmer. I wasn't calm. That was the problem. The doctors even said it. They said I need to be calm."
With my four cousins bombing around and Aunt Teresa shrieking from morning till night, Uncle Joe's two-bedroom bungalow wasn't exactly a serene place.
My mother asked if Aunt Teresa had been by. I was surprised she wasn't there. Maybe the doctors had told her to lay off a few days while he got his shit together.
"She's coming with the kids tomorrow," he said. "Can't wait to see them."
My mother offered him a paper bag with some chocolates and S-biscuits that he liked to dip in coffee.
He took the bag reluctantly.
"Is it okay?" my mother asked.
"Yeah, yeah. Not a problem. I just can't have coffee right now. But they let me drink chamomile. Buckets of it. Chamomile is nice, just like ma used to make when we had the flu. But with the cookies, meh. I don't know."
My grandmother was a big one for the restorative effects of chamomile tea. But it reminded me of sickness, so I wasn't keen on it. Right at that moment it struck me how much Uncle Joe looked like my grandmother just before she passed.
"And how are you doing?' he asked me.
"Good, Uncle Joe. I'm good."
"School and everything?"
"He made the honour roll," my mother said.
"Mr. Brown-nose," my sister piped in.
"That's good," he said. "No pick and shovel for you, eh. Your old man would have been proud, god rest his soul." He swallowed. "Goddamn it. When are we gonna see a Leaf game? They have a good team this year."
He knew I was a Montreal Canadiens fan so I laughed him off—besides, the Leafs were stinking up the league.
"Don't worry," he said with a hard smile. "I'll be out of here in no time. Haha, they can't keep me here forever, can they?"
My mother blew into a paper tissue. It had been two years, but she was still in black, still mourning. My sister said quiet things to her. Uncle Joe continued smiling, but his hands shook, and his eyes searched for his orderly.