I first met Tayona Clare Mavenley on a cloudy afternoon last May. Without any homework to clutter my afternoon I found myself seated on the cool green grass of my neighborhood park, listening to the shouts of children playing and watching the leaves of the trees rustle in the slight wind. The park wasn't a location that I usually frequented but for some reason it just seemed like the right place to be that day, with its open spaces and happy occupants. That morning I'd taken a psychology test and I really hoped I would get an A. I just couldn't afford to get anymore Bs since they wreaked havoc on my transcript.
So as I sat there, letting my anxiety over test results float away and mulling over the age-old question of why dog owners often look like their pooches except uglier, I became aware that a young woman was sauntering toward me. She plopped down to my right, looked at me with her big starry ocean eyes, and, smiling, told me she could kill me with her brain.
Eric, Tayona's much older half brother who cares for her, says that out of all the people she has made that chilling announcement to, I'm the only one who actually understood what she meant. On Firefly, my favorite television show of all time, there is a girl named River Tarn who is touched in the wits as a result of the government messing with her brain and turning her into a psychic assassin. On one particular episode she tells the traitorous hired hit man that she can kill him with her brain. Since River is my favorite character on the show and everything she says sticks with me, I instantly knew what the wide-eyed woman next to me was talking about.
"Have you seen Firefly?" I asked eagerly, smiling to let her know I was friendly.
"It's my very favorite show in the whole world!" she exclaimed, practically bouncing up and down with excitement. "River's my very favorite person on there, do you like her too?"
"Actually she's my favorite character also." I said, beginning to wonder if River was the only person in this scenario whose wits were a bit off kilter. We talked about our favorite episodes, discussed how incredibly hot Captain Mal is and commiserated about how we both disliked Inara Serra. Whoever this woman was and whatever condition her faculties may be in she sure seemed interesting, intriguing and unique.
Now as I stand on Tayona and Eric's front porch waiting for one of them to come to the front door I can't help but smile. It has been a year since our fateful park meeting and Tayona and I have been friends ever since'. Eric says he really appreciates me, the way I come and hang out with them both and the fact that he can bounce ideas off me, ask what I think about various things that come up and how they should be addressed.
Eric was nearly thirteen when Tayona was born. After his relationship with Eric's mother failed, Mr. Mavenly had married a younger woman who was full of spontaneity. She was one of those free birds, yearning for adventure and hating to be tied down. She came to resent the fact that she was stuck, was tethered to a husband and a little girl, and so she took off when Tayona was ten, never to be heard from again. By the time Tayona was fourteen her father had decided he didn't feel like raising her the rest of the way. He relocated to the east coast, leaving her with twenty-six-year-old Eric who had always been fond of her. As far as I'm concerned Eric is the best brother anyone could hope to have. Not only did he raise her the rest of the way as their father had expected him to, but he let her live at his house during the summers when she came home from college. Now, for nearly three years, he has been caring for her without complaint ever since she became the way she is.
The front door swings open and Tayona•s thin form appears framed in the doorway. Her green skirt swishes a bit in the warm breeze blowing from the north and she is clearly happy to see me.
"Hey Tee," I say, observing how excited she is that we're spending the afternoon together. She unhooks the latch on the screen door and shoves it open, chattering about the pirate game she and Rachel were just playing.
Rachel is Tayona's polymodal hallucinated friend from the fey realm. A polymodal hallucination is one that encompasses more than one sense. In Tayona's case this means that she can see, hear and interact with Rachel as though she were really there. Occasionally other "folk" come and visit with Tayona but they are transient and never stay long. Rachel is the only one who sticks around and no matter how many times psychiatrists try to explain to Tayona that the things she sees aren't real she doesn't buy it, especially when it comes to Rachel. Eric has given up on discounting Rachel's existence since it just irritates Tayona and is a useless endeavor. Tayona says that Rachel doesn't want to be seen by us and so we can't see her. Apparently fairies get what they want.
Eric is seated on the overstuffed couch. He looks up at me with a smile as I enter the living room and glance at the drawings taped up on the far wail. "Hey Sandee. Thanks for switching this to today," he says "yesterday she was unaware and -"
"I was sick." Tayona volunteered unhappily, making an over-the-top frowny face. Occasionally, about once a month to be more precise, Tayona will have a day during which she is completely unaware of everything. It's like catatonia and dissociation combined into a state of complete unknowing, as though her mind were utterly absent. We can lead her to where she needs to be and she usually stays wherever we put her, but now and again she'll get up and wander without aim. This empty state only ever lasts a day, vanishing the next morning when she wakes up and leaving no memory of itself in her consciousness. When a day is mysteriously missing from the week she knows what it means, that she "was sick".
Tayona hurries to her room to grab her purse and Eric takes this opportunity to fill me in on what her states of cogency have been like today. He speaks matter-of-factly, with the air of someone who is all too familiar with the subject matter on which he expounds. Listening to him makes me feel as though states of awareness and consciousness are typical fare that everyone in society talks about on a regular basis. "She's been lucid all morning so she'll most likely slip into incoherence during your visit."
In our caregiving vernacular being in "the lucid state" means Tayona is able to interact meaningfully with people, real or imagined, and can engage in activities that require some concentration. "The incoherent state" is characterized by a lack of focus, a tendency to not quite understand what is happening around her and the use of confusing and cryptic-sounding sentences that we try very hard to make sense of but usually can't. Most days Tayona drifts between lucidity and incoherence, occasionally maintaining one state or the other all day but more often floating back or forth at least once between them before the night stars appear.
Tayona and I wait for the city bus to pull up in front of the blue sign. I can't afford to drive unless I absolutely have to, because of obscenely high gas prices so I often end up using public transit. A tuxedo-clad man steps up into the stale-smelling interior of the vehicle and we follow, finding a seat near the back. Tayona likes to sit by the window so I don't object when she sits down first and scoots toward the smudged glass. We're going downtown to eat at Mallon's, an Irish restaurant which we both like. The bus becomes steadily more crowded as it approaches the bridge which will take us to our city's west side,
We're chatting about my little brother's baseball team when I notice a plump fortyish woman with a sour expression making her way up the aisle and plopping down in the seat directly in front of Tayona. She pulls a book out of her large handbag and begins reading. After a minute or so Tayona leans forword, reaches out her pale hand and taps the woman's shoulder. Miss Sourpus shifts in her seat and turns her head to see what Tayona wants.
"You have a little pixie sitting on top of your head and it looks like its getting cozy and comfortable up there. You might want to brush it away." Tayona smiles encouragingly as she discloses her observations, trying to convey friendly intentions to her listener. Miss Sourpuss is clearly unreceptive to friendly smiles, evidenced by the dirty look she gives me, a look that says "Can't you keep her under control? I heard you two talking so I know she's your responsibility. Show some firmness and keep her quiet." Though Eric handles difficulties well for the most part, he has a weak shell when it comes to embarrassment and incidents like this one make the backs of his ears turn red. He always tries to explain to Tayona that people on the bus like to be left alone, that talking to strangers isn't a good idea. Tayona doesn't seem to understand why talking to people is a problem, after all she's just trying to be nice and she likes it when people talk to her and would very much appreciate being warned if she had a little pixie sitting atop her head. I'm glad that Eric isn't with us right now to see Miss Sourpuss's face. Tayona's attempts to assist and socialize usually don't bother me, after all she's never mean and she really does think she's being kind and helpful.
But that look from Miss Sourpuss does bother me and my cheeks feel pink as the bus bumps over the bridge. It isn't embarrassment that is making my face blush. It's irritation, maybe even anger. Society is so backwards. People are allowed to get away with all sorts of intentional and inappropriate behavior and no one bats an eyelid, chalking it up to a phase that the kids are going through these days or figuring that its not their business to interfere. But when sweet Tayona behaves differently than most people, those nearby give us harsh looks or whisper to each other or even say impolite things to us. Try as I might to understand their point of view I just can't. She's not menacing or threatening at all, even on those occasions when she says the chilling expression which caught my attention at the park last year. She clearly wouldn't hurt anyone and, now that I consider it, maybe that's what unsettles people the most. They can't just categorize her as one of those "disturbed crazies" on the bus, the ones that talk about aliens blowing things up or trying to escape government surveillance. She doesn't fit into a category that their brains can easily process or conceptualize.
When we arrive at Mallon's we are pleased to see that it isn't too crowded yet. When a very good-looking young waiter comes to our table to take lunch orders Tayona smiles up at him and tells him he's handsome. He takes it in stride and we tell him what we want to eat, Tayona choosing fish and chips and myself ordering the Irish nachos, (don't be fooled by the name because they're really fantastic even though they sound weird).
"Can Rachel sit here next to me?" Tayona asks, scooting over to the wall instead of staying in the middle of her bench seat. According to Tayona, fairies come and go as they please. They aren't constrained by such mundane obstacles as walls and doors.
"That's okay with me." I say. Though Tayona really enjoys talking and playing with Rachel she never gives Rachel precedence over "real" people like Eric and I. If we're around she'll pay attention to us and if we aren't then she'll pay attention to Rachel. I try to picture Rachel sitting there in the booth. Tayona has described her to me before so I know what she supposedly looks like. I've also seen Tayona's drawings of her and other fairy folk.
The handsome waiter returns with our lunch and we eagerly begin devouring it. Tayona likes to borrow my Irish trad CDs/ especially my "Secret of Roan Inish" soundtrack. So we both recognize the fiddle tune that wafts down from the speakers in the corner.
"Oh its our favorite Roan Inish CD!" she says excitedly, making a conscious effort not to be too loud.
"It sure is," I agree, pulling off one of the fresh baked potato pieces piled on my plate and shoving it into my mouth.
"oh, on Monday me and Mrs. Foster are going to drive out to the country and visit her friend who owns the berry farm and she said we could pick the very first strawberries of the year!" I'm not quite sure why the fiddle song from Roan Inish reminds her of this upcoming event but I figure that analyzing it is a waste of time and won't yield an answer. I recall the strawberries she and Mrs. Foster, her daytime caregiver, brought home last year, how sweet and juicy they were.
"That sounds really fun. I wish I could go do something fun like that on Monday but I can't because I have class. Will you pick me some berries and bring them home for me?"
"I can pick you some." she says, giving me one of her happy friendship smiles. She glances up at a clock hanging on the wall. "It's one thirty seven now so we'll be going to the farm in 43 hours and 23 minutes, as soon as Eric leaves for work."
I guess now is a good time to mention the fact that Tayona is a math and physics genius. She figured out that hour and minute amount without pausing to add and count as I would have needed to. She was about to start her doctoral studies in physics when the accident happened. Everyone else in the car, her friends and co-workers, died but she had barely a scratch on her. An old professor from her undergraduate years sends her formulas and equations to work during her lucid times. Her eager mind absorbs and devours the numbers and symbols and she happily solves each one and sends them back to the professor.
Sometimes I come over when she's working the equations and I peek over her shoulder to watch. I took the minimal amount of math and science required in high school and my strategy for succeeding in physics class was to just copy off my group mates whenever we did projects. I've always hated formulas and numbers so it is rather intriguing to watch Tayona take so much pleasure from them and I try to imagine myself being as clever as she is.
"Oh!" Tayona exclaims. "Look, cookies!" she reaches for a plate at the end of the table that only she can see. Her fingers brush the table top and she scowls disappointedly. "They went away. Why did they disappear, I really wanted them?"
"Sometimes you see things that don't stay and that other people can't see remember? Why don't we get some dessert when that hot waiter comes back around." This prospect distracts her and she readily agrees that ice-cream sounds better than cookies and that we should definitely order some.
Tayona's fudge sundae is almost gone and I'm working on my strawberry milkshake when she lets out a little laugh and smiles at an invisible someone to her left. "What's so funny?" I ask, smiling to show that I genuinely want to know and have no intention of criticizing.
"Rachel's making silly faces at me because she says I have chocolate smudges." She wipes around her mouth with a napkin, whisking away a smidgeon of fudge sauce which had graced her chin.
"Silly Rachel." I say, remembering the stern lectures the old psychiatrist had given Eric about not encouraging interaction with hallucinations. Eric always tells me what the mental health professionals are saying, what they want to try next. The new psychiatrist hasn't tried Tayona on any medicines since she started seeing him a few months ago, when her diagnosis was changed from schizophrenia to Post Traumatic Stress Disorder with psychotic and dissociative features. Having no new medicines to try has made Tayona feel much less afraid about psych visits since every antipsychotic medicine she was put on under the schizophrenia diagnosis and the old doctor gave her horrid side effects beyond what they are expected to produce. Not to mention that they didn't alter her in any positive ways. All of the meds she tried made her feel miserable and they had to discontinue each one soon after they started her on it. After doing some research I began to suspect that schizophrenia wasn't the right diagnosis. She's not paranoid and though she gets peculiar ideas in her head sometimes that could be considered dallusional they are easy to talk her out of. So Eric took what I was saying into consideration and sought a new proffessional opinion which yielded a new diagnosis. PTSD made some sense, being as Tayona became the way she is after experiencing a traumatic accident. The horrible nightmares she has once or twice a week are a classic PTSD symptom. But Tayona has no memory of the accident. Whether this was caused by the mild concussion she sustained or by psychological blocking is still unknown. This lack of memory in regard to the traumatic event makes it impossible to relive and work through said event during sessions with the theropist, who has noticed that Tayona doesn't display any anger or daytime flashbacks or shut-outs as most of her other patients do. None of the proverbial diagnostic boxes are the right size for Tayona, proving to be too big or the wrong length or made out of flimsy cardboard that she breaks through.
We meander down brickwork sidewalks and across one-way streets. The Shop District is full of tiny trinket stores and clothing boutiques which harbor hidden treasures in their dusty corners. Tayona and I love it here. We love smelling the fragrant homemade soaps in wicker baskets and fingering the embroidered shawls hanging from iron wracks. She tells me that she wants the midnight blue skirt on display in a wooden-framed window, that I should tell Eric to buy it for her since her birthday is coming up. She says that River would like that skirt too, that she and River have a lot in common.
The late afternoon sun pours down on us as we make our way back to the bus stop. Tayona becomes quiet and seems to be more distant, not as quick to respond when I speak and with a gaze that is beginning to lose it's intention. IM surprised she's stayed lucid this long and I know that incoherance is coming over her like a slow wave. I'm dismayed to see that the metal built-in bench of the bus shelter is occupied. We'r waiting for the number five to come and take us home. Tayona quietly stands next to me, clearly not fully present and with a confused, but content, look in those big blue eyes of hers.
A trio of loud teenagers draw my attention to the right of the bus shelter with their noisy chatter. They're expounding loudly about last week's "Survivor" episode. Tayona and I adore "Survivor" and we devotedly watch it together every Thursday night. Another boy joins them, hopping off his shiny new-looking bike which catches my eye because it looks like one I saw just the other day. It looks expensive. I wonder how much it cost him to buy a bike like that and where a kid in high school would get enough money for such a fancy mode of transportation. He must work somewhere that pays well. Either that or he has rich parents who shower him with cash. Some people are like that and — I jerk my head to the left and Tayona isn't there. "Oh crap." I mutter to myself as I scan the waiting bus users. I don't see her. I begin to panic as I look up and down the street. I was only distracted for what seemed like two seconds and now I was paying for it. How could I have been so negligent? I know that when Tayona's in the incoherent state she has a tendency to walk away and needs to be watched and yet I allowed myself to get distracted by some stupid kids I don't even know. What kind of a friend am I?
Then I spot her, turning a corner and I run as fast as I can. I'm thankful that she isn't a fast wanderer and I catch up with her, hugging her and leading her back to where we were. She smiles in that empty and innocent way characteristic of her incoherent periods. We board the bus and I find us a nice spot with a window seat for her. "We're going to go back home now Tee," I tell her as the bus starts up and she stares out the window, watching buildings and trees fly past. She murmurs to herself for a bit and then looks over at me. "The edges are turning over, becoming water and sky where the clouds meet." She twines her fingers together and then lets them slide apart.
"Really? Is that a good thing?" I ask her, completely unsure as to what she means, or if she means anything at all, but wanting to be interested. She nods vaguely and turns her gaze to the sparkling river that the bridge spans.
I think that neatness and order are important, that most things need a place and a name and that labels are tools for identifying problems and finding solutions. I understand that most people benifit from categories and designations when something is off kilter because then the corresponding treatment can be administered and the trouble can be reduced or eliminated. - But real life isn't always as simple as charts and graphs. Real life is like a river, usually staying within its cleancut banks but breaching its boundaries during the winter rains, flowing in unexpected directions and spilling into new places. Diagnostic labels don't stick to Tayona", they fall off like old bandaids that have lost their adhesive. She, like the overflowing river and the River she watches on Firefly, is uncharted territory. Tayona is someone who doesn't fit in any of the molds that modern psychology and society have made available but she has only a vague understanding of that, knowing that her body doesn't like the medicine and that people see the world differently than she does. Touched in the wits is how I can't help but think of her because nothing else describes her. Out of all the descriptions available in our modern age the only one that begins to incompass her is an archaic expression. But even though her mind isn't exactly like the minds of others its clear that she feels safe, content and loved, things that all humanity seeks. I know that doesn't count for everything but shouldn't it count for something?
Eric waves goodbye to me as he takes Tayona into their little house with its window boxes full of pansies and pots of geraniums sitting on the edges of the porch steps. I've never seen flowers that grow as big and brilliant as the ones she plants.