Jake was a blue eyed red headed boy of five. The kiss was in the barn. We must have met before that day, but I don’t remember meeting him, I just remember the kiss.
We were a vagabond gang of children, wild haired and sly eyed, brothers and sisters for life, not bonded of blood, but of experience. Gypsies. Hippies. Theatre people. Parents young, and caught up in their own fantasies of running away with the circus. We were, from as young as 2 or three, left entirely to our own devices. You know how in the Peanuts comic strip, you never see the parents, and on the cartoon they just sound like a wah wah pedal when they speak….that’s what it was like for us. Send us up the quarter mile long dirt driveway to the schoolbus in the morning and hope for the best. Often times Jake and I would take an alarm clock and our bagged lunches and head off into the woods for the day intsead of getting on the country school bus that would take us to Armstrong. Just time it right so we’d be back when the bus was, and no one was the wiser.
But that was later, and on a different farm. Jake started as the sweetest gift to the world. Blue eyes that stared you down, even at that tender age, and plotted. With a devil in his smile, and a little lilt in his troublemaking giggle, Jake was always looking for the best way to tease you. He would, by the time were seven or so, already be displaying a prodigious talent for playing the guitar. At age five I fell in love with him. And it stayed that way until we were seventeen, when he was struck down by a mental illness, one that would rip him from his friends and family, and from me.
At five we are playing boys chase the girls, or girls chase the boys, in the barn, outside a town called Tappen, in the Shuswap region of BC. On all the farms we stayed at, the hay barn always became our place. We’d sleep there at night, and dare each other to do dangerous things. Walk the beams, or close your eyes and walk on the stacks of hay bales, guaranteeing falling between two bales and lacerating your legs on the sharp straw. We made forts and nests and brought bedding and supplies, holing up for days, cajoling and ridiculing, talking and laughing, playing games and emulating our young, wild parents.
Boys chase the girls. Jake catches me. We sit on a hay bale. Freckles and a sweet little tongue. Blue eyes open, I can tell, because I open mine.
I love him for years and years, always assuming he loves all other girls better than me. I make up songs about it and sing them to myself in the woods, in the fields. This tortures me through our childhoods and into our teenaged years. I am sensitive to him, and shy around him, because I think he only wants to be around girls who are pretty. Until a time we are both at the Caravan Farm for a party. There is a campfire, and music on the gazebo, and so many people. And all these girls I don’t know, who look like dancers, and are tall and pretty. And they are flocking to Jake. This exquisitely handsome young man, grinning all the time. I leave him alone because I think he would want to be with them. I sit at the campfire by myself, in a teenaged slouch. And then, Jake comes over, sits next to me, puts his arm around me, wonders where I’ve been all night. Right here. I ask him how come he’s not dancing with the pretty girls, he says he has only wanted to be with me all night. He loves me best, and that’s that. I feel suddenly and simultaneously connected to the earth and untethered from it, rising into the night sky with the sparks from the fire. We talk into the night, make plans for futures, dreams, ideas of our lives to come. Wonder how it can include each other. My heart is flooded with understanding. It is not about the outside, and I don’t know how he sees me, but it’s not the way I see myself, and for that I am grateful.
It is not long after this night I get a call. We are 17 now. Jake, the caller tells me, something has happened to Jake. He and one of our brothers spent three days doing acid and now he’s lost his mind. They found him wandering down the highway, naked, and his tongue lolling out of his mouth, swollen from him chewing on it incessantly. They’ve brought him home, Home. Where they feed him whiskey and dope, living in the woods. Not to the hospital. They are not taking him to the doctor. I want him to go to the doctor, I don’t think it’s right, but I’m far away in Vancouver, and not really part of the scene where he’s from. Dope growers tucked into the mountains, living on the sly, avoiding the establishment, suspicious of western medicine. I call him. We have the strangest conversation. He’s calm now, but not thinking straight. He’s on his front porch and he’s looking out at a view I know, can imagine. Looking down from the hill, over the lake, the blue of the summer sky matching Jake’s eyes. He is worried, he tells me, because there are a few clouds in the sky, and one is littler than the others. And this little one is lower down in the sky, and he looks so small and lonely, Jake is becoming overwrought that there is nothing he can do for this baby cloud, who he thinks must be in mortal anguish at having been left behind. His voice is thin and far away. He doesn’t laugh, there is nothing of the trickster in him. I want to go to him, but I don’t know what to do. I think he must get better. Of course he will get better. This boy wonder. This musician. This heart of my heart.
But he doesn’t get better. The reports filter in to me at UVic. He has become violent and aggressive towards his friends and family. He is out of control. But they still won’t take him to the doctor. He is becoming more isolated as less of our extended family want anything to do with him out of fear for their own safety. Then, the bomb drops. I get a call, Jake has been arrested. He has taken a little girl, 2 and half years old, out to the woods, where he has molested and assaulted her. He is incarcerated in the hospital for the criminally insane. Our friends, our brothers, and I gather. We don’t know what to do. One of us goes to visit him, but I don’t. I can’t. I don’t know how to be with him, I am afraid to see him. I talk to him, but he doesn’t sound like the friend I had, the love I knew. He sounds dead. I begin to mourn him as if he were dead, because I don’t know what else to do.
He is in the hospital for many years, and during this time I receive letters from him. The letters are intense, insane, but with an undercurrent of love that rips my heart out. He talks of me as being the love of his life, he asks me to come for conjugal visits. I am so scared and upset, I cry and I don’t write him back. Maybe once I do. I avoid the subject of visiting him, and really avoid the subject of visiting him conjugally. After he has been in there for a couple of years, when I hear some reports of his progress, I agree to see him. He gets a day pass and comes into Vancouver and we have dinner together. I am shocked when I see him, he is so puffy and bloated. He lines up the various meds he is taking on the table for me to see. Lithium, and I don’t remember what else, but an array of colours, shapes and sizes. The lithium gives him tremors. The other meds have made him fat and his speech is muddy. Slurry. The onset of mental illness at seventeen has left him age arrested. I am in my twenties now, and he still talks like we are sixteen. I find it disconcerting and don’t really know how to talk to him, am afraid of him. He takes my hands at dinner, and expresses to me again how he has always loved me. I wonder is he playing guitar in the hospital. No, he can’t. The tremors in his hands from the meds make it too hard. And he doesn’t really remember how. His bright red hair has dulled, and he has grown a beard. This magical boy, the most magical boy, has been erased. There is so little left of him, I realize that my mourning him has not been unwarranted. He is not coming back to us, our Jake. But this is Jake, too, and I struggle with what the obligation is to someone you have loved for so long. I send him home after the dinner, we hug hard for a long time, and he kisses me a little on the mouth.
I am so angry at everyone for letting this happen. I go through a long period of time where I believe that if the family, his mother, had just taken him to a doctor, then he would be okay. That little girl would be okay. Her family would be okay. We, our brothers and me, would be okay. We wouldn’t be trying to understand why the brightest of all bright lights was snuffed out. I see the movie “The Butcher Boy” with a friend. The movies is about a blue eyed, red haired boy, a sparkling lovely little human, who goes crazy and is driven to do violent things. I cry and cry, surprised how much grief is still in my body.
I see Jake a few years later. He is out of the hospital and living in a halfway house in Kamloops. He comes to the Caravan for a party. He is still fat, and his eyes are more grey than blue, but he seems steadier. He picks up a guitar and plays and I cry some more. I have to leave for a while and cry on the steps because I feel like his playing makes me want to hope, but I know that the time for hope is so long past. This is our Jake now. But it is good to see him out in the world. And he still writes me letters sometimes. Now he lives on his own in Kamloops. He has a job, he plays soccer, a couple of years ago he sent me a photograph of himself playing in uniform, and sounded so proud. And he plays in a band. He’s not who he was when we were beautiful, but he’s somewhere, and he’s forward, and he has a life. He’s medicated and slow and will always be thinking like a boy.
I just got his address from his mother, and I’m writing this story so that I can bring myself to write him a letter. I want him to know how long I’ve loved him, and how many forms that love has taken. And that I’m not afraid of him any more.