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Van Gogh exhibition at the Metropolitan serves as inspiration for a period of reflection between a father and his son.

A meditation on mental illness and the love between father and son 

"Wheat Field With Crows," 1890, oil on canvas

Painting courtesy of the Van Gogh Museum

"Wheat Field With Crows," 1890, oil on canvas

Author's note: I have written of my son Josh and his mental illness in these pages before. But the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School set me to thinking again of our children and the world they occupy with us. Added to my grief over the deaths in Connecticut is my fear that the mentally ill will be further stigmatized. That would be harmful in the extreme. And we would have failed as parents and pilgrims on the path we share with them.

Before 9/11 you could ascend the tower at Riverside Church in New York City on Christmas Eve and view the carillonneur as he offered Handel's Messiah to the world within hearing. Whatever your faith or none, the hymnal he summoned from the 74 bells and 20-ton Bourdon had to arouse something deep and spiritual in your being. How to turn away from that wordless chorus? Hallelujah, , Hallelujah.

My son Josh and I were there in 1986, a birthday trip to New York City on his 17th, a year before the onset of the mental illness that eventually took his life. But on that day we were "lit up," as he would say, full of the joy of the season and our good fortune, father and son, at being together 400 feet over Riverside Park on the afternoon of Christmas Eve and having our eardrums pounded with Handel's proclamation of "the magnificence of the lord God omnipotent reigning forever."

That is not to say we were totally lost in the spiritual ether. We could not take our eyes off the Asian woman standing alongside us at the window of the Clavier Cabin. Softly intent on the carillonneur, she would have been a Zen cliché had it not been for her coat, a riot of crimson against her black hair, and her butterfly bow, whimsical and silver in the winter light. When she turned from the carillonneur to the view from the tower, her eyes were shut, perhaps in transport or rapture. Or maybe simply to assuage the light glancing off the river. Josh nudged me and directed my gaze to her hands resting on the railing. They were exquisitely formed.

I think Josh intended for me to note that quality as well as the absence of a wedding ring. The slight tilt of her head, eyes still closed, accentuated the delicate flaring of her nostrils. It was as though she were searching the chill air for something. But what? Something we could never imagine, Josh and I agreed when discussing it later. As a father I was intrigued by how that tincture of sensuality and interiority seemed to register with Josh. He was a handsome boy, a musician in his own right, putting in hours at the piano—Pachelbel, George Winston, Prince's Purple Rain his favorite—playing and singing with his band, and forming an intellectual sense of the world. Throughout his schooling Josh was off the charts in standardized testing. And none of us had a hint of the illness that would beset him in the coming year.

On the preceding day we had been to the van Gogh exhibition at the Metropolitan, Van Gogh in Saint-Rémy and Auvers. Van Gogh in the final 15 months of his life. Following an argument with Gaugin, van Gogh sliced off the lobe of his left ear and delivered it to a prostitute in the local brothel. Soon afterward he voluntarily entered the asylum at Saint-Rémy. There he completed some 100 drawings and 150 paintings, including Starry Night. The stars in the night sky rage and spiral, seeming to strain toward nuclear fission. Mediating between that energy, that disquiet, and the quiet of the village—innocent, one assumes, of anything that could be visited upon it from above or within—are the church spire and the cypress, which thrusts even higher into the starry night. What are we to make of those twin thrusts? A bargain for equilibrium? A plea?—don't let me cut off my other ear.

Equally dramatic and more ominous is the painting Wheat Field With Crows. It was painted only a few days before van Gogh's suicide, and there's a good chance it was his final painting. Van Gogh had left Saint-Rémy in 1890 and gone to Auvers-sur-Oise to be near his brother Theo and fellow painters. In the center of the painting a road divides the field but has no obvious destination other than the storm-ridden sky into which the crows disperse and blend. The crows lack any quality of avian grace and loft. Their flight is heavy and carries a strong suggestion of fatal consequence. Was that the suggestio veri that Josh and I looked for as we studied the paintings?—an intimation that van Gogh was soon to do further violence to himself? Or to others. And could anyone have intervened?

As we left the museum and made our way up Fifth Avenue, Josh and I also puzzled over the cipher of the hand that guides with such passion the brush in its limning of the world and the next day lifts a gun to revoke that world.

But the bustle of Christmas was all around us, and soon we were caught up in a spirit of merriment, joking and making plans for our continued blitz of the city the next day. As we passed East 86th I pointed out a Carnegie Hill neighborhood sign and told Josh to ask me how to get to Carnegie Hall. "OK," he said, sensing I was jiving with him, "how do I get to Carnegie Hall?" "Practice, practice, practice," I answered. Such a tame and dated joke, but you would have thought I was Saturday Night Live personified the way Josh broke up laughing, and then we started clowning back and forth.

But I did let him know that Carnegie Hall was not in the Carnegie Hill neighborhood, rather it was in Midtown Manhattan, and now he would know how to get there when they invited him to play his piano in concert. "I didn't get the directions very well," he said, "tell me again how do I get to Carnegie Hall?" And we both shouted out in unison "Practice, practice, practice!!!"

At Fifth and East 90th, a homeless man had unplugged the lights on the Christmas tree outside the Church of the Heavenly Rest and plugged in his hot plate. He was heating something in a pot, beans or Campbell's Soup or maybe Sterno to strain through a cotton sock for the hit of alcohol it would give him. Josh and I slowed to get around his sidewalk kitchen and then picked up our pace toward our friend Roy's apartment across Central Park at 96th and Broadway.

It was there, up a few blocks, that we had our Christmas dinner the next day at noon. Sushi and sashimi and multiple cups of sake. We talked again of van Gogh, the hand holding and at the same time letting go. We talked of the photographs we might have taken—I had raised my camera once and then let it drop unshuttered as the Asian woman lifted her closed eyes to the Hudson. We talked about the homeless man, how his hand too was both holding and letting go. That paradoxical embrace of the world that one has already relinquished.

The plan after our orgy of raw fish and sake was to go downtown and get on the ferry to the Statue of Liberty. When we got to the ferry station, we learned that the ferry to the statue wasn't running on Christmas Day. We threw up our hands in dismay. But then we turned and there were the Twin Towers. We were on the observation deck of the South Tower in a heartbeat.

At about 55 minutes into the 2002 Spider-Man movie, you can see the Twin Towers reflected in Spider-Man's eyes. He is climbing up a building on a mission to save the city. That reflection was evident in the original poster for the film, but after 9/11 the image was removed. A similar occlusion occurs in The Sopranos. Before the attacks, the towers can be seen in Tony's side-view mirror in the opening credits of each episode. Alabama 3 is singing "Woke Up This Morning," (You woke up this morning / Got yourself a gun/ Mama always said you'd be / the chosen one) and as Tony leaves the Lincoln Tunnel and enters the Turnpike on his way to his home in New Jersey, we get a glimpse of the towers. That view is an impossibility in real life, but the transgression of borders, whether geographical or moral, including Tony's savagery and disregard for human life, is a signature element of the show. And considering the iconic status of the show, it is an element to which our imprimatur as a culture is clearly affixed. After 9/11, though, the towers have been removed from Tony's drive home.

On our departure for home Josh and I are waiting in our seats on one of the planes of the nearly bankrupt People Express airline. It is New Year's Eve, and we want to be home for my birthday on New Year's Day. Our flight has been delayed on the tarmac for over an hour. We are waiting for a replacement part. A cart toodles up and the driver hands a cardboard box to the mechanic waiting under the wing of our plane. The mechanic opens the box. In one hand he holds up the faulty part he has freed from the plane, and in the other he holds the new part. He tests the heft of each and looks at the failed part and then at the part that is supposed to set us on our journey home. He continues to juggle the two, as though the heft will answer his question. Is this the right part? Can I get this tin can flying again? Josh and I watch out the window. The flight attendant tells us we can deplane if we wish and wait for a later flight. We decide to go with the new part, and we fly home.

Less than a year later my former wife, Lee, and I gave Josh over to the care of professionals. His was the classic onset in late teens of schizoaffective disorder. We finally found a combination of medicines that gave him a life. Josh was able to live alone in his condo, drive his cool black Toyota Spyder to work and play the piano in Lee's sushi restaurant on Saturday nights. We also found a compassionate and keenly intelligent clinical psychologist who in addition to weekly talk sessions sometimes brought his alto sax to join Josh at the piano on weekends.

Josh's was not the life of collecting Kevlar vests and rounds of ammunition for Bushmaster .223s. Nor was that the life of, say, his fellow workers at Caramore, one of our local rehab centers. They came with Josh to my yard and raked pine straw into neat piles for use in mulching. They pulled dead zinnia stalks from my garden and cut back the dried asparagus plants in preparation for the coming spring. Some of them looked at the wage money in their hands as though it were a curiosity. They loaded up the Caramore van with furniture I gave them and a Sony television for their group home. We stood around and drank Cokes, though many wandered off to smoke, one of the familiar ways that the mentally ill and recovering addicts mediate between life and chaos. Their plumes of smoke, thick and ascendant, are not unlike van Gogh's cypress reaching into the sky.

Don't get me wrong. I grew up in a family of hunters. My father had a hunting camp in Mississippi within five miles of William Faulkner's hunting camp. I own guns. But I am willing to do whatever it takes to bring us to a sane resolve.

A common side effect of the medicines Josh was taking is an inordinate weight gain. His heart gave out one night during his 33rd year. The matter of the failed part on the People Express jet is not a metaphor I would push. But it is true that my son had no replaceable part, no matter the heft and efficacy of anything that could be found in his behalf. It is true also that Handel shook the stones where we stood above Riverside, and we thought of ourselves as lovers of the Asian woman, as deep as we could go into her body. We tried to understand van Gogh and the homeless man with his hot plate, the hand holding and letting go. We walked out onto Broadway, warmed with sake and acting like 12-year-olds—practice, practice, practice—and the light was the light of boulevards and fields held in the pledge of return. Planes circled in a wide holding pattern over LaGuardia as we looked out from the South Tower with no notion other than the joy of our moment there.

Jim Seay teaches at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

This article appeared in print with the headline "Wheat Field With Crows."

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