Anthony is the most beautiful player in the game. His long, 19-year-old legs stretch across the floor with each pump of his arm, each thump of his step. He runs with determination, and when he jumps, he jumps with limbs flailing. His legs straddle the air, his feet sail in different directions and his arms shoot out of his body with force. He is serious. He is Kobe Bryant, and he is a vital part of this game. When the ball finds its way into his hands, he moves with instinct. In one easy motion, he pushes the ball out from his hip and into the air for a three-pointer. Before it has reached the basket, the ref raises his arm and bellows, “In!” With a shwoosh, the ball glides through the net. We are amazed. We ooh and aah and clap for Anthony as he trots down the court.
A couple of players run up, palms out, to give him fives, but he has his back to them. His mind is somewhere else. He has turned toward the bleachers and is throwing a high-five through the air to… his father? A friend? This is uncertain, but the way his hand awkwardly beats the air you know he is excited. He jumps a short jump and claps hard. Then he’s back in the game, ready for the next shot.
Anthony does not know what we know about him. We know that he is a year too old to be a senior in high school. We know that his jokes about “gooey ball” don’t make sense. We know that he is a 19-year-old man who gallops across rooms.
Whenever you start a conversation with Anthony, it will always return to one topic—his drums. He can’t seem to focus on anything else. He will tell you three or four times in a conversation that by the year 2007, he will get his final two drums. “Then I’ll have seventeen drums total!” This idea, which never ceases to delight him, pushes a laugh from the back of his throat, similar to the sound of a stone dropping in water. “That’s a lot of drums, huh?” he says, pushing his face close to yours as if you are sharing a secret. How do you pinpoint Anthony’s disability? Despite his disjointed conversation, he’s charming. Despite the way he crowds your personal space, he’s endearing.
In the middle of Sunday School, the youth pastor cracks a joke and the rest of us chuckle mildly. Anthony, on the other hand, jumps from his seat, his long, narrow arms waving above his head. “The bongos!” he yells and that laugh, that joyous laugh pushes its way from the back of his throat. Bah Dah Ching, go the invisible drumsticks in his hands. Never mind that bongos don’t use drumsticks. We can’t help but laugh as he stands grinning around the room. We don’t laugh because the bongos are funny, or because he is particularly clever, we laugh because Anthony’s joy is contagious.
When Vanessa walks, her black, silky hair swoops around her cheeks. She marches into Sunday school in pink velvet pants and white pumps. The Pop-Tart she stuffs into her mouth leaves crumbs around her chin.
“Vanessa!” I say. “I’m so glad you’re here today.” I pat her on the shoulder. “Christin, could you please not touch me?” she says, without spite—as if she were asking me to move slightly to the right. But the small group of girls surrounding us goes awkward and still. They are trying to finish their own conversations, but they are watching me instead.
“Sure, Vanessa,” I say, because I understand what the other girls don’t—that the reason why Vanessa is always watching her feet and twisting them as if she’s hurt, the reason why she has just asked me not to touch her, is because she has Childhood Onset Schizophrenia.
I found this out the second time I ever talked to her. We were sitting on the big gray and pink benches which circle the youth room, facing each other. I had just asked her a question about school.
“I don’t go to school because of my disease,” she said.
I was curious, but I wanted to tread carefully. “Your disease?” I asked. Without even blinking, Vanessa opened her mouth and pushed out the big word. “Schizophrenia.”
One in 40,000 children battles early onset schizophrenia. The average age for onset in women is 25 years old. Vanessa is sixteen. When I tell Evie, a friend of mine and a therapist, about Vanessa the first words out of her mouth are, “Either she’s very ill or I would question her doctor’s diagnosis.” Because schizophrenia is a degenerative disease, doctors are hesitant to diagnose children. “If you’re not absolutely sure that your child has onset, then usually you give it time to see what else it could be, like autism, or a bipolar disorder,” Evie explains. “Because once you label them, it’s like condemning them.”
In other words, there is very little chance that Vanessa will ever have a healthy mind again. Soon the 14 years of her life spent free of this disease will fade from memory. The days when she got straight A’s, mastered the piano and held the title of teacher’s pet will seem like a life before the womb. Her best hope is to learn to deal with the shattered fragments of her mind. To try and remember that the person talking to her about the time of day cannot read her mind. To remember the voices telling her to write death notes to her classmates are not real. And to try and convince herself that the hand touching her shoulder is real, not a spider crawling across her skin.
The fact that Vanessa can even ask me not to touch her is a good sign, Evie tells me. “Just that she is expressing her boundaries is great!” she says. “It shows that she’s comfortable. If she wasn’t saying anything, then you’d never know, and that might be the reason she doesn’t come back one day.”
I walk down to the office thinking about what Evie has said. I think about Vanessa and her round little shoulders and the way she pushes her glasses up her nose. I think about the quiet way she always asks at the end of Sunday school, “Are we dismissed?” I think about the way she lets me follow her out to her car to meet her mother, and I have to smile. She’s doing so well! I say to myself. She’s winning!
So what if the other girls in the small group freeze when Vanessa raises her hand to ask an irrelevant question? So what if they grow silent and wait in suspense for us to blend her words into the topic of conversation? They don’t laugh anymore, and that is a victory in itself.
“When you get to the heaven, you get the wings, you get the big wings on your back. When you get to the heaven there’s no pain and he says you get the new body.”
I watch Steve and think I hear him crying for the first time. His voice chokes, and I see water in his red eyes. He bats at the ground with his stick, emphasizing the phrase new body. Every Tuesday and Thursday, Steve rolls down the hall outside my office with his stick and his grocery bags. He collects bottles and cans from our garbage, and I can hear him banging around the bins before he rolls to my door. Every Tuesday and Thursday he stops to talk to me. He tells me how much money he collected from the cans last week, which movies he’s seen on his disability pass and when he’ll visit his sister next.
Steve has the frame of a tall man. If his shoulders were not twisted with cerebral palsy, they would be the broad shoulders of a dignified man. He would be close to impressive if his six-foot body were not curled into a wheelchair. Sometimes, when I’m talking to Steve, I imagine him as a healthy man. He would tower over me, with clear blue eyes and a balding pate. But because I am always standing over Steve, I can see the top of his head, which is dotted with freckles and a few wisps of gray hair.
“He said that you get the new body with Jesus.” Steve looks at me, his mouth pursed in a careful ‘o.’ “Do you believe that?” he asks.
“Yes,” I say.
“Do you believe in the heaven?”
“Yes,” I say again. There is a short distance between all my Christian knowledge and total irrelevance. I want to reassure Steve, but I stop short because I recognize how little I know about his mind—how little I understand about his faith. I already know that Steve can crunch numbers faster than I can, that his broken body and slurred speech make people uncomfortable. I recognize all this and wonder just how much I need to tell Steve, and how much he already knows.
“How long to the new body? A hundred years? A thousand?” he asks, but I think it is a rhetorical question.
“I don’t know,” I say.
He stops and looks at me for a moment, the tears evening out in his eyes. “I’m waiting for Jesus,” he says, sticking his chin out slightly, as if Jesus is about to come walking down the hall any minute.
I do the one thing I can think of—move toward him and pat him gently on the shoulder. Me, too, I think as he wheels down the hall. I’m waiting for Jesus, too.