A father reflects on the rich life of his son, who died suddenly at twenty-six after living with schizophrenia.
On the morning of Boxing Day 2009, the poet Fraser Sutherland and his wife found their son, Malcolm, dead in his bedroom in their house. He was twenty-six and had died from a seizure of unknown cause. Malcolm had been living with schizophrenia since the age of seventeen.
Fraser’s respectful narration of Malcolm’s life — his happiness as well as his sufferings, his heroic efforts to calm his troubled mind, his readings, his writings, his experiments with religious thought — is a master writer’s attempt to give shape and dignity to his son’s life, to memorialize it as more than an illness. And in writing about his son’s life, Fraser creates his own self-effacing memoir — the memoir of a parent’s resilience through years of stressful care.
Fraser Sutherland, one of Canada’s finest poetry critics and essayists, died shortly after completing this book.
A RARE MACHINES BOOK
About the authors
Fraser Sutherland is a much travelled Nova Scotian who now lives in Toronto, Ontario. He has published sixteen books, including poetry, short fiction, and non-fiction in Canada and the United States. His work has appeared worldwide in magazines and anthologies in print and online, and has been translated into French, Italian, Albanian, Serbian, and Farsi. Before he became a freelance writer and editor, Sutherland reported for The Toronto Star, The Globe and Mail, and The Wall Street Journal. He was a founding editor of Northern Journey, a columnist for Quill & Quire, and the managing editor of Books in Canada. A reviewer for The Globe and Mail and other periodicals, Sutherland has written and edited for dictionaries in three countries, and may be the only Canadian writer who is also a lexicographer.
Carmine Starnino is the author of three collections of poems: The New World (which was nominated for the A. M. Klein Prize for Poetry and the Gerald Lampert Memorial Award), Credo (winner of the C A A Jack Chalmers Poetry Award), and With English Subtitles. His reviews and essays have appeared in a wide range of newspapers, magazines and literary journals, including the Globe and Mail, the Montreal Gazette, Matrix, Arc and The Montreal Review of Books. Starnino is the editor of Vehicule Press` Signal imprint, poetry editor at Canadian Notes and Queries, and editor-in-chief of Maisonneuve. Starnino lives in Montreal.
John Pepall is a writer and political commentator based in Toronto.
Excerpt: The Book of Malcolm: My Son's Life with Schizophrenia (by (author) Fraser Sutherland; foreword by Carmine Starnino; afterword by John Pepall)
On the evening of Christmas Day 2009, I wished my son Malcolm good night as he lay on the cracked leather couch in the living room, apparently watching that Christmas perennial, Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life, on TV. It had been years since I’d seen it, so I wasn’t even sure he was watching the eventful story of George Bailey, family man and small-town banker, played by James Stewart. In the wake of his bank’s calamitous failure Bailey is crushed by despair. But a good angel makes him understand how important he’d been to everyone.
Malcolm looked weary, slightly disturbed, with a slightly puzzled frown. I wondered what was going through his mind. Wondering what was going through Malcolm’s mind had become my preoccupation in recent years. Did he think he had his own good angel hovering at that moment?
The early morning of Boxing Day, my wife, Alison, schooled by her mother, Althea, to give false cheer at all times, said, “This is the best Christmas ever. I’d give it eight out of ten.” I grumbled, “Well, the wonder is it happened at all.”
The weeks leading up to it had been filled with minor misfortunes. Not long after we bought a sleek, cappuccino-coloured Burmese cat and named him Lancaster — after a Hollywood star or a British heavy bomber — it had become apparent he had the looks of Mel Gibson but the brains of a gopher. Someone said it could have been worse: he could have had the brains of Mel Gibson. Brainless Lancaster had bolted out the open back door as, oblivious, Alison left for work in the early morning dark. He hadn’t been seen since. Malcolm phoned his former girlfriend Marie to light a candle for Lancaster at her Roman Catholic cathedral.
At my urging we searched everywhere: behind curtains and bookshelves, under couches and beds, in the depths of blankets, among pots and pans on the kitchen shelves. And in the basement, behind the furnace and the freezer, in between boxes and file cartons. I probed into deep boxes heaped with clothing and even poked at the plastic sheet insulation stapled across the ceiling. Crazily, I even looked in the freezer. It bothered me that Malcolm was not looking hard enough. His search seemed perfunctory, as if he already knew my quest was hopeless and had resigned himself to loss. We taped the breeder’s photo of Lancaster with our phone number on hydro poles up and down the street. No call came. It seemed impossible he could survive the subzero Toronto nights.
Hoping that Lancaster would luck into a warm house, Malcolm wondered if we had done something wrong, incurring bad karma, worried that he in particular had brought it about. Karma — desires, intentions, attitudes, deeds good and bad — all had material, moral, and spiritual effects. Even before Lancaster vanished we’d lost another cat, struck by a car. When Malcolm meditated, as he often did, it felt weird, he wrote in his diary, because he felt so sad.
That Christmas Eve we were late in putting up a tree lugged from the corner convenience store. Alison couldn’t find the box of ornaments from my boyhood home in rural Nova Scotia, including the tiny, wire-becapped Santa Claus that topped the tree. I’d inherited it. Then she remembered that in a fit of basement clearing she and her obliging but mentally handicapped brother had thrown it out. To make do she stuck decorative odds and ends on the branches. Malcolm remarked it was strange that people celebrate Christmas around a tree that in fact is slowly dying.
Little and not so little things going wrong. A kitchen cupboard door falls off its hinges. Alison loses her wallet with her driver’s licence, health card, and credit cards.
I went with her to hire a car, pretending I’d be the driver. I was inept at city driving, but of course the car-rental place didn’t know that. Now the car sat in the lane parking spot behind our backyard next to a big eastward-leaning Manitoba maple. The next day Alison was going to drive us an hour and a half to the city of Peterborough. From time immemorial her parents, siblings, aunts, uncles, and cousins had gathered on Boxing Day to gorge on turkey and gravy and all the other fixings of a festive dinner people brought: the yellow and green vegetables, the cranberry sauce, the hard sauce for the plum pudding, the mince pie. It was an eccentric custom. About everybody middle-class of our skin colour would have had had their big Christmas dinner the day before. Not Alison’s family. After we gorged, we played giddy party games.
Foremost among mishaps large and small prior to Boxing Day was Malcolm’s seizure. Late one morning I was in my office upstairs; Alison was away at work. Malcolm was in the bathroom next door, drying his hair after a bath before setting off for his noon-to-five job at a print shop. I heard a crash. Outside my door I found him on his side on the floor, half against the wall, half against a bookcase. His arms and legs, hands and feet, were convulsing. When I spoke to him he did not respond. I phoned 9-1-1 and answered questions, dashing back and forth to the hall to check on him. His arms and legs were still shaking. He still did not respond. When I next returned to the hall he was no longer there.
After a few moments of panic looking for him I found him in his own room in his own bed. He had stopped convulsing. At first he could not answer me, and then only brokenly. Mostly he groaned: his back was hurting badly. He kept trying to sit up, falling back in agony. I paced, waiting for the paramedics. They were taking their time; twenty minutes passed. At last they arrived. By now Malcolm was lucid.
Strapped to a stretcher, he went by ambulance to St. Michael’s Hospital Emergency. I phoned Alison at work. She said she’d see us at St. Michael’s. In the Emergency Ward I found him strapped to a bed. He complained the restraints wouldn’t allow him to breathe. Nobody paid any attention to him. Alison arrived and they took him away for an X-ray and an MRI. I didn’t have time to cancel an appointment with someone I was supposed to meet that day. After I briefly saw him and rushed back to the ward, Alison and Malcolm had just left. I spotted them in the back of a taxi in time to catch them, Malcolm stuffed and stiffened with painkillers.
The next day I phoned his psychiatrist at her clinic in the west-end Parkdale neighbourhood where we used to live and where Malcolm had spent his first two years. It was a misery getting him there in a cab to her distant office. We had to stop often so he could try to retch. When we got there he drooled and slurred his words. The last thing he recalled from before the seizure was drying his hair. Dr. D. wrote out prescriptions, maintaining the antipsychotic medication he’d been phasing out of since September, reducing the new medication he’d been phasing into.
Over the next few days it was a struggle to get him to move around, as I’d been told he should. Still in pain, he showed up at his job in the print shop. We saw the psychiatrist again, and she spent time with him alone. We took a streetcar and bought Christmas Eve and Christmas Day food in Kensington Market and in a Chinese supermarket. While waiting to buy oysters, we watched the man behind the fish counter scoop out a large fish from a tank. He hurled it to the cement floor and, while it madly flopped, clubbed it to death. Malcolm, a gentle vegetarian, stood there appalled. It could have been worse. Once in a Chinese supermarket I’d seen someone take a cleaver and bisect a frog on a butcher’s block.
We hurried off for an appointment with a St. Michael’s neurologist, a follow-up to our ER visit. The neurologist gave him a brief physical exam (“How many fingers?”). He said it wouldn’t be rewarding to seek complicated reasons for the seizure since it was a known side effect of the antipsychotic he’d been placed on and which in fact had been working well. The answer was to reduce the dosage. This had been done already. I got our family doctor to deal with the ongoing back pain. He prescribed something.
We went home. It had been a three-doctor day.
Brought me to tears… short but hugely compelling book.
Literary Review of Canada
The Book of Malcolm makes the mundane moments of family and of lived, shared experience shine beautifully. That Sutherland loved his son, and that family is a complicated blessing, are made achingly clear.
Winnipeg Free Press
Doesn’t let the tragedy dominate the narrative … Fraser maintains a light touch, a detachment that is both rare and endearing but also a bit unsettling.
Part elegy, part existential howl, The Book of Malcolm is an investigation of a beloved child's life, of the moods and registers of his mental illness, and of the sometimes harrowing family moments.
from the Foreword by Carmine Starnino