My dad was the director of counseling at my high school. He was also a paranoid schizophrenic. He heard voices, saw visions, and suffered psychotic breaks that left him hospitalized for months at a time. He also had genius-level intelligence and excelled at everything he attempted, except a life free from mental illness.
He was a musical savant, entered college at fourteen, and received a doctorate in education. I watched him beat the U.S. ping-pong champion in an exhibition match, make impossible shots in eight ball, and without looking, swish a cross-court behind-the-back hook shot in front of the varsity basketball team as he walked out the door of the gym.
At pep rallies he would sit in with our world-class jazz band. During the last set, the entire band would leave the stage, leaving my dad to play a fifteen-minute drum solo, doing Gene Krupa, Buddy Rich, and Joe Morello riffs and inciting near riots in the gymnasium as my peers danced, shouted, and screamed as much as if Ginger Baker of Cream were the drummer, and not my dad.
In high school, I visited him for the first time during one of his sojourns in the psychiatric ward of the VA hospital. Up to that point, my mother had always shielded me from what he became during his schizophrenic breaks. On the sixty-mile trip to see him, I realized that I had no idea what to expect. I was afraid he wouldn’t recognize me. When I entered the ward, he immediately saw me. As I approached him he tried to talk, speaking rapidly in a schizophasic word salad. Though I couldn’t understand what he was saying, I could see his face, radiating with the joy of seeing me, and I knew that even in his current state he could still love, and he loved me with overwhelming emotion. And I felt that love at that moment for perhaps the first time in my life.
As with many schizophrenics, he got better as the years passed. He bailed me out of many financial jams. He worried about my unreliable automobiles. He celebrated his grandchildren. He called every Sunday. Ten years after his death I still recall the humor, intensity, and elegance of those conversations. He told wonderful jokes that years later I still tell. He would discourse on the beauty of language, on the beauty of certain words that weren’t only words but stories of lives, like his own, that never quite found the path to their destination, words like wistful, melancholy, and quixotic.
I miss him. I miss those wonderful conversations that now, with regret, I was sometimes too “busy” to take. I will always be grateful that just before he died I was able to tell him how important he was to me, that he was always there when I needed him, that he never once let me down, that he was the best father I could imagine—in short, that I loved him as much as I knew he loved me.
At his funeral I was surprised at the number of people who went out of their way to speak to me about how my father, as a teacher and a counselor, had guided them, gave them a sense of purpose and self-confidence, and helped enable them to find a path that for each of them led to a fulfilling life. In hindsight, I really shouldn’t have been surprised at all.
My father was a remarkable man. And because of him, I believe in unconditional love. I believe in looking past the surface and finding the uniqueness in each human being. I believe in trying to live up to my dad’s legacy by helping others believe in themselves. I learned these things from my dad, who despite his mental illness made a profound and magical impact on people’s lives, especially my own.
Jeremy Green holds a PhD in counseling from Indiana State University. He is a single dad with twelve- and seventeen-year-old daughters and finds that the skills learned in his doctoral program frequently don’t work as well as advertised. He is thinking about pursing another degree, in women’s studies.
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