My brother’s roommate’s mother is an honest-to-gods dragon. She is also a sociopath, as marked by her inability to empathize and connect emotionally with others. More on that later.
Butterfish is sick. Butterfish has been sick. Butterfish was a sickly child. Butterfish is a sickly college student.
Butterfish came down with a cold about a month ago. It didn’t go away. Indeed, it turned into pneumonia. Butterfish visited the school medical center. They told him that he had pneumonia and gave him some antibiotics. These did not help. He went back again. His joints feel swollen, he said. His appetite is nonexistent and each cough produces phlegm sentient enough to star in a Mucinex commercial. They hmmed and hahed and took blood and urine, just to cover all bases in case they had a brainstorm in the middle of the night and had to send away for tests right away.
Butterfish told the nurse that he was still going to all his classes and doing his homework. The nurse told him that he’s very stoic.
I think he was rather chuffed by that.
The weekend Mother and I went Toronto, things came to a head. Brother’s roommate’s mother, who henceforth shall be known as the Dragon for simplicity’s sake, decided that her son was living with a walking petri dish. This metaphor is important, as it impersonalizes my brother and might lend some insight into her increasingly irrational demands. Henceforth, I will refer to Brother as the Petri Dish, unless I don’t feel like it, in which case I reserve the right to refer to him however the hell I wish.
The Dragon dogged our heels all weekend. Every wifi hotspot we entered delivered unto Mother a new gift-wrapped package of crazy in the form of an email message. The Dragon didn’t want her son living with the Petri Dish. The Dragon wanted the Petri Dish to get his own room so that her son wouldn’t be infected. The Dragon wanted Mother to remove the Petri Dish from campus. Mother is in another country? The Dragon wanted Mother to order Father to immediately drive up to Boston and remove the Petri Dish from campus, never mind that the health center felt pretty sure that whatever the Petri Dish had wasn’t actually catching.
The Dragon called Mother repeatedly, because the Dragon does not understand roaming charges, or perhaps because she believes her need to harangue somehow trumps them.
The Dragon voluntarily sent her son across the country to live in a college dorm. These things are not known for their cleanliness, nor health of their occupants. When your son’s roommate catches pneumonia, you ask, “Is he all right, and is there anything my son can do to help?” You do not campaign to have the room declared a superfund site.
More on that later.
I visited Butter in the hospital yesterday. He’s been there for almost a week, by this point. He’s got an IV port embedded in his right bicep. His says it doesn’t hurt, and that it can stay there for a couple months. His eyes are red and bloodshot. He can’t focus on anything properly because his eyes are inflamed. No one’s quite sure why.
He’s gaunt. Between the loss of appetite and the period of vomiting he went through last week he’s lost weight. His face is partially paralyzed. His eyelids don’t close completely, and he tells me that the doctors are discussing giving him gel to smear on his eyeballs so they don’t dry out while he sleeps. His speech is slurred, and he can only eat soft food that has been cut into small chunks.
His face is slack and expressionless, which is what hits me the most. I spent the first few minutes trying to shake the feeling that he wasn’t happy to see me; that I was a nuisance he wanted to go away. I’d been texting him all week. I knew he was bored and that he welcomed the company.
But I’ve always been able to make my brother smile, to react. The corner of his mouth turns up when he’s replying sarcastically to something obtuse that I’ve said. There’s the eyebrow that’s raised in skepticism when I make an illogical claim. There’s the giant grin accompanied by head-shaking, because I’ve said something so ridiculous he can’t stop himself from smiling, but he still feels the need to indicate that he doesn’t agree with me. I ham it up, because I know he gets a kick out of it when I pretend to be scatterbrained, or overly enthused by something silly.
And now, his face isn’t reacting in any of the ways I’m used to.
So imagine, I’m sitting by the bedside of my brother, Father is on the other side. He’s worrying about the hospital bill Brother’s racking up ($250 a day, even with insurance) and ruefully resigning his car (which was hit by a daydreaming driver) to another few months without repair. And in between visits by the nurse to check on Brother, I find out that the Dragon veto’d my mother’s request that her son return Brother’s library books before they start collecting a fine. Those college library books were touched by the Petri Dish. Her son isn’t going near them.
The Dragon demands that Father drive back up to Massachusetts and remove all of Brother’s possessions from the room, because they are obviously going to infect her son. In the absence of that, the Dragon requires that the school scrub and launder the entire room, because these objects are fucking diseased.
What kind of story does she think she’s living in; the Velveteen Rabbit?
And through this all, I’m not sure how much she actually cares about her son. I know she makes him call her multiple times a day. However, she’s never sent him a care package. I know he’d like one, because he’s wildly envious of the ones we’ve been sending to Brother. I know she rules his life, but I’m not sure whether she ever asks him how he’s doing, and then listens to his reply.
I know she hasn’t once asked how Brother’s doing, even while she’s haranguing my parents for being responsible for such a diseased child.
The nurses and doctors have told Brother that he’s handling this with surprising maturity, especially for a 19-year-old. He’s patient, calm, and cooperative. He’s polite and diligent.
I think he’s rather chuffed by that.