31 March 2012

The Farm Where Donald Lives

Note: It’s hard to believe it’s been 25 years since I first stepped foot onto the farm where Donald lives, but it has. In March, 1987 I was an undergrad psychology student and was hired by the Lackeys to help run the Center for Living and Learning, a new residential treatment facility located just south of Nashville. It was my first job in the field. I worked at the Center for nearly three years before moving to North Carolina. My experiences at the farm, and specifically with Donald, had a profound impact on my career and life. I stumbled upon this essay tucked among some other old papers at my Mom’s house recently. It was written not long after I left the Center, circa 1990. Twenty-five years later, the Center is thriving. Donald still lives there and is doing great!  Center for Living and Learning

“Time it was,
And what a time it was,
It was….
A time of innocence
A time of confidences
Long ago… it must be…
I have a photograph.
Preserve your memories,
They’re all that’s left you.”

-from Bookend’s Theme
by Paul Simon

Three autumns I witnessed magic sprinkle hues of orange across the farm where Donald lives. Falls there are spectacular. In Fall, farmland stands boldly and boasts: “It’s harvest, labor’s reward.”

Arrangements were being made to turn six acres behind the house in preparation for next spring’s planting. The gourds were all gutted, the martin’s descended, harvest moon had come and gone, and I had decided to go. One final time, though, I paused to marvel at God’s handiwork in the fields. And inside the house where Donald lives.

Inside the farmhouse, situated on 30 acres of lush Dixie soil, Donald has just rendered a water color portrait, a conglomeration of facial semblances the artist reveals as a friend once known well, now rarely remembered. For hours, the newly retrieved soul mate of long ago is the topic of conversation: Tommy Adair played shortstop, Tommy Adair spat watermelon seeds on the girls at Vacation Bible School. Within the thick brush strokes of abstract blues and greens lie an intimation to the beauty of this man’s soul.

Donald has schizophrenia. The illness which has been a part of his life for over two decades doesn’t usually interfere with his daily farm chores or activities, although a severe case of tardive dyskinesia, a muscular disorder resulting from psychotropic drugs prescribed several years ago, often turns his muscles to knots and causes his limbs to contort in pain. A good rub-down helps. Yet, at times the pain is unbearable and he’ll scream out into the Tennessee wood. There were times we wondered whether God still heard his cries.

Fortunately, Donald has benefitted from Clozapine, an experimental drug which is proving effective in the treatment of patients suffering from severe mental illnesses, although it is likely to be years before the medicine is readily available to the masses in need.

Life at the farm these past few years has helped Donald, as well. When the pain subsides, Donald tends to his rows of snow peas and his cries are replaced by some song he bellows like a pubescent choir boy. I’ve accused him of being the only person in Nashville who sings more off-key than I do. Together, we’re like a pair of hound dogs serenading the neighborhood. But I swear the man has memorized the lyrics to every song recorded since the 1950’s even though he couldn’t tell you where he put his shoe strings ten minutes ago. And we go on pretending we’re Simon and Garfunkel for audiences with fingers plugging their ears.

Like a lot of people with schizophrenia, Donald was stricken with the illness at the onset of adulthood, an above average college student and decent tennis player at the University of Tennessee. The illness eventually ended his college career and sent him on a journey to a string of psychiatric facilities throughout the country for the better part of 20 years - including the past 10 years at the Ann Sippy Clinic in Los Angeles.

Finally, his family recognized his health deteriorating and his chances for recovery growing nil. The Lackeys, a prominent Nashville family, banded together and bought a serene farm just south of the city for their brother, then proceeded to invite others with mental illnesses to join him. The founding board of directors included a number of prominent celebrities and politicians such as UT football coach Johnny Majors, former Governor Winfield Dunn, Grand Ole Opry star Minnie Pearl (Sarah Cannon), who is a family friend, and Dr. William Lawson, renowned for his research on the topic at Vanderbilt University.

In the meantime, interest was arousing among professionals in the mid-state area dedicated to the treatment of mental illness. Thus, the Center for Living and Learning was born.  

A young psychology student, I responded to a classified ad in the Nashville Banner and jumped at the opportunity for free room and board. For the first six months, only Donald and I lived at the Center – on the cusp of growth and progress.

Three years later, the Center has become an important cog in the mental health community, thanks largely to the directorship of Donald’s youngest sister Fran, a dedicated staff, and hundreds of others who have contributed in significant ways.

The annual celebrity golf tournament was a huge success this year and is expected to fund several new projects, including a six-acre pick-your-own garden located on the premises scheduled to be in operation next Fall that will feature pumpkins, strawberries and vegetables. The brunt of the labor will be performed by the residents, which is congruent with one of the Center’s most basic philosophies: that work – in whatever form in may take – is both generative and re-integrative. Profits will go toward reducing admission fees paid by the client’s families. And benefits of the daily interaction among the general public could prove enormous in each resident developing the self-confidence, interpersonal skills and practical tools necessary to integrate back into mainstream society, the Center’s loftiest goal for each resident.

The twenty-minute drive from my Nashville apartment each day is a spiritual experience, as I meander beyond the city through sprawling horse farms, antebellum estates, crape myrtle, and finally to the doorsteps at the Center. If I’m early enough, I’ll catch sight of the Barbar’s milk truck which stumbles down the laneway. Once more, Donald has cajoled the milk man out of a quart carton of chocolate milk which he slyly consumes before anyone notices. The smells of country morning ooze from the kitchen throughout the dew-wet yards in vapors of black coffee and scrambled eggs.

John greets me first. He’s en route to the mailbox to retrieve the newspaper, his morning chore which you could set your clock by. John is a classical guitarist. He plays in solitude for hours each day on a six-string which echoes the magic of Northeastern concert halls he once knew. He was once of Carnegie Hall caliber, claim his parents, who live in Maryland. He misses them, at times dearly. And in quiet moments, I believe he and his instrument speak to each other in piquant communication that those of us who don’t know heartache on a first-name basis can understand. In my wildest dreams, I cannot fondle the nape and neck of a guitar as swiftly and gracefully as John. 

Despite being wildly delusional (he sees the dog move his bone telepathically across the back yard and swears aliens visit him regularly at night), John is a scholar of Greek philosophy, literature and culinary. His family owns a Greek restaurant in Annapolis. We often beg John to cook for us which he sometimes does and is always delicious.

There’s Jules. A while back, my girlfriend and I had had Jules over to our place for dinner. Afterward, topics of conversation over strong coffee ranged from Tolstoy to the Boston Red Sox to the American Rural South. Jules is a gentle man from a family of academia whose failings at Vanderbilt still gnaw at him ten years later. Jules represents the most frustrating of patients for care-takers of the mentally ill: he is so often lucid and capable of maintaining appropriate behavior that his moments of occasional regression are always surprising. And violent.  Soon, surely, we believe some combination of drugs and therapy will boost Jules just over that imaginary line of sanity to the wife and children he so longs for.

Alison was a young and pretty equestrian and the most tormented person I’ve ever known. The demons of her sickness danced in her mind like savage nightmares night and day until they were quieted forever when she overdosed on anti-psychotic drugs. God himself, I believe, smiled quietly the day Alison’s suffering ended.

Bobby thought he was Jesus and insisted on laying his hands on any woman he thought might be pregnant; Robert was a poet; Michael could whip anyone at ping pong and cried at night for his mother. Others came and went, some successfully, some not; all have provided this disciple of psychology a wealth of experiences I shall forever cherish.

My role at the Center evolved. I tended to research and development and public relations in the end, most of my time spent on the telephone or in meetings alongside professionals in the field, instead of the corn field. College behind me, opportunities I couldn't deny awaited me in another state. So I left.

But, as Autumns wiggle in and reminiscence calls back memories tucked tidily away, I know that I will recall my first few months with Donald with longing and childlike fondness. The times Donald and I waded the Harpeth River with blue jeans rolled up past our calves or baked our shoulders in the summer sun waiting for just one fish to test its fate on the other end of the line. Much laughter and many tears we shared. I re-taught him to shave his face and he taught me about life. I quickly learned the meaning within what at first appeared a language unintelligible and found there much wisdom as we floated down the river in his sister’s canoe or rambled shirtless about the farm like little boys. I’ll remember the glimmer in his pale blue eyes when he witnessed the first gracious cardinal waddle onto the patio to accept the bread crumbs he left for it. And the time we ran through the lit streets of downtown Nashville laughing freely during the Summer Light’s Festival. With bands beating cadence boldly on both sides of us – our hearts mocked the pounding.

Oh, what a time it was, Donald Lackey, my dear friend.