[Minor Warning: The latter part of this section gets a little emotionally tense, at least to me]
Timothy discovered that he was a reasonably good meditation subject…he had at least a modicum of what Mr. Maclean referred to as “talent”. He found it easy enough to sit still and not fidget, and to listen to the sound of his breathing—which he discovered he felt most sharply in his nasal passages, just beneath and behind his eyes, something he’d never noticed before.
As the silence began, broken by Mr. Maclean’s guidance, Timothy noticed now the faint ticking of the clock on the wall, something he hadn’t even heard before. He tried to ignore it and focus on the breath in his nose, and then he followed Mr. Maclean’s instructions in paying attention to the feeling of gravity holding his body in the chair, the pressure on his back, his legs, and so on. This led him to notice that Mr. Maclean had neglected to mention his butt, and the thought both amused him and made him frustrated, because he was supposed to be focusing on the feeling, not on the awkward omission of a potentially embarrassing part of the body. He turned his mind back to the breath in his nose, only peripherally even aware of the pressure of the chair. He felt a strange, almost floaty feeling in his thoughts as he centered them on his breathing, as though the space inside his mind was far larger than the space outside, and that somehow the breath in his nose was a portal into that space. He noticed that there were colors swirling behind his eyes in the blackness…just faint smears and clouds of it, shifting everywhere, but present.
He wondered why it was that he saw such colors with his eyes closed. He wondered if everyone saw them. They weren’t exactly imaginary—it wasn’t as though he was trying to think about colors, and they seemed to come from outside his mind, and more from his eyes. Why would eyes show color when they were closed?
Then he realized he had forgotten about his breathing or about the feelings in his body, and he forcibly returned his focus to his breath, berating himself.
He really needed to focus.
The breathing continued. It almost felt as though the breath burned as it passed through his head, beneath and behind his eyes, almost as though he had a cold or an allergy that didn’t impair his breathing, but just made it notable. It wasn’t an unpleasant feeling, though, just striking, and it let him stay focused on that aspect of his breathing better once he noticed it. It was odd that putting his attention there made for such an alteration in his inner focus, made him feel that sense of a larger universe inside him than could ever exist outside. He felt, in some way, that it was more real than the physical world.
But then again, that sort of made sense. After all, the inside of his mind was where he always was, and most of the outside world was completely separate from him. Almost all of it was entirely beyond his ability to reach in his lifetime. And even the parts he inhabited—school, home, the city, the other people—had always, or at least often, felt rather distant, because he tried to distance himself from it, afraid of letting it trigger his rage, afraid of letting too many things matter too much.
Which was all very interesting, of course, but Timothy wondered still just how much such breathing could possibly help him with his problem. Could it really make him able to shut off his rage when it began? It didn’t feel to him like that was possible; it was too powerful. Could it really change his inner landscape enough, change the surrounding conditions, like Mr. Maclean had said, so that his rage was simply unable to come to life, like a tornado in the mountains? It was hard to believe.
Then he realized that, once again, he had left his breathing, and he returned to it, again frustrated by his own weakness.
And Mr. Maclean said, “Okay, that’s five minutes. You can open your eyes.”
Timothy blinked his eyes open in surprise. Had that only been five minutes? Or rather…had it felt much shorter or much longer? He looked up at the clock, confirming that, yes indeed, five minutes had passed. Once again, its ticking seemed all but inaudible.
He looked back at Mr. Maclean, who said, “Well, what did you think?”
Timothy felt embarrassed, but Mr. Maclean’s demeanor was exceptionally nonjudgmental—it was unclear how the man pulled off such a thing—and so he felt comfortable being as honest as he knew how to be. He wasn’t sure, though, just what to report or what would matter.
“Well…” he said, “…it was…I mean, it was interesting. But I don’t think I’m very good at it.”
“Why do you say that?” Mr. Maclean asked.
“Well…I mean, my mind kept wandering, thinking about weird stuff. How my eyes work, the clock ticking, what it’s like inside my head compared to outside…how you avoided talking about embarrassing things when you were talking about how it felt to be sitting in the chair. All sorts of stuff. I don’t think I focused on me breathing for more than about two seconds at a time. And even that was distracting, because I kept thinking about how it felt different than I’d ever noticed before, or I guess that I hadn’t even noticed it at all. My mind had a hard time sitting still.”
Mr. Maclean’s eyes were rather wide, and Timothy expected that the man was probably exasperated by how bad he was, wandering in so many places in just five minutes. Maybe he was going to say that Timothy just wasn’t cut out for this.
Instead of such a judgment, Mr. Maclean quietly noted, “Your body, at least, was very still. Unusually still for someone your age, I’d say.”
Timothy was surprised by this comment, but once he thought about it, he supposed it made sense. “I…guess that I’ve just…kind of practiced trying to not react to things, or whatever…you know, to try to just keep myself calm and cool. Maybe I kind of picked up a habit of sitting still by doing that.”
“Maybe,” Mr. Maclean said. He nodded thoughtfully, as though he were wondering whether that was the full story, though Timothy couldn’t imagine there was any more to it.
Trying to seem unconcerned, Timothy nevertheless expressed his worry, saying, “I don’t know if I’m gonna be able to do this very well. I mean, I’m not giving up or anything, but…it feels like I have a hard time concentrating. But I don’t know, maybe that’s just because I’m just getting started.”
Mr. Maclean raised his eyebrows, looking amused. He said, “Actually, I’m rather impressed. I think you may have a better than average talent for this.”
Quite surprised, and uncertain how the man could come to such an even tentative conclusion, Timothy asked, “What do you mean?”
“Well, as I said before, it takes most people some time even to be able to sit still and make a good go at trying to focus on their breathing. And then, it often takes quite a bit longer for them to even recognize the fact that their thoughts are wandering. Most of us spend most of our lives so lost in thought that we don’t even notice that we’re lost. We think we’re doing and thinking just what we want to do and think, that we’re completely focused and in control. You not only noticed that your mind was wandering, but you recognized specific ways it was doing it, and what was distracting you. There were several times where your expression…tightened a bit, almost like an angry look, and I wondered what was going on when you did that. I’m guessing that was when you caught yourself getting distracted.”
Embarrassed to have had his internal processes showing on his face so much, Timothy muttered, “I don’t know…maybe.”
Mr. Maclean seemed to recognize Timothy’s frustration, because he said, “I point it out because it’s probably the biggest lesson for this first five-minute introduction. For you, anyway. I want you to remember to try to gently return your attention to the breath. It’s not something you need to feel angry about or frustrated about. Distraction is the default state of the mind. Almost no one ever completely frees themselves from it, even for a few moments. So, you don’t have to feel bad about it, you don’t have to react with anger at yourself. In fact, amusement is better than anger, but mostly just try to be matter-of-fact. It’s just what happens, distraction. When you catch yourself, just notice that it happened, recognize it, accept it, and then go back to the breath. ‘Failure,’ if you want to use the word, is not actually a failure, it’s the norm. The fact that you noticed it so often, and so clearly, is actually quite a success.”
“Oh,” Timothy said, feeling strangely hopeful and buoyed by the man’s words, but leery of getting his hopes up or feeling too good about himself. “Cool.” Then after a moment, he started to ask a question, but stopped himself before even a word got out, afraid that he was wondering something foolish.
Mr. Maclean, obviously a keen observer of expressions, asked, “What is it?”
Timothy tried to smile shyly, but he felt like he must seem to be twitching more than actually wearing an expression. He said, “Well, you said earlier that ‘almost no one’ ever…like gets able to be completely free from distraction, or whatever it was. Does that mean…well, does that mean that sometimes, someone does get that way? I mean, completely able to…to not lose control of themselves?”
Mr. Maclean looked thoughtful. Timothy liked the fact that the man didn’t just jump in with a knee-jerk response to his question but was actually considering it. It made him feel much more confident that the answer would be truthful, whether comforting or not.
“It’s an interesting question, “Mr. Maclean said. “Of course, we’re dealing with the subjective states of the human mind, so it’s fundamentally impossible to know for sure from outside. But if there are people who are able to consistently and reliably maintain a state of freedom from distraction, whenever they choose to do so…well, I imagine they are extremely rare. We’re not talking one in a million, here, we’re talking like maybe one in ten billion.”
“Wait,” Timothy said, “isn’t that more people than are alive?”
“Yep,” Mr. Maclean said. “Which is why I picked that number, more for illustration than actually thinking it’s precise or accurate. I just mean that someone like that probably happens once in a lifetime, if that often.
“For the rest of us, experienced meditators, there are certain occasional moments, during deep meditation, after long practice, often during retreats, in which we have a stretch of what truly seems to be non-distraction. It’s rare. But it’s not really the point of meditation. Neither are those curious internal experiences we have, that can feel like being on a mind-expanding drug, or feeling as though your body has no mass but is simply made of light. These are rewarding and revealing experiences, and they give us a recognition of and a respect for the possibilities available in the human mind, which we so rarely take advantage of, and which can make life richer and more fulfilling, and which—in the Buddhist ideal—can lead to decrease in suffering.”
“I guess that’s a good thing,” Timothy said.
“Almost by definition,” Mr. Maclean replied, his smile widening just a bit. Then he said, “The idea of meditation, especially vipassana, isn’t necessarily some specific goal. Even in your case, it’s probably best not to get distracted by what outcome we’re hoping to achieve. The real point is simply exploration. The mind is a vast landscape full of amazing possibilities, and most of the time most of us don’t do any more than the equivalent of just walking out to the mailbox to get our mail, then coming back to the house. We don’t even look at the scenery, let alone go for a walk.”
Timothy, surprised to hear a description that resonated with his recent experience, said, “Yeah, wow, it’s funny you say that. Because one thing I noticed was how it…it felt like, once I was paying attention to it, like…like I was floating in space inside my head…but not like it was empty space, and it wasn’t like I could see planets or stars or anything. But it just felt…big. Like it was bigger inside than outside.”
Mr. Maclean smiled still more broadly. “That’s interesting, and as I said before, rather impressive. I also think it’s almost certainly true, at least in a sense. After all, the world outside is very constrained—by the laws of physics, even if there were nothing else. But the world inside is limited only by our imaginations, and imagination tends to get stronger the more we use it.
“Not that I’m saying that what happens in your mind during meditation is just…‘made up’ or isn’t ‘real’. It is real, in the experiential sense, and it follows certain rules of its own. But those rules are different than the ones outside, and exploring them—discovering them—is a worthwhile pursuit all on its own.”
Timothy found all that very much over his head, at least, but he liked the imagery and feelings it evoked. Not easily able to articulate what he felt, he simply said, “Cool.”
Oddly enough, this seemed to convey perfectly what he felt to Mr. Maclean. At least, that was what he took from the expression on the man’s face.
“So, would you like to try another five minutes?” the man asked.
Still far from confident that he was going to be any good at this, despite Mr. Maclean’s assurances, Timothy nevertheless figured that the only way to find out, and the only way to get better, was to practice. So, he said, “Sure.”
In the remaining time before Timothy’s mother returned, he did three more brief sessions of guided meditation. Each time was very similar to the first, and when he checked afterward, they were each precisely five minutes long, at least within the accuracy of the wall clock, whose ticking seemed to grow louder whenever Timothy closed his eyes. He found himself, again and again—a surprising number of times, given the brevity of the mini-sessions—wandering off his focus on the breath in his nose, but he was at least able to feel a little less irritated by the fact, thanks to Mr. Maclean’s reassurances. He thought that he succeeded in getting just a little bit less frustrated with himself when he caught his mind wandering, but it was still mildly infuriating, if that concept made sense.
He was, at least, still quite intrigued by the feeling of size within his head when his eyes were closed, something he didn’t think he’d ever noticed or considered noticing before. In his third meditation, a thought that came and distracted him from his focus was to wonder where in that wilderness, or space, or whatever it was, his rage dwelt, and if he could learn where that was, if he could learn to avoid it. He then recognized his distraction and turned himself back to his breath, while also reminding himself that he probably should avoid trying to imagine such a region. Somehow, thinking about it felt like it might invoke it.
The discussions the two had after each session were almost as interesting as Timothy’s first experience of paying direct attention to the workings of his mind. Mr. Maclean’s nonjudgmental and encouraging attitude was different than Dr. Putnam’s positive manner with Timothy. It felt much more an exchange between equals, which Timothy didn’t think he’d ever experienced with an adult before. He found that he liked it. He thought that such interactions—at least with people like Mr. Maclean—were less likely ever to awaken his fury than were interactions with other teenagers, who were notoriously irrational and thoughtless.
When Timothy’s mother walked in, almost exactly an hour after she had left, Timothy noted that she had no bags. She’d said she’d meant to window shop, but he’d honestly expected her to buy something that was available in the area but not as readily purchased nearer to home or to her work. She gave an awkward smile when she came in and asked Mr. Maclean how it had gone. Mr. Maclean told her he thought it had gone quite well, and that he was guardedly optimistic about the practice being able to help Timothy. As before, Timothy thought the man’s unwillingness to express certainty reassured his mother, as it did himself, making it seem far less likely that the man was simply trying to push his point of view, and his services.
Just as Timothy and his mother were getting ready to leave, the first of Mr. Maclean’s students or class members, whatever they were called, arrived—a thin woman, perhaps in her early thirties. She looked at Timothy and his mother with curiosity before briefly saying hello to Mr. Maclean, then going off to the side to unpack her things.
Mr. Maclean suggested to Timothy that, if he wanted, he should try meditating at home, perhaps in the morning before school, or in the afternoon or evening. He recommended against trying to do more than five minutes at once for the moment—Timothy wasn’t sure why—but suggested that they would try going for longer the following week.
Timothy’s mother confirmed the appointment for the next week at the same time, hesitantly reaffirmed that they would not be charged, obviously feeling embarrassed about having to do so. Mr. Maclean reassured her, then shook her and Timothy’s hands goodbye before they left.
Timothy had expected that he and his mother would pick up lunch somewhere downtown while they were there, though it was a bit early yet. However, his mother simply began to backtrack the course they had taken on their way that morning, showing no signs of going anywhere different any more than she had bought anything during her hour-long break.
Timothy thought she looked distracted and unhappy, almost worried. Something seemed to be bothering her. Though they often shared long periods of mutual silence, it was generally a comfortable thing. Now, Timothy felt a strange tension coming from his mother’s form, though he couldn’t have said what gave him that impression, other than maybe just a slightly deeper crease between her eyebrows than usual.
As they moved along, the tension—which he might be imagining—felt enough of a contrast with the ease with Mr. Maclean that Timothy felt pressured to say something. Unsure where to start, he finally opted for asking, “Aren’t we gonna stop somewhere for lunch?” He was pretty sure she’d mentioned doing that the other day.
After a pause, his mother replied, “I don’t think so. I’m not really feeling very hungry, and I don’t want to waste money, even though we’re getting to save it on this…class, or training, or whatever you call it.” She tightened her lips for a moment. It seemed that having the silence broken had freed up some resistance she’d held, and she clearly was about to say something else. Timothy wasn’t sure what it could be, but it seemed to make her uncomfortable. Was she worried that Mr. Maclean had done something inappropriate, or that he was a con artist? Timothy didn’t see how she could come to such an even tentative conclusion, but nothing else sprang to his mind that might make his mother feel so obviously uncomfortable.
When she spoke, clearly avoiding looking at Timothy, the subject surprised him. “You didn’t…Dr. Putnam didn’t tell me you’d said things about…about doing something drastic if you…if you felt like you had to.”
Timothy, surprised by the reference to Dr. Putnam, didn’t understand his mother’s point.
“What do you mean?” he asked.
“That…Mr. Maclean, there, he said that you’d told Dr. Putnam that you…well, something about how, if you ever thought you weren’t going to be able to stop yourself from hurting people, you were going to…I don’t remember how he put it, but, something like ‘take drastic action,’ and that was one of the reasons Dr. Putnam thought you might be depressed.”
Timothy now remembered the moment early in the meeting with Mr. Maclean when the man had mentioned this. “Oh, yeah,” he said. “He did say that.”
After a bit of a pause, his mother asked, “Is that true? I mean…Dr. Putnam never mentioned that to me, but for some reason he felt like he could tell this…this meditation guru guy about it. Was that…was that because it wasn’t too serious?”
Not sure he was following the specific point of his mother’s inquiry, Timothy replied, “Well…I mean, I wasn’t joking or anything, if that’s what you mean.”
“That’s not what I mean,” his mother said, with a bit of heat, as though she thought Timothy was being deliberately evasive. Her eyes flicked in his direction—at least, the one he could see did, and he assumed the other followed suit—then she returned to staring ahead at the road, pointedly not turning to look at him even for a second as she went on, “I mean…what sort of thing did you say to Dr. Putnam, what…when he said ‘drastic action’ what was he talking about, and about what? I mean, were you…were you thinking of trying to get yourself locked up, like in a mental hospital or something?”
Timothy was so surprised by this suggestion, which had honestly never crossed his mind, that he felt at least a little less hesitant about correcting his mother’s misapprehension than he might have otherwise. “No,” he said. “Nothing like that. I just sort of said to him…you know, when we were talking about brain tumors and some guy who had killed a bunch of people and gotten himself killed, and those stupid punks in Columbine who killed those people and then killed themselves, that I think it would be better to just…I don’t know, skip a step. I mean, it’s better if you just kill yourself than if you kill other people.”
Timothy felt heat in his face, and the anxiety that now began to tingle through him felt like the polar opposite of his moments of meditation. He had never spoken with his mother about such things. He knew she could not be objective about it, and he didn’t want to cause her the distress she was obviously now feeling.
Tightening her lips further, almost sucking them into her mouth before speaking, Timothy’s mother said, “It didn’t sound like he thought you were talking about…I don’t know, about hypotheticals or whatever, or about those people. The Columbine kids, and whoever else. It sounded like he thought you were talking about yourself.”
Feeling his face get hotter, Timothy muttered, “Well, yeah, I guess so. I mean, I talked about myself eventually. I think I said, like…like if I was like the guy in the tower, with the tumor, who knew he couldn’t keep himself from hurting people…that I’d just…well, if I could, instead of doing what he did, I’d maybe…I don’t know, just jump from the tower or shoot myself.”
His mother didn’t seem satisfied with his answer, which he’d deliberately put in counter-factual terms to try to allay her worries.
“Is that it?” she said, obviously believing it was not. “You were just talking about things, like a couple of guys having beers, and it came up? And that worried Dr. Putnam enough that he thought he ought to put you on that stupid medicine that did make you seem like some kind of psycho? And he mentioned it to this Mr. Maclean, and he was convinced enough to teach you for free just because of some…some ‘what if’ scenario you guys had talked about, just casually? You want me to believe that?”
“Well, I don’t really know what Dr. Putnam thought or what he said to Mr. Maclean, or what Mr. Maclean thought,” Timothy said. “Like Mr. Maclean said, what happens in other people’s minds is something we can’t ever…”
His mother snapped in interruption, saying, “Don’t bullshit me and don’t try to change the subject!”
Timothy was startled more by his mother’s rather mild profanity than he was about the tone of her voice, which was far from a full yell, though it carried a timbre of thinly controlled emotion. He said nothing as she went on, “Did you say to him that if you thought you were going to really hurt someone else, and that you couldn’t do anything else to stop it, you would…would kill yourself?”
Timothy wanted to reply in the negative, wanted to tell her that such a thing was silly, that Dr. Putnam had clearly read too much into his words. He was, however, unable to lie to his mother about such a thing in such a circumstance, not when she was so obviously distressed. Like him, his mother didn’t like to be reassured by lies; she much preferred to be told the hard truth, so that she could deal with it.
He supposed it wasn’t too surprising, since she was clearly the person from whom he’d inherited or learned the trait.
“I…I guess I might’ve said something like that,” he told her quietly.
He thought he saw his mother’s eyes glisten a bit, though she still didn’t look at him directly. She asked, “And…and was this just…just something that popped into your mind in passing, while you were talking about that stuff with Dr. Putnam…or had you thought that before?”
Really wishing he could tell her otherwise, Timothy said, “No, it…it wasn’t just, like…like a new idea. I’d thought it before.”
“You’d thought it before,” his mother repeated. She took a deep breath and then asked, “And since?”
Timothy blinked, wondering why she was focused on such temporal specifics. “Well…I mean, sometimes,” he said.
“Sometimes,” his mother said, repeating his words again. “So, you mean that sometimes you…you think that, if you can’t figure out a way to get your anger under control, that it might be better if you…if you would die, is that it?”
“Well…yeah,” Timothy said, hoping his mother would be satisfied with the passive notion and leave it there.
She was not satisfied, it seemed, and she glanced his way again, her eyes more clearly becoming watery, as she said, “And you don’t…you think about doing it yourself? You think about…if you can’t…if you think you might hurt other people…you think about…killing yourself?”
Wishing again that he were one of those teenagers who seemed so at ease with deceiving their parents, even about such important things, Timothy was forced to reply, “Well…yeah. I mean, I think it would be better to kill myself than to kill someone else.”
His mother seemed to accept this point, at least, but she went on, “But you aren’t just thinking about this as a hypothetical thing, though. You’ve actually…actually thought about doing it. I mean…have you thought about ways of doing it?”
Recalling his conversation about such things with Dr. Putnam, Timothy had to admit, “Well…yeah. I mean I wouldn’t want to do it in any way that’d cause other people trouble.”
“It would cause me trouble!” his mother suddenly shouted, and she turned her head briefly in his direction, her face blotchy, and Timothy saw tears begin to spill from her eyes before she snapped herself back to look at the road. “It would cause me a lot of trouble! It would break my heart! It would destroy me! You can’t do that to me, Timothy, you can’t do that to me! I would rather…I would rather have you in a lunatic asylum than dead! I can’t…you can’t do that to me!”
Timothy was stunned, both by his mother’s obvious emotion, which he wouldn’t have guessed would be so extreme, and by the seeming illogic of her objection. While it was true, of course, that if he were to kill himself, it would cause his mother suffering—this was one of the many reasons he hadn’t seriously considered doing it already—it could also not seriously be considered as something he would do to her. That just didn’t make sense. If that was acceptable, then anything anyone did that ever had any effect of any kind on another person could be thought of as being done to them, and Timothy didn’t see how that could work. Him punching or kicking someone else or throwing a rock at a moving car—that was something done to someone else. If he killed someone in a fit of rage that would be something he did to someone else. But if he killed himself to prevent himself from killing someone else, or more than one other person…how could that be considered…
His thoughts were interrupted, for his mother continued, her voice lowering slightly in volume, but becoming, if anything, even more emotional. “Don’t you do that to me,” she said. “Don’t you ever do that to me. You can’t do that to me. If you…if you ever killed yourself, it would be because I failed you. You’re the most important thing in the world to me, you’re my baby. If you were to kill yourself…it would be bad enough if you died some other way, it would be bad enough if you…I don’t know, if you got sent to prison for the rest of your life. But at least then I could…I’d visit you, I’d never abandon you. But if you killed yourself…”
“Mom, I…” Timothy began, not sure what he was going to say, speaking simply whatever words came to his mouth, trying to break the cycle of his mother’s emotional reaction.
He got no farther than that before his mother interrupted, her voice slightly louder, saying, “If you think you’re going to kill yourself, then just kill me first. Kill me now, today, when we get home. Because I don’t want to have to know about you killing yourself, I don’t want to be alive if it happens.”
Timothy was stunned. He had never entertained such a notion as deliberately killing anyone, as if planned out, as if done according to some purpose.
Well…not since the wasps, anyway, but they weren’t people, and that was under the influence of the Paxil.
Speaking the thought that came most irresistibly into his head, Timothy said, “I’m not going to kill you, Mom.”
“Oh, but you’re okay with killing yourself, are you? Even though you’re more important to me than I am to myself, you think it’s okay to kill yourself but not to kill me?” she responded, sounding near hysteria. This was, thankfully, in contrast to her driving, which continued to be as careful and controlled as it always was.
“I’m not okay with killing myself,” Timothy countered, trying to avoid becoming emotional, but feeling a tension that was not at all like his rages, terrified by his mother’s emotional state and the irrational things she was saying. “I don’t want to kill myself. I just…I don’t want to hurt other people. I don’t have the right to hurt other people.”
“Then you don’t have the right to kill yourself,” his mother said instantly. “Because that would hurt me, more than anything else in the world could ever hurt me. And I don’t know, maybe I’m making an assumption here, but I’d like to think that I’m at least as important as some stranger you might possibly hurt someday.”
This was something Timothy couldn’t fail to respond to, as he supposed his mother must know, and he said, “You are important to me, Mom. You’re more important to me than anyone else. I…I wouldn’t want you to be ashamed of me, or to have to deal with knowing that I’d killed somebody.” Timothy heard the strange sound of his voice breaking a little, as he felt a strain of conflicting tensions, pressure coming from his unwillingness to cause his mother pain and his desire not to be a source of pain and destruction for innocent strangers. He felt his eyes beginning to sting, but he wasn’t sure why.
“You know what,” his mother replied, sounding almost calm, but with a tense, tight strain in her voice that made Timothy feel that she was not at all in full control, “I don’t give a shit about what happens to some stranger, if it means you killing yourself. I don’t care about what happens to the rest of the fucking world if it means you’re going to kill yourself. It might as well all go up in smoke for all I care.”
Timothy did not believe that his mother honestly thought that, but he could tell that in that moment, it was the true statement of her feelings, made only too clear by her repeated profanity. And now he felt somehow perched between the pressure of destroying his mother’s hopes and dreams, of breaking her heart, and destroying the rest of the world, however irrational both things were. He didn’t know what to do, he didn’t know what to say. The itching in his eyes increased, and he surprised himself by beginning to cry. He didn’t remember the last time that had happened.
“Mom…” he sobbed out, “…I…don’t know what to say or what to do! I don’t know what to do. I just…I don’t want to be a bad person! I don’t want to hurt people, I don’t want to hurt you, I don’t want to hurt anyone! I don’t know how to stop myself from…from flipping out when it happens, I don’t know how to avoid it, I don’t know how to stop when it’s started! I don’t want to hurt anyone else, and I don’t want to hurt you! I don’t know what to do!”
Timothy was not crying to attempt to control and change his mother’s attitude—even if he’d wanted to do that, the skill was almost certainly beyond him—so he wasn’t disappointed that his mother wasn’t moved by his tears or his proclaimed feelings of helplessness. In a voice as hard as that of any hanging judge, she said, “I’ll tell you what to do. You promise me—you swear to me—that you are never going to kill yourself.” And she looked over at him again, for a long moment this time.
They were getting close to home now, so the traffic was light and the speed limit slower, and thus it was safe enough for his mother’s gaze to linger on him longer than it had been before. Timothy, his own vision blurred by his tears, could nonetheless make out her expression. Her face was taut, it was anguished, it was in pain, but there was not once ounce of pity or mercy in it.
“What?” Timothy said, punctuating his confused utterance with a sniff to draw back in the snot that was threatening to drip from his nose.
“Swear to me,” she said again. Now she was looking at him more than at the road, but she continued to flick her gaze back and forth, unable even in the grip of powerful emotion to break her habits of careful driving. “Swear to me that you’ll never kill yourself, no matter what.”
“What?” Timothy said again. “Mom…how can I…I mean…what if I was going to hurt somebody?” He sniffed again, but it failed its purpose, and mucus mixed with tears ran out of his nose onto his upper lip, as tears rolled down his face.
His mother’s mouth tightened, and she looked forward. Suddenly, surprising Timothy with the erratic driving, she pressed on the brakes and pulled to the right, into the parking lot of an old, worn-down strip mall. She screeched the car into the nearest spot, threw it into park, and then turned to look at him, not removing her seat belt.
“Timothy,” she said, “I want you to look at me and listen to me very closely.”
This was an unnecessary injunction; Timothy was staring at her as well as he could with his crying eyes, and he wasn’t even wiping the goo from his face.
Apparently not requiring his affirmation, his mother went on, “If you don’t swear to me right now that you are not going to kill yourself, that you are never going to kill yourself, then…then you can get out of the car now, unless you want to come home with me and watch me kill myself. Because that’s what I’m going to do. I can’t stand to live in a world where my son, my baby, might kill himself to protect strangers. I divorced your father to protect you from him, because you’re more important to me than he could ever have been, even though I loved him. You are more important to me than anyone—than everyone—in the world. So…if you can’t swear to me, if you can’t convince me that you’re not going to kill yourself, ever, then I’m going to…to go home and take a whole bottle of aspirin and then cut my wrists in the tub on top of that. I will not live in a world where you might kill yourself because you’re afraid of what you might do to some…some imaginary strangers.”
Timothy’s tears dried up, or at least they stopped flowing, and his mouth dropped open, letting the awful drippings from his noise make their salty way into it. He could not process his mother’s words; he could not believe what she was saying, but he could not disbelieve her, either. Whether or not she would go through with such a threat, he could not know, but he could tell that she meant it with all seriousness at that moment.
He felt again, as he had with Mr. Maclean, a sense that the world within his mind was more vast, more endless, than anything outside, but this was not a comfort, because suddenly the world within his mind—and the world outside—was a place of threat and terror, a place of freezing winds and raging fire, an abyss of pain over which he was balanced on a tall spit of stone, trying not to fall off in the roar of the mental wind created by his mother’s words.
It felt difficult to breathe. He stared at his mother in disbelief.
“Well?” she said. “What’ll it be?”
Timothy still could not speak. He could not believe he was being put in this situation, could not understand how quickly it had happened. How could his mother put him in such a horrible, impossible dilemma?
Yet, on the other hand, how could he bear to have put her in the position where she felt so threatened that she was making such a threat? How could he bear to do that to her?
A sudden noise startled him, as his mother pressed the button that unlocked the car doors.
“Are you staying?” she asked. “Are you going to swear that you won’t kill yourself? Or are you getting out? Or are you going to come home and be there when I kill myself?”
Timothy struggled to speak, feeling stretched and torn, helpless not because he lacked strength but because he lacked any clear idea of how to move forward in any sane way.
“Well?” his mother asked again. “I’m waiting.” He couldn’t believe how dry her own eyes were now, and yet how utterly forlorn her face looked, how drawn and tense, both flushed at the cheeks and yet pale everywhere else. She looked like a mad/sad clown version of herself.
“But…what am I supposed to do if…if I think I’m going to kill somebody?” he asked, his voice small and high, as though he’d lost ten years of his growth.
“Then get yourself committed to a fucking mental hospital!” his mother yelled, her eyes bulging. “Call the police! Pretend to rob a bank and get yourself arrested! I don’t care if you do that, I wouldn’t hold that against you! I’d know why you did it, and I’d never abandon you! Hell, if you have to, and if they deserve it, then…”
She stopped herself suddenly. Timothy thought, he was almost sure, that she had been on the verge of telling him just to kill whoever it was.
That, however, was apparently too far for her to let herself go. Instead, calming down a little, she said, “There are ways for you to protect people from you, to protect you from yourself. You can find ways. You’re a smart boy, and you’re the most determined person I know. You figure it out. I’ll help you. I will always help you. But if you don’t swear to me that you’re not going to kill yourself, then I will do it to myself before you can. So you swear to me now, or get out of the car.”
Unable to think clearly, feeling as lost as before, though his mother seemed calmer, Timothy said, “I don’t want to get out of the car.”
“Then swear to me,” she said. “Promise me that you won’t kill yourself. Convince me. Don’t lie to me…if I don’t believe you, I’ll just act like you didn’t do it. Promise me. Swear to me.”
Timothy’s mouth still hung open, but thankfully most of the snot had already dripped in or around it, and his own eyes, though they felt puffy and uncomfortable, were not leaking tears any longer. This was not a relief, but at least it was more convenient.
He didn’t want to swear. He didn’t want to swear because he knew he could not take such an oath lightly. He could not just speak the words to make the uncomfortable moment pass. However unfair he felt it was for his mother to put him in the place they were now, he could not simply lie about it, even if he thought she would believe a lie, which he didn’t think she would.
He had no choice. If he could not bear the thought of hurting other people, he certainly could not bear the thought of his mother killing herself because of him. And though he might be able to stop her from her stated plan of swallowing aspirin and cutting her wrists—he probably could, he was as tall as she, and might be stronger—that would merely be a temporary thing. He could not stay with her every moment, spending the rest of his life preventing her from killing herself because he didn’t want to swear not to kill himself.
He saw no other way. Closing his mouth first and trying to swallow, with some difficulty, he then croaked, “I swear.”
“You swear what?” his mother asked instantly, her bulging eyes hardly seeming to blink.
“I swear I won’t kill myself to try to stop myself from hurting other people,” he said. “I promise.”
“You swear that you won’t kill yourself for any reason!” she corrected. “I don’t want any loopholes or escape clauses here. You swear to me that you will not kill yourself.”
Timothy had not been trying to make a potential source of evasion, so he was not averse to amending himself, though he was shocked that his mother was requiring it. “I swear,” he said. “I promise that I won’t kill myself. Not for any reason.”
His mother looked at him steadily for a long time, her eyes so unblinking that Timothy’s own eyes ached and burned in sympathy. Then, finally, she said, “Okay. I believe you.” Then, after a moment, she went on, in a clearly false normal tone, “Then let’s go home. It’s time for lunch, and neither one of us has eaten anything.”
She threw the car in reverse, and Timothy was amazed that she had the presence of mind to look all around and check for other cars before pulling out. Somehow the clarity of her general behavior, the lack of erratic changes, made her ultimatum all the more convincing. This was not something she had said or demanded in a fit that would pass, or which she would forget, or about which she would change her mind. She was deadly serious.
Timothy let out a breath, still feeling lost and alone in his mental landscape, from which at least the raging fire had left. Now all it contained was the frigid, lonesome wind, blowing through a pale, white, featureless snowscape.
Somehow, though, somewhere in that landscape, Timothy had an instantaneous, strange thought or vision of the creature that he had awakened to find laying atop him the night after he’d taken his last Paxil. He saw its red laser eyes, its flat, misshapen nose, and above all, he saw its mouth, stretching halfway around its massive head, stretching even farther in a grin of unimaginable proportions, baring its rows of interlocking, rough, ragged, but still viciously sharp teeth.
That image came and went in Timothy’s mind almost too quickly for him to be aware of it. But the snowscape remained for a long time.
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