Your Poor Rick
Death is just a philosophical concept until it happens to you.
“We saw your poor Rick,” they say in the grocery store aisle. I smile, unconvincingly, and compare jars of spaghetti sauce that I don’t even want.
“We heard about your poor Rick,” they say, half turned on the pew in front of me at church. I sit alone and nod at their thoughtful concern, which is, in truth, neither thoughtful nor concern.
“How is your poor Rick,” they say to me on the sidewalk, where I’m gardening and minding my own business. It isn’t a question.
It's schadenfreude. Who else but the Germans could have coined a term for the self-satisfaction of witnessing the troubles of others? Like laughing at someone who walks into a plate glass window, spilling their overpriced coffee. Like seeing a girl with her head down, tapping on an iPhone, almost walking into traffic. Like watching me, a mother with a son like Rick attempting to get through the day.
Your poor Rick.
Enraged, I pull off my gardening gloves. I gather up the shears and trowel and other gardening implements. I wonder briefly if I can use them on my thoughtful and concerned neighbors, the ones who always look at my son like a criminal instead of a desperate addict who needs help.
I shove everything into the wheelbarrow and roll it all into the garage. The yard can brown, rot, and die for all I care.
I slam the garage door and walk into the kitchen. I fill up a glass of water. I pour it out. I put my head in my hands. I am ashamed of my embarrassment. Rick is my son.
“Honey?” my husband calls out. But he is useless in this and all things.
“Yes, dear,” I reply as neutrally as possible.
“Rick called. He’s coming by tonight,” my husband says, dismissively. He takes no part in Rick and Rick-related activities. You wanted the children, he once famously said. I once wanted a husband, too, I had replied in my heart of hearts.
Rick had been a handful from the very start. Ghastly morning sickness. Problematic pregnancy. Emergency C-section. The moment he had been born, everything seemed to overstimulate his senses. He had been colicky, wailing at all hours of the night for comfort which never came. I had tried. I had held and rocked and sang to him. In preschool, he had been the kid who bites. In kindergarten, he had taken an inordinately long time to learn his colors, none of us realizing until later that he was colorblind. It took him even longer to learn how to read, as dyslexia spun the letters around, making his words indecipherable.
In elementary school, parent teacher conferences had taken up the majority of my schedule. Rick needs to be frequently redirected. Rick did not collaborate with his peers in a prosocial manner. Rick needs additional socio-emotional support. Rick has failed his color wheel project. Rick is suspended for pulling the fire alarm during an assembly on following the rules.
In sports, he is too awkward and clumsy, as throwing, catching, hitting, and dribbling various sized balls only underscores his lack of basic hand-eye coordination. In friendships, he is too needy, at once standoffish, then suddenly demanding. His peers summarily ignore him.
Watching him solitarily walk to the bus stop, passing by the throngs of other children who easily laugh, breaks my heart. He is enveloped in loneliness, making his adolescent disaffection flare up into episodic rages. As middle school progresses, his room accumulates more and more fist-sized holes in the drywall. I can only wring my hands and hand towels in the kitchen, making him macaroni and cheese from the blue box, the only kind he will eat.
In high school, Rick’s 11th grade drama teacher sees something in Rick that none of us do. Rick loves the stage. Rick loves disappearing into a character and working out the character’s emotions in full view of an audience. With puberty long behind him, his voice has developed a rich depth and timbre that resonates throughout the drab high school theater. On stage, Rick transforms into another person: confident, well spoken, powerful.
With tears streaming down my face, I watch his magnificent portrayal of Prince Hamlet.
“Alas, poor Yorick! I knew him, Horatio. A fellow of infinite jest, of most excellent fancy,” Rick says, holding a fake human skull aloft. The audience is rapt, as Rick entirely captivates them with his intensity.
When I help Rick learn his lines, he tells me what Hamlet experiences during his favorite scene—Hamlet in the graveyard.
“Death, mom. Death is just a philosophical concept until it happens to you. Mr. Schaffer says Hamlet constantly mulls over the idea of why anyone chooses to stay alive. To be or not to be. But Hamlet isn’t suicidal, not really. He just wonders why people put up with life’s endless shit.”
Endless shit, indeed.
“And not how abhorred in my imagination it is! My gorge rises at it. Here hung those lips that I have kiss’d I know not how oft,” Rick recites, looking desperately at the skull. Hamlet’s view of death is hypothetical, but he now holds a skull of the court jester whom he’d much loved as a child. It’s one thing to hold a human skull. It’s a completely other thing to have known and loved the person whose skull you hold in the palm of your hand.
But that night on stage had been years ago.
Before all of Rick’s troubles truly start.
My cell phone rings. Rick.
“Hi dear,” I purposefully brighten my voice. “Dad said you were coming over?”
I can just barely hear him breathing, panting low.
“Son?” I say, more loudly. “Rick. Rick, you need to speak to me—”
“I’m—I’m sorry, Mom.” He sounds inebriated.
A cold sickness starts in the pit of my stomach and radiates outward, chilling me whole. I know this tone in his voice. We have been here before.
“Rick,” I try again. “Where are you, son? Let me come and get you,” I plead.
“I love you, Mom.”
“Rick.” I am angry now. “I’m going to call the police. Are you taking your medication? I can be there in twenty minutes—”
“Don’t call anyone, Mom. I’m all right,” he says firmly.
I don’t believe him.
“Promise me, Mom.”
“Fine, Rick. I promise.”
I’m all right,” he says and lightly laughs. “It’s just been a really bad day. I’m fine. Promise me you won’t call anyone.”
“Promise me, Mom. It’s not like last time,” he lies.
“I love you, too, Rick. Come over tomorrow for dinner.”
“Mac and cheese?” he strangely giggles.
“Sure, I can make that. The kind in the blue box,” I say, not knowing tears are streaming down my face.
“Then, good night sweet princess. And flights of angels sing thee to thy rest.”
The connection is lost. I look at the phone.
Alas, poor Yorick.
Alas, your poor Rick.
I start to dial the familiar numbers.
About the author
Deidra co-hosts the podcast “Read Lots Write Lots,” interviewing writers from around the world about their craft.
She is a judge for Reedsy Prompts, an international weekly short story contest.
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