Riding Shotgun

by Charisse Coleman

O, what a noble mind is here o’erthrown!...
Like sweet bells jangled, out of tune and harsh;
That unmatch’d form and feature of blown youth
Blasted with ecstasy…
     --Ophelia Hamlet Act III Sc 1

I remember two things from my mother’s pregnancy when I was four: her announcement that the baby’s name would be “Cameron,” whether it turned out to be a girl or a boy, and feeling the baby kick. My mother called me over to where she sat. “Do you want to feel? Go ahead.” Had I ever touched my mother’s swollen belly before this? Surely I had. Yet my sharpest recollection is of surprise: what I laid my hand on was startlingly hard and strong. And then that astonishing, felt-hammer-against-a-drum sensation under my palms. My first encounter with my soon-to-be baby brother, Cameron.

Cameron came into the world much as I had: Mama made an appointment for surgery, checked into the hospital the night before, got prepped by a nurse, and early the next morning, with the help of an anesthesiologist, slid into unconsciousness. A surgeon cut the thin melon skin of her flesh, then the thick rind of muscle, and finally, reached elbow-deep into her body and pulled the baby of the family free.

Babies get taken to the doctor a lot to make sure everything is developing as it should. Length, weight, and circumference of head are all measured and the measurements charted in percentiles. When Cameron was fifteen months old, my mother noticed that Dr.Schwab seemed to take longer measuring Cameron’s head then he had with either of her two older children. Was there a problem? Well, the circumference of Cameron’s head had grown faster than most, and it was quite large. Within the normal range, but just barely. “Somebody has to be at the top of the chart,” the pediatrician said equably. Still, he wanted Cameron to see a neurologist.

Cameron’s head was noticeably large. But it was also gracefully rounded above his tiny shoulders and reed-like bones. Neither size nor shape gave hint of anything amiss. With his large head, cornsilk hair, and impossibly slight body, he resembled a drawing from a children’s book. Birdwing shoulder blades fluttered energetically beneath his t-shirts, a pink buttonhole mouth crimped into tiny smiles, and his big blue eyes often turned on you with a seriousness unsettling in a child just over a year old.

The neurosurgeon diagnosed hydrocephalus and scheduled Cameron for surgery.


What is Hydrocephalus?

Hydrocephalus is commonly referred to as “water on the brain.” The so-called “water” is actually cerebrospinal fluid (CSF)….[which] circulates down and up the sinal column and over the outside of the brain. It provides nourishment to the brain, carries away debris, and protects the brain and spinal cord from injury….[E]xcess fluid [places] pressure on the brain at the skull, causing neurological problems….

     --National Hydrocephalus Foundation

Cameon’s neurosurgeon implanted a shunt to regulate the amount of cerebrospinal fluid in Cameron’s skull—fluid that would otherwise continue to fill that locked, bony room containing his brain until the pressure first crippled and then killed him. The tube ran behind the delicate curve of his right ear and emptied excess fluid into his jugular vein, where it would be safely absorbed into his bloodstream. As Cameron grew, the shunt might need to be lengthened. The mechanism would be part of him for the rest of his life.

In the fall, my parents went to great lengths to find a school that would, in the late 60s, take a child not quite two years old. They wanted to know as soon as possible if Cameron had suffered any brain damage that might cause mental retardation or other handicaps. The European style Montessori school he attended from the time he was out of diapers through the fifth grade determined quickly that he hadn’t. Much to my folk’s relief, Cameron turned out to be quite a bit brighter than the average bear. Also more furious.

What did Cameron and I fight about when he was two, three, four, and I was seven, eight, nine? I only remember the ferocity with which we both went at it. And how Cameron would hit. A lot. And hard. It’s easy for grownups to roll their eyes at the bitterness of a young girl’s complaints of being pounded by a boy so much smaller. The adults’ view, as far as I could tell, was: Cameron was wrong to hit, but if he kept it up long enough to draw the attention of the nearest adult, the hitting somehow became my fault. I ought to be able to prevent his hitting entirely; failing that, I should at least be able to put a quick end to it.

Mostly, this was impossible. Clearly, slugging him back as hard as I could, strong as such an urge might be, was not an option, given my five years’ seniority. Having to play Gandhi to Cameron’s Muhammad Ali made me crazy, and so did my complaints being dismissed as fits of pique when my baby brother whaled on me, as if the problem were simply a matter of having the wrong attitude, an attitude I could change if only I were better at being the big sister. Cameron’s rages scared me witless. It seemed perfectly plausible that he might one day suffer serious, lasting, physical harm.

Once Cameron got going, the only thing I could think of was to grab his wrists and hold tight. This, I felt, made fair use of my greater size and strength. But once you’ve got the tempest bottled up, using your hand as the stopper, then what? I’d be clamped onto his arms, arched over like Martha Graham to keep his now-flashing feet from connecting with my shinbones. His face would flush an alarming red and then darken to purple. The veins at his temples and in his neck would rise into blue, pulsing tendrils. What if, as I repeated my mantra-“I’ll let you go if you promise you won’t hit”-he suddenly collapsed? What if his shunt blew up inside his skull or tore loose from its vein? What would I do?


Shunt malfunction

Some of the problems which cause a shunt malfunction are
Breakage of the catheters
Separation (catheters may disconnect from the valve and reservoir unit)
Valve is broken or stuck


The most common sights of shunt malfunction are

Distended scalp veins
Enlarged and bulging fontanel
“Sunset Eyes” (downward gaze)

December 1989, Cincinnati, Ohio. I was twenty-eight and not long married; Cameron was twenty-three. I sat in the passenger seat of my mother’s car. She had pulled up in front of a convenience store and gone inside to buy a carton of cigarettes and a 12-pack of Coke. We were on our way to the state mental hospital to visit Cameron, and these were the things he’d asked us to bring.

Throughout his teens my brother had abused marijuana, then cocaine for awhile, and sometimes hallucinogens. I’d been on rescue or supply runs for Cameron before. After he’d withdrawn from one high school and then been kicked out of another. During one of his two residential drug rehab programs. Through other, less well-defined crises. And then he got sober and stayed that way for over five years. So determinedly sober that he’d missed my wedding two year before to attend something he called “Ikkypah”: the International Conference for the Young People of Alcoholics Anonymous (ICYPAA).

In those years of meetings and sponsors and admitting his powerlessness over his disease, Cameron wrote letters. A card on a bouquet of flower to his mom read: “Not because it is Easter, but for loving me when I could not love myself, for tolerating me when no one could possibly do so, and because I love you.” An invitation to her to join him in quitting smoking: “Just make a decision to quit. Ask God to relieve your obsession if you think it will help. I think it will help me. I’m the most important person in my life and you are definitely second, so let’s try because we love ourselves and each other very much.” A note to me in California acknowledge the common state of “riding on a pink cloud” that came with the early days of sobriety, and professed his earnest belief in his ability to keep sober even after the euphoria dimmed. He loved this new clarity and his family and being unashamed of himself too much to slip.

And now--after five years of keeping it together one day at a time--he’d relapsed.

I sat, staring through the windshield at the hand-drawn-in-magic-marker signs taped to the convenience store plate glass, and saw the seemingly immutable rondo of the rest of my life: my kid brother would always be out of control; my mother would always be in charge of the rescue; and I would always be riding shotgun. Godot would never arrive; there would be no exit.

By the time of his admittance to the state psych hospital a few days after Christmas, Cameron was enjoying a full-blown mania, and had gone without sleep for several days. A hit of acid he’d dropped at some indeterminate point in the past week had led to what a doctor later called “a toxic psychotic reaction” to LSD.


Is it schizophrenia or an LSD psychosis?

Poole and Brabbins (1996) argue that psychiatry has no consistent definition of a “drug-induced psychosis”…. [They] argue that this stems from the lack of personal experience of psychiatrists in the drug subculture.

     --From A Critical Review of Theories & Research Concerning Lysergic Acid Diethylamide and Mental Health by David Abrahart

My mother and I had spent a good portion of Christmas Eve haunting nearly-deserted government offices and courthouses, investigating the legal procedure for committing someone to a state mental institution. Not what we wanted to have Cameron declared mentally unfit, or insane or whatever designation would have gotten him carted off to the loony bin. But we were worried about how much that six-foot tall, 140-pound body of his could take, not to mention the brain that floated above it. How much fasted could everything go before it simply disintegrated? How many consecutive hours of being awake before irreparable damage is done? It’s no secret that sleep deprivation has long been a method of torture, or that going without sleep can, in itself, induce psychosis.

Fortunately, involuntary commitment proved next to impossible, and we gave up on the whole, disturbing plan with a heave of relief.


Cameron had been walking around in sub-freezing temperatures wearing only a thing cotton shirt (he’d never been one for undershirts, or underwear of any kind, for that matter) because, as he later said, he wanted to really experience cold—-he wanted to feel and intense purity of sensation, the quintessence, the ultimate of cold.

Cameron was over eighteen, and there was no law against not sleeping for days on end; or running around in wintertime without a coat; or talking a blue streak, unable to stop or to listen. So fast and furious were the ideas and insights and plans and revelations spewing from your brain. No law demanded that anyone else be able to understand the connections between those thoughts, or why they excited you to rapturous breathlessness.

Bewildered by the touch of madness that had rung in our holiday season, my mother cursed our not being wealthy enough for other options—in this case, a private psychiatric hospital. So we worried, and wondered what else we could do to get my brother some kind of treatment.


The queen, your mother, in most great affliction of
spirit, hath sent me to you…

Sir, I cannot…[m]ake you a wholesome answer.
My wit’s diseased… Therefore no more,
but to the matter. My mother, you say,—-

Then thus she says; your behavior hath struck her
Into amazement and admiration.

O wonderful son, that can so astonish a mother!
     --Hamlet Act III Sc 2

Zing, zang, zoom went his neurons; hither, thither, and yon went his body. Cameron’s roommate phoned in reports on where Cameron had last been seen. Sometimes we’d talk to Cameron himself or listen to him, since mania had severely diminished his receptivity. Idiosyncratically selective fascination seemed the governing force. However accelerated and inaccessible his attention and experience were to us, he clearly felt an expansive, intensified awareness of—well, everything, apparently, including consciousness itself.

If we’d known for certain that he’d soon be back to right, we might have laughed at the clichés streaming from his mouth, how he finally, finally for the first time ever, could see how everything was connected, and where he fit in, and it really was so amazing, and we should all just relax and be happy, because everything, everything was everything else, it was all one and we were all one with it and that harmony of that—the huge, huge, amazing truth of that—was so great and there wasn’t anything to worry about once we saw that, once we knew that, and he wanted us to know it the way he was knowing it, everything was so so obvious once you did.

If one equates euphoria with happiness, then Cameron was very, very happy.

He also sounded crazy. He sounded gone. He sounded like some 60s sci-fi movie character who’s been replaced by a pod person from outer space and begun to malfunction. I caught only glimpses of the brother I knew as he flashed by in a tangle of mania. We didn’t want Cameron committed. We wanted him safe. We wanted to get him treatment, whatever that might mean.

The laws were less concerned with Cameron’s being taken care of than with protecting his civil rights. So, even though we were frightened for him, and worried that the parts of him being flung into orbit as if by centrifuge might never reassemble themselves, we couldn’t force him to get help. And then, somehow we discovered that the police could pick someone up and take them in for a 36-hour hospital psych evaluation. They were very nice to my anguished mother when she called the local precinct to ask exactly what we needed to do. They were sorry, they said, but they couldn’t bring him in without clear evidence that he was “a danger to himself or others.” My mother’s face drooped from tense concern to defeated weariness.


Quarantine and Due Process

At stake in these proceedings are, on one side, the right of the community to be protected, and the duty to care for people who may not be able to care for themselves…. On the other side are the constitutionally protected liberties of individuals…. The community may not deprive individuals of liberty without substantial reasons demonstrated through convincing evidence…

     --Paula Mindes, “Tuberculosis Quarantine: a Review of Legal Issues in Ohio and Other States,” 10 Journal of Law and Health

The reality is that a police force is not a preventive body: they are there to clean up messes after they’re made. Only rarely can they act to keep a toxic spill from happening in the first place. But they didn’t leave us entirely without recourse. Keep an eye on him, they said. If he does or says anything, anything at all, that could be construed as dangerous or self-harming, call them back, and they’d come.


In the end, it was Cameron’s quest to experience extreme sensations that gave us our opportunity. His roommate phoned to say he’d come home and found the thermostat turned up as far as it would go, the oven at 500° and its door open, and Cameron turning all the stove top’s gas burners on high flame at once. The good news was that a kitchen towel had caught fire. Was it readily put out? Yes. Did any of us actually think that Cameron had endangered himself or anyone else? Not really, no. Theoretically, could it have burned the apartment building down? Maybe. Was a slightly charred kitchen towel enough to get the police to pick him up? You bet.

So we had what we officially needed for Cameron to be taken in for the psych evaluation, but first, we had to find him. We called the police. They said to let them know when we’d caught up with him, if and when we did. And so began one of the most painful deceptions I’ve ever convinced myself to perpetrate.

In full dark and bitter cold, my husband, Bill, and I accompanied my mother as she drove to the shops and restaurants that huddled together near the university. Cameron often hung out there, though the odds of actually spotting him, even if he were around, seemed laughably low. My mother crawled as slowly and close to cars parked against the curb as she dared. We stared at the people on the sidewalks, swiveled our heads to watch when someone loped across the street, stared deep into the narrow shadows between buildings.

Then suddenly, before we’d even gotten started, there he was. Coatless. Bouncing up a short flight of steps that led to a parking lot behind the buildings. I hopped out of the car. “Hey! Cameron!” Why was I frightened? Why did I half expect him to run away the moment he saw me? The guilt of knowing that we were hunting for him—not just to find him but to capture him?

Cameron showed no surprise that I should materialize in his path, only delight. “Hey! What are you doing here? This is so cool!” He bucked down to look inside the car. “Hey! Hi!” he said to them, raising his hand in an outstretched wave. He turned to me, eyes buzzing and bright. Even standing still, Cameron seemed hyper, as if the constant shimmy of his body’s molecules had been rendered visible. “Where are you guys going? I’m headed up to Perkins, you want to meet there?” Sure, that’d be great, yes, we’d love to. I worried he’d disappear in the time it took us to park the car.

In the yellow light of the all-night pancake house, the four of us slid into a vinyl booth. Waitresses wearing polyester stuck pens in their hairdos, poured refills of caff and decaf for a crowd that might sit for hours ordering little else. We drank a thin, bitter-tasting brew from thick china cups and saucers. A metal pitchers with a sprung lid poured half-and-half that turned the coffee blonde, viscous, and lukewarm.

My mom sat next to her manic, euphoric, unreachable youngest child. She did not speak, maybe because she did not trust herself not to cry. I imagine she fought every conceivable impulse: to sob, to yell in rage and fright, to throw her whole self around her son and hold him until he quieted. Or maybe she could only wait, knowing that Bill and I would do what had to be done.

When I think of us there, all is silence. My mother, Bill, and I are not quite motionless, but we seem momentarily suspended. In my mind, only Cameron moves—vivid and quick. He is, of course, talking talking talking, though I can’t remember a thing he said. In my memory, Cameron sits in a pool of gold light; the rest of us are shaded a murky, pond water green.

I was nervous about what we were about to do next, now that we had him inside, in a corner against the wall, suspecting nothing. Cameron’s good cheer—his happy surprise at us—made me wish all this were not so serious. Couldn’t we simply sit here drinking coffee, out of the cold for a spell, and marvel over the rapid bounty of Cameron’s ideas, riding with him the wave that must, eventually—surely it must- recede? Without explanation, my husband excused himself from the booth.

My mother looked as if she’d tightened her grip—on what, I couldn’t guess. She also looked closer to tears. She knew that Bill had gone to the payphone at the front of the restaurant to call the police. He’d meet them in the glassed-in vestibule, where they would wait for us to bring Cameron to them. Assuming we would. Otherwise, I guessed, several policemen would appear, pull Cameron out of his corner and walk him down the long aisle between the booths and the counter, and out the door.

My husband returned. The police must be out front, then. For the first time, I thought my mother looked frightened. “Mom, Bill and I need to talk to Cameron. Would it be all right if we left you here for a minute? And then we’ll come right back.” I don’t know how this idea came to me, or how I managed to keep my voice sounding so reasonable and even. “Cameron? Could we talk to you in private for a sec?” Sure, no problem.

My mother stood to let Cameron out of their side of the booth. My husband and I walked with him to the front of the restaurant.

Here is the place, my lord; good my lord, enter:
The tyranny of the open night’s too rough
For nature to endure

(Storm still)

Let me alone.

Good my lord, enter here.

Wilt break my heart?

I had rather break mine own. Good my lord, enter.      --King Lear Act III Sc 4

“Hey fellas!” My tall, bird-thin younger brother grinned at the five or six uniformed policemen crowding the small vestibule. There were belts and holsters and night sticks and handcuffs and shields and peaked caps everywhere; the men all seemed six and a half feet tall and thick as oaks. They were very relaxed and low key. Only one spoke.

“Hi, there, Cameron. Your mom and your sister were wondering if you’d mind coming with us for a little ride. There’s somebody we’d like you to talk to, okay?”

“Ooo! And who might that be?” Cameron said, happy to play a new game. “I always love a good talk,” he affirmed. “And I’m always happy to cooperate with the city’s finest! This should be verrrry interesting.” He tilted his head in a humorously knowing way; I swear to God he almost winked.

Cameron walked outside with the officer who’d spoken to him, and laughed good naturedly. “On the ride over,” my brother told the policeman, “I’ll tell you about an experience I had recently with the San Francisco police. Very impressive. I think our force here could take a page or two out of their book and put it to very good use.”

And that was the last I heard as the group wandered over to their patrol cars. Cameron got into one, and they drove away.


Cameron had recently returned from San Francisco. Come to think of it, that may be where he dropped the acid and the psychosis first put done its fine, snaky roots. While there, he’d gone into a department store. There had been a display of bedroom furnishings; everything in the display was black and white. Pillowcases, sheets, duvet, rug, nightstand, lamp, white silk flowers in a black porcelain vase, maybe. My brother removed all his clothes, crawled under the black and white covers of the black and white bed in the black and white room that wasn’t really a room, and went to sleep.

What impressed Cameron about this experience was the treatment he received from the San Francisco police. Apparently, the were—“gentle” is the only word I can think of to express the way Cameron spoke of being weakened by the two officers, given his clothes to put on, and escorted from the store. No handcuffs. No rough handling or derision. He felt they’d respected him, recognized his essential dignity.

What impresses me is the nature of what beckoned to Cameron in this tripped-out state: a place, unconnected to anything or anyone real, where everything was literally black and white. A place where he could shed all covering, swaddle himself in the certainty of distinctions impossible to make in his (or anyone’s) actual life, and go peacefully to sleep.

I know that I’ve read too much, been psychoanalyzed too much, have worked too long in a direct relationship with what I believe is my own and others’ unconscious mind, not to recognize my own tendency to slide right into making (up) symbolic, metaphorical connections. And I’m aware that doing so can just as easily arise from a reflex of facile thought and faux insight as from actual empathy, training, and practice. The truth is, I haven’t a clue what drew Cameron to that spot in the department store. I have only my own feeling that a perpetual uncertainty, even chaos, had long surrounded our family, our place in the world, how to live in it. And I don’t think I presume too much or stretch too far to posit that growing up in an ever-shifting environment caused Cameron a fair amount of harm.

Life is always unpredictable, of course. Still, it’s hard to know what’s important, even real, when your basic sense of having a reliable footing has been so rare. And who can claim never to have felt a nearly hysterical desire for everything to somehow be rendered simple? Boundaries and distinction and courses of action all clear and sorted instead of jumbled together and blurry. Who has never hankered for a soothing little bit of black-and-whiteness?


After the Cincinnati police had picked Cameron up from the Perkins pancake house, my mother, husband, and I drove to the hospital where they’d taken him for the psych evaluation. We learned that Cameron had been calm during his initial interview. But when informed that he’d be staying the night, that the decision about when he could leave would be made by people other than himself, Cameron detonated. He had to be “physically restrained.” (The nurse didn’t specify the method of restraint.) I believe she told us he’d thrown a chair across the room. While yelling. The part I’m sure of—the yelling. So it looked as if the state psychiatric hospital—virtually a supervised holding pen with medication—would be his next destination.


When Cameron was a junior in high school and I was just out of college, I moved back home for awhile. Coming in around three o’clock one morning, I met Cameron in the front hall. Shirtless, barefoot, crying, he lowered his head and put his arms around me. His face was blotchy, his body hot and tense. He wouldn’t answer any of my questions. I walked him upstairs and he walked us into my room. He still hadn’t spoken a word.

I got him to lie down with his head on my shoulder, my arms around him, on hand stroking his hair. Finally he said, “I feel like I’m going insane!” That night he’d taken hallucinogenic mushrooms, and not felt hounded by the intensity of “all these realizations I’m making. How people see me.” How do they see you? “They see me fucking up with too many drugs.” Are you doing too much? “Yes.” How does it make you feel? “It doesn’t feel like anything. It’s this big void.” I kissed his head, rocked him a little, felt his heartbeat slow and panic begin to leach out of his system.

Hearing about this episode, Cameron’s therapist said that Cameron was “dealing with heavy realizations, heavy depression, and heavy duty drugs”- a combination likely to overwhelm any ability he had to cope. “His social skills and self-esteem are not developed to the degree the rest of him is. This appears to be a new stage,” the doctor said. “Confrontation of his own addiction, feeling guilty (and feeling that others find him guilty) because of not being able to control his drug use.” He went on to point out two things: that I had become Cameron’s “primary support object,” and that teenage suicides often occur when the parents go on vacation. Mama had planned to visit her parents in a few weeks; I was supposed to move to Boston the next day. We both stayed put.

Though eventually he would go to a drug care unit, Cameron rejected in-patient drug rehab. He wanted to try getting sober on his own, first. For some reason, my mother agreed that this was a good approach. How frankly stupid we were, to think for a moment that an overwhelmed, depressed, drug-addled sixteen-year-old could solve his addiction by himself, even with our support.


The psychiatrists who evaluated Cameron that December decided he was not stable enough to be released. They arranged for his transfer to the state psychiatric hospital. When my mother and I visited him a few days later, making our delivery of Coke and cigarettes, he seemed alert but no longer speedy. Slowed down without being dopey. For days (weeks?) he’d hardly eaten. Now he not only ate regular meals, he downed cans of Ensure for the caloric boost and extra vitamins. An anti-psychotic drug helped organize his thinking; sedatives were helping regulate his sleep patterns. We were able to have an actual conversation with him instead of being subjected to a barrage of heedless talk. We wondered how long he’d be hospitalized, and feared what might happen if he got out.

Physical containment was hardly a cure, but at least Cameron was safe, eating and sleeping again, supervised. Even without sophisticated psychotherapy, the hospital would be more curative than anything we could offer on our own. As inadequate as we knew this hospitalization to be, my mother and I were relieved he’d been admitted.

Cameron, on the other hand, was furious. The mania had been slowed, the high had been leveled, the intensity blunted. He resented our interference, resented not being allowed to leave the hospital, hated the medications they made him take. He felt all drugged up, he said, he couldn’t shake the sluggishness and lethargy. How could we have done this to him? He hinted that forgiveness would be unlikely.

Sooner than we’d hoped (or thought prudent), the doctors discharged him. He’d been cooperative. He no longer exhibited signs of being a danger to himself or others. Out he came, with a small supply of, and prescription for, the anti-psychotic drug he’d been on, both of which he promptly ditched. The mania came back, though not as severely, then waned on its own after a few months.


Almost exactly a year later, Cameron dropped acid again, with similar psychotic results. This time, no brief hospitalization would interrupt his experience. He got his full, unmediated allotment of mania and became delusional as well. Security staff at a swank downtown hotel tossed him out of their posh lobby for trying- without benefit of cash or credit card- to reserve a luxury suite, conference room, and catering services. He’d been totally jazzed on plans to stage the family reunion.

He dogged my mother to tell him what job she’d most love to have. See, he had several things in the works that were going to, he couldn’t be sure exactly when, but these ventures were going to make him beyond-your-wildest-dreams rich. He’d buy a company and plug her in to whatever position she wanted. Or would she rather retire? Of course! How stupid of him! Forget the job! Think: retirement—and soon!

He called me and my husband. What kind of role would totally make your careers? (Bill and I were both professional actors at the time.) He was setting up a production company, he’d commission a screenplay with roles of a lifetime for both of us, he’d hire the hottest director in L.A., and produce a movie. Starring us. So be thinking about it, okay?

Cameron--who’d never gone too long without needed a hang with the deposit on the new apartment, an interest-free loan, a repair bill for a car, whose mom still bought all his clothes--when his psychotic swing took him through the halcyon landscape of delusion, did not imagine himself Christ, or aspire to power on a global scale. His drug-induced grandiosity took the shape of reuniting his family in celebration and possessing enough money to make us all happy. He’d unerringly swerved straight into the center of our sharpest dissatisfactions. He happily promised redress. Best of all, I think, for Cameron: in one, swift, effortless gesture, he would put an end to his history as a dependent and a disappointment. He’d return the largesse he’d received. He’d exceed any expectation we’d ever had of him. We’d be able to count on him, at last.


Years later, Cameron and I did talk about both of these episodes. We don’t anymore. I have acknowledged that what he lived through was amazing, consciousness-expanding, life-changing for him. But my refusal to describe the experience in only those terms quickly exasperates him; he cannot mask his disdain. I can’t seem to help resenting his unwillingness to sympathize in any way with me and my mother—his mother. I cannot forgive his failure to see how frightening and desolate this had been for us. He simply cannot take seriously my insistence that he had been, however briefly, lost to us. These assertions are, to Cameron, evidence of a regrettable narrow-mindedness. That we cannot fully appreciate the incalculable value of his psychosis, cannot match his enthusiasm for its revelations, deeply disappoints him. Or did, that last time we discussed it. It’s been awhile.

He’s living in New Orleans now, making good money, taking his small dog around with him to the local bars, where they’ve both endeared themselves enough to become exempt from the usual rules about dogs’ being in bars. Cameron’s quick attachment to New Orleans took him by surprise, I think. He moved there four months before Hurricane Katrina, which might have something to do with his pitching his lot in with the town. He’s been so proud that his line of work directly supports that grand, ruined city’s determination to make a comeback.

New Orleans suits him somehow. His love of music and easy sociability, his appreciation for a community that genuinely accepts eccentricity, even flagrant strangeness. It might be the perfect setting for a man who believes that a life lived without intensity of experience and extremes of sensation simply isn’t worth the trouble.

Physical pleasure is a sensual experience no different from pure seeing, or the pure sensation with which a fine fruit fills the tongue; it is a great, unending experience…a knowing of the world, the fullness and glory of all knowing.

     --Rainer Maria Rilke

When Cameron was 12 or 13, his shunt required surgical revision. His neurosurgeon decided to run a longer tube beneath Cameron’s collarbone, down to an abdominal blood vessel instead of the vein in his neck. One night, Cameron came to where I sat in bed, reading. He lifted the hem of his pajama top over his head. Shirt and his elbows aloft, he said from behind his cotton scrim, “Feel my shunt!”

Amused, and oddly touched by this command, I lowered my book and leaned toward his naked ribs and belly. I’d had no idea the tube would lie so close to the surface of my brother’s skin. But there it was: a rounded ridge, narrower than a pencil and much longer, coursing down his torso. I put my fingers gently to it. It gave back a soft resistance. “Wow,” I said. “Does it feel weird, that being there?” Cameron lowered his pajama top. He wore a light smile. “Nope,” he said, and left the room.