Leo in the Attic
by Ronald Pies
The Universe is transformation. Life is opinion. — Marcus Aurelius
My crazy Uncle Leo lives in our attic. Today, when I offered him his cocktail of Risperdal, Seroquel, and lithium, he asked me—almost apologetically—if I had noticed that the imperfections in the glass of his dormer window formed a pattern. “If you connect the little bubbles, starting from the left upper quadrant and moving clockwise, they form a silhouette of the prophet Isaiah.” I told my uncle that I couldn’t see the pattern, but that I hoped he found some happiness in it. “Oh, yes, Joel, yes, I certainly do,” he replied. “By the way, you haven’t heard anything from Rose, have you?”
For the tenth time this week, the fortieth time this month, the five-hundredth time this year, I had to tell my uncle that Rose had not called. “Goodnight, Uncle Leo,” I said, closing the attic door.
“My name is Isaiah, Joel,” I heard my uncle mutter.
I realize, of course, that the term “crazy” is loaded with all kinds of political, social, and philosophical baggage. But most of the members of my uncle’s support group—Izzy, Ken, Barbara, Lou and Adam—do not shy away from the word. The group sometimes invites family members to participate, so I have gotten to know the crew.
“Oh, Leo, come on!” Barbara says, flashing a smile that must have been beautiful once, “that’s a little crazy, isn’t it?” Barbara suffers from bipolar disorder, and once worked as an executive vice president at a big biotech firm in Cambridge. Now she works from home, quite happily, as a “feng shui planner and consultant.”
“It’s not crazy, Barb, not at all,” my uncle replies testily. “I’m talking about putting heat sensors right in the donut. You dunk the donut into your coffee, and you get an immediate read-out as to the coffee’s temperature. If it’s too hot, you don’t sip it.”
“Leo, why not just build the sensor into the damn cup?” Izzy asks, rolling his eyes.
“Because, schmendrik,” my Uncle retorts with a look of immense self-satisfaction, “People don’t buy millions of cups every day. They buy millions of donuts! That’s where the money is!” I notice that his metastasizing beard has a fragment of a cheese omelet embedded in it.
“Leo, man,” Adam says—Adam is the aging hippie in the group, a denizen of Haight-Ashbury long before it went to seed—“where do you get these ideas? Last year it was, like, inflatable shrubs for people who can’t garden. Year before that, walking sticks for the blind that, like, read off the names of street signs and shit…”
“Well, I, for one, like Leo’s ideas,” Ken says with conviction. “They reflect his engineering background.” Ken, who carries the diagnosis of “schizoaffective disorder,” is an accountant by training, and can appreciate the logic of some of my uncle’s schemes. Ken is neatly dressed in a shiny, polyester suit from the mid-80s, and peers out from behind thick, horn-rimmed glasses. He is right on one point: Uncle Leo left Cornell in 1965 with a double-major in mechanical and electrical engineering. That was before the worst of his troubles began.
I didn’t exactly volunteer to be Uncle Leo’s caretaker-in-chief. Nor had I planned, at age 27, to be living at home with my widowed mother, or working as a “sales associate” at the Borders in Newton. But after I left the literature program at Northeastern, the economy soured, I was broke, and it was either move in with Mom or hook up with my ex-girlfriend. My mother actually won out on the personality factor, and is decidedly a better cook than the ex. All this was going down at the same time my Uncle Leo was getting booted out of his group home in Allston. After nearly five years of relative stability, he had assaulted a staff member and wound up on a “pink paper” admission to the Lemuel Shattuck Hospital. After he stabilized, Leo had no place to go. All the group homes were either full, or wouldn’t touch him, given the assault business. My mother has always felt close to her “little brother”—she’s a year older than Leo—and concluded that, with a little help, she could manage my uncle at home. She cut two deals the day of my uncle’s discharge: Leo would agree to take his meds every day, and I would agree to become his de facto mental health aide. The trade-off for both of us was a roof over our heads and home cooking.
At first, my uncle was given one of the guest bedrooms—long ago, my father’s study. But the miracle drug that had worked so well for Uncle Leo all those years—clozapine—seemed to have lost its magical potency. He began, once again, to sprout all the twisted horns and gnarled scales that had bedeviled him since his college days: the mystical ruminations about Isaiah and Jeremiah; the “supernal voices” that instructed him on his cockamamie inventions; and the belief that the Boston Police Department had placed a listening device in his scrotum. When the doctors upped his clozapine to 800 milligrams a day, my uncle complained of severe drooling and what he called, “the death of Priapus.” His mood swings became more severe, and at times, he was incontinent. The odor of degrading urine began to waft through the rest of the house. After a few weeks of this, my mother decided we had to move Uncle Leo up to the attic. Fortunately, we had finished the ceiling up there a few years earlier, and—after clearing out some moldering boxes and putting up a few pictures—we managed to fashion a crude living space for my uncle.
My job, every day, was to clean up after Uncle Leo, and to persuade him to take his medication. This was not easy, given the loss of his sexual function.
“Joel, how will I court my Lady Fair, if my sexual fluids have been drained from me?” he complained tearfully. “How will I satisfy my Ramblin’ Rose when she returns to me at last?”
But despite his growing incapacity, my uncle retained his engineering skills. He refused to use telephones, cell phones, or the intercom system we had installed in his room, believing that all these devices had been “irrevocably compromised by the police.” Instead—after my three trips to Home Depot for a compressed air motor, plastic tubing, and other hardware—Uncle Leo managed to construct a system of pneumatic tubes that allowed him to send written messages to us in the dining room. It was a crude set-up—we couldn’t send notes back up to my uncle—but it worked well enough. Of course, my mother made sure the plastic tubing was discretely hidden behind a huge, potted philodendron.
“You see, Joel, ‘pneumatic’ is derived from Pneuma, the World Spirit that breathes through the Universe, the Logos of the ancient stoic philosophers,” Uncle Leo explained. “My good friend Marcus Aurelius would understand.”
Rose Bernstein was the love of my uncle’s brilliant and desperate life. I had never met her, but my mother remembered Rose fondly.
“You should have seen your uncle, the first time he came home from college with this gorgeous girl in tow,” my mother once confided to me. “Here was a guy—I mean, a nerd’s nerd—who used to wear a slide rule clipped to his belt, and who comes home transformed into a poet! It was Rose’s magic, let me tell you. A literature major, Rose, like you, Joel. She didn’t just have poor Leo eating out of her hand, she had him reading Keats, Shakespeare, Eliot, even Robert Burns. You know, honey, it was the first time I had ever really seen my brother happy. He grew a beard and started wearing sandals, like Allen Ginsberg! But a year or two later—oy, it breaks my heart to think back.”
Leo and Rose actually lived together in Cambridge for a few years, after they left Cornell. Leo had entered a PhD program at MIT, and Rose was working for some English professor at Lesley College. At first, things seemed to go all right, according to my mother. But then Leo’s metamorphosis began—slowly at first, with complaints that Rose was “too seductive” around their friends and neighbors. Then came the accusations of infidelity, and the voices warning Leo that Rose was stabbing him in the back.
“I remember having dinner with Leo and Rose one night in Harvard Square,” my mother said. “Everything was hunky-dory, we’re having drinks, schmoozing, you know. Then, like a cloud had come over him, Leo’s face darkens. ‘Rose,’ he says, ‘Your perfume is too effing strong. It is a toxin and a corruption!’ I remember seeing all the color just drain from Rose’s face. Leo practically pushes the table over, gets up, and storms out of the restaurant. Rose and I just sat there and cried over our drinks. A half-hour later, your uncle comes back, smiling as if nothing had happened.”
About a year later, Leo had his first full-blown, psychotic break, and wound up at Bournewood Hospital. Six months after that, Rose moved out, and took a job in Denver. None of us heard from her again, until about a year ago.
Although I took the call, I quickly handed the telephone to my mother, who exclaimed, “Oh, my God!” immediately upon hearing the voice at the other end. Rose Bernstein explained that she happened to be in Boston for a conference—she was now a tenured professor of English at Colorado State University—and had managed to get our telephone number from a friend of a friend. She wanted to know how Leo was doing, and whether it might be possible to stop by and see him. A few awkward moments followed, with my mother making noises about “…a difficult time…some real setbacks for Leo…” and so on. Finally, though, my mother felt obliged to invite Rose over for dinner, warning her that “Leo may not be in any shape to see you.” Rose said that she understood, and that seeing my mother and me would be reason enough to come.
Now in her early 60s, Rose Bernstein was still an attractive woman, with the kind of robust figure my father’s generation called zaftig. She had lost the long, straight black hair of her student days—Rose had been a few years ahead of most of the co-eds at Cornell in 1965—and now wore her graying hair neatly bobbed. As she sat with us at the dinner table, I could easily see how this woman had become my uncle’s muse. When she smiled at me, briefly touching my hand, I found myself uncomfortably aroused. Her laugh had a rough, throaty quality that suggested someone given to pleasures of many kinds. Rose exuded a vaguely tropical scent with just a tinge of musk.
“I really hope I haven’t intruded,” Rose said, sipping on a glass of white Zinfandel. “I know that Leo’s been through some terrible things, and I have no right—well, leaving the way I did…”
“Oh, no,” my mother protested, “it was perfectly understandable, Rose, after all those crazy accusations. Look, Leo could never have given you the kind of life you wanted. Of course, it hurt him at the time—I mean, the break-up. But he’s had to deal with so much since then. I’m only sorry he can’t join us. For a week now, we’ve barely been able to get him to open the door to his room.”
Rose sighed. “I can remember Leo in his junior year at Cornell. He was about six feet two, a hundred-eighty pounds, and good-looking as hell, except for the damn slide rule on his belt. He had the mind of an engineer, but ten minutes after I met him, I knew he had the soul of a poet.”
“He still quotes Emily Dickinson now and then,” I chimed in.
“Oh, yes—he always liked that ‘much madness is divinest sense’ stuff,” Rose said, casting her glance downward. I wondered if anger flickered briefly in those large, azure eyes. “I only wish—if only there was something we could have done…”
“Listen, Rose,” my mother said, placing her hand on the woman’s wrist, “even now, with all the fancy science, the doctors can’t do much for Leo. Joel, you tried to talk to him today, right?”
“Yeah. I told him you were planning to visit, Rose, but it wasn’t much use. He was making this weird sort of low, whistling sound, over and over. When I asked him what it meant, he told me to go to the window and listen carefully. So I went over, opened the window, and listened. Turned out, he was mimicking the sound of a mourning dove. He had the frequency and the—whaddya call it?—the timbre down perfectly. ”
At that moment, we heard the faint creaking of footsteps overhead. From time to time, the boom of my uncle’s frenzied pacing would be transmitted through the floor boards, down into the dining room area—a commotion we had grown sadly used to. But this sound was different: a more measured pace, as if my uncle had taken a few steps, then paused to consider something. The three of us sat in silence for a moment. Suddenly we heard a soft, whooshing sound, then a slight clunk, coming from behind the philodendron. Rose looked perplexed, but my mother and I knew what had happened.
“It’s Uncle Leo,” I said, rising from my seat. “I’ll take care of it.”
As I opened my uncle’s note and read the neatly printed words, I looked over at Rose and felt my face flush deeply.
“It’s for you, Rose,” I said, and handed her the piece of paper.
Rose read the note in silence, and a tiny, troubled “m” formed in the creased skin between her eyebrows. She put her hand over her mouth, struggled for a moment, then looked up at us and smiled. She read Leo’s message aloud, enunciating with a soft Scottish burr:
O my love's like a red, red rose
That's newly sprung in June;
O my love's like the melodie
That's sweetly play'd in tune.
Till a' the seas gang dry, my dear,
And the rocks melt wi' the sun;
O I will love thee still my dear,
While the sands o' life shall run.
Ronald Pies MD is a physician, writer and poet who lives in the Boston area. He is Clinical Professor of Psychiatry at Tufts University, and has written extensively on professional issues. He is also the author of Creeping Thyme, a collection of poetry (Brandylane Publishing); and Zimmerman's Tefillin, a short story collection (PublishAmerica). Dr. Pies is also author of
The Ethics of the Sages (Rowman & Littlefield), an interfaith commentary on a tractate of the Talmud.
Copyright © 2005 Entelechy: Mind & Culture. All rights reserved.