I look at this photo of Cindy, Buddha and I on the porch steps of our family’s Maine summer cottage, just moments before we were taking off to head back home in the summer of 1988 and remember how carefree we all were then. I remember how Cindy and I went out one day shopping and bought those hats together. I remember showing them off to my Dad who said “Kathy, that hat is you” and how Cindy kind of wistfully replied “I want a ‘you hat too’ “.
I remember that year she just wasn’t usual confident chipper self. She was just weeks shy of turning 30. She decided when we got home that she needed to work on some things so she joined a self esteem group. She had been enrolled in that group just a week or two when she met Michael Apelt and everything started spiraling downward, unbeknownst to any of us. None of us navigated our childhood unscathed. I’d been in counseling for a few years at that point having suffered a severe anxiety disorder in my twenties so I whole heartedly supported her reaching out for help.
One of the assignments given in that group was they were to ask someone, a loved one, to write a list for them of all the things they loved about them. Cindy asked me of course. I wrote this crazy list of deep and superficial things extending in to all the margins in a green marker type pen. Her therapist, who had to testify at the trial of Cindy’s killers, told me that she’d had them all read their lists out loud in the group. That Cindy was crying so hard she could barely get through it but the therapist kept encouraging her to read it and she did.
Can you possibly know how precious her sharing that with me was? And is now? That she was given that assignment and chose me to participate leaving me behind knowing she knew all of the ways I loved her before she died? In writing no less.
I look at that picture of those steps and it also conjures up a more recent memory having to do with John. In the Fall of 2011 I made my annual trek to Maine to the family cottage. My Dad had of course flown John in from Illinois where he was still living to join us. Having John on vacations, until recently, was a mixed bag for all of us. Sometimes he would function, much of the time he was completely consumed with symptoms and disruptive. I remember saying to my father before coming that year that I’d like for John to only be there for half of my trip that “I’d like a vacation not consumed with mental illness” for my own sanity. Now, with all that’s happened, I can’t imagine feeling that way as so much has changed in a short time, but it was the truth in 2011.
That year John was particularly symptomatic. That means he heard voices constantly, was totally paranoid, couldn’t engage in converation much and mostly sat and talked to his voices and chain smoked. Where his “smoking section” is is at the base of the steps in that photo. That vacation he had escalated so dramatically, yelling at us and filled with what’s called “religiosity” talking the Devil, Hell, etc., that my father and I took him to the Psychiatric Emergency room for a shot of Haldol. We talked about hospitalizing him. On our vacation. This is the reality of what we lived with for many years with John. What he lived with with himself.
I hit some kind of wall that year. I borrowed one of John’s cigarettes (well, I wasn’t intending to give it back) and went and sat on the front steps facing the ocean and decided to have a cigarette with Cindy. I sat there, by myself, smoking that cigarette and literally talked to her out loud. This was a huge breakthrough for me because even thinking of her at the cottage was excruciating even all those years later. The last place we were all together. It’s somehow easier to think of making new memories instead of resurrecting the old ones. At least it was then.
We smoked and we talked and I simply asked for her help dealing with John. That I was lost and I needed her to help me. I couldn’t do it alone and I saw no light at the end of the tunnel. I saw a future of care taking both him and our Dad as they both aged and had more needs. And I just never had anyone at my back. At least that’s how I felt being single and managing my own life alone for so long. I was born a middle child. I wasn’t supposed to be on the front lines.
I have to say I felt somewhat better after that smoke break.
Shortly thereafter I went looking for my Dad and walked out the back steps of the cottage, those steps we are sitting on in the photo, past John who was sitting on the landing smoking, talking to himself as usual. What happened when I walked past him again is where the stars started to align and where I got my first sign.
I noticed John sitting there turning something over and over in his hands. I sat down in the chair next to him and asked him “what’s that?”. What he was holding was a small decopauge plaque. One that Cindy had made in the 70’s, this being our “summer craft” that year. He showed it to me and what it said on the front that she had burned in to the wood with my Dad’s wood burning tool. Emblazoned in this plaque were the words “Take the Valid Choice” with a tiny flower burned next to the words. It had a sand dollar and shells glued to the front. Her initials and date was burned on the back. John kept repeating that phrase over and over “‘take the valid choice’, Kathy, isn’t that funny? Remember how she always used to say that?”.
Now this phrase had become a bit of a joke in our family. Our Dad, a Psychologist, would always turn decisions back on you when you asked for advice and ask questions back like “which do you think is the valid choice?”. It drove us nuts as we wanted him to just make a decision and tell us which way to go and he just never did that. So, probably Cindy, at one point blew out with exasperation something like “can you please just make the valid choice for me?”. It was hilarious so turned in to a family joke.
I asked John where he got that plaque and he replied “from that shelf above the kitchen door”. Now that shelf is high. It’s not something that would normally catch your eye. It’s something you’d have to be looking up to see. Moments after my smoke break with Cindy, John was drawn to look up to that shelf, reach up and take that plaque off and go outside with it and show it to me as I passed by.
I knew then and there that Cindy was in the equation. That she was with us. That she was going to help me. Help us.
Less than a year from that moment by John’s 50th birthday, he had disappeared, literally disappeared for weeks on end, not once but twice. Missing Person reports, police tracking him down and the whole nine yards. This was new behavior. Things were just getting worse.
After the second time I broke down on the phone with my father, bawling, telling him I just couldn’t handle it. I didn’t know how to manage him, how to deal with this and have my own life at the same time.
And what my father replied truly shocked me. He told me I was entitled to my own life and that he thought I needed to let my brother go. That he could see the pain this was causing me and that John had to wind his way through this life and if this was the way it was happening for him, I had permission to detach. To let him go.
I just broke down that night. Tears in to my sleep.
And woke up the next morning and called my Dad and said “thank you for the permission Dad but it’s me we’re talking about here. I can’t do that”.
And then the world opened up for Alfonse. I got the instructions of what to do and followed them. He was escorted back in to life by a team of angels who guided me and my decisions/actions every step of the way, who gave him his life back. I listened. I took the “valid choice” which really was the only choice and have been guided by them, by Cindy, by our mother, ever since. More of that story to come later.
Just say that John is beating all the odds and is recovering from Schizophrenia in some kind of “waking up from a coma” sort of way.
And anyone witnessing it is fortunate to know that miracles truly are available on this planet. And when I say anyone, I mean, especially me.