99 Problems

Published on February 24th, 2022 | by Coley Gallagher


Sing A Song (Or: The Dolphins Who Hung with Me When My Son Was Breaking Down)

Icy water shocked my bare feet each time the tide slid in. I trudged on, iPhone stuck in my back pocket. I was waiting to hear if a hospital had a bed for my son. Waiting to see if he’d take it. He had checked himself out of a different hospital seven days before. 

I wasn’t there for that hospitalization. My husband and son were in another state, a blessing since the former could no longer minimize our son’s strange behavior. He called, said, “What do I do? I think I need to take him to a hospital.”

I replied, “I don’t know the protocol. Call his doctor!” I texted the doctor’s number, then fell to my knees and dry heaved. 

I wasn’t there, but I saw it. I saw footage of my son in a hospital bed, since he’d posted the whole affair on Snapchat. In the video I watched, his sleeve was cinched up over his shoulder and an IV snaked out of his arm. He was monologuing, a slurry rant about being a captive of “The Man.”

Halfway to the inlet, a wave slapped against my ankles, soaking my rolled-up jeans. I needed to head home. My son couldn’t be alone much longer. About to turn back, I spotted the dipping dorsal of a dolphin. Then another. And another. It looked like an entire pod. Earlier, someone told me that one of her friends once sang to a group of dolphins. Now those dolphins bring their magic and mirth to the singer’s beach nearly every day. “Cool,” I’d replied, thinking it bullshit. 

Watching the dolphins’ slick forms slicing the waves, I almost felt happy. Then, as they swam away, I grew irritated. These dolphins? They were ditching me: Me, a woman whose breath caught any time she’d see one, who left the beach with fists full of netting and trash and treated their home like a sacred broth. Me! who had just been told that her teenager might be descending into schizophrenia. An actual psychiatrist had actually raised the actual possibility.When she uttered that monstrous word I, literally, burst into tears, snot shooting out of my nose.

Tearing a Kleenex from a nearby box, I apologized while I wiped my nose. 

“No worries,” the doctor said. I liked her. Possibly because she was dressed like a witch, shin-length black dress, pointy black boots, a black cape thrown over her shoulders. My son was not as enamored of the doctor. On the way out, he said, “What was with Professor McGonagall? Who dresses like that in Florida?” 

His dad and I laughed. Psychotic and sedated half to death, the kid could still rock a Harry Potter reference. He made me laugh again when we stopped for lunch. He’d wormed in his seat, then had to pace while we waited for our sandwiches. Once he sat, he said, “I’m such an idiot.” 

“Hey,” I said in my admonishing tone.

He laughed, replied, “Mom. I made myself psychotic with drugs. That’s a pretty dumbshit move.”

I cracked up, mostly from relief. I even let myself think, He’s in there. Thank God part of him’s still there. That night, he pulled himself into a ball with his hands flattened over his ears, hearing something we couldn’t. When he started writhing on the floor, my husband had to leave the room. I rubbed his back, said soothing things, lied outright and promised he’d feel better in the morning, all the while trying to hide the tears I was surreptitiously wiping onto my sleeve. I finally convinced him to down another tranquilizer. He got into bed fully dressed and went to sleep.

I had not slept. For a week. Or maybe I slept an hour or two each night. If those asshole dolphins only knew. I faced the water and yelled, “Hey! If anyone could use some magic and mirth, it’s me!” 

Photo by Lachlan Dempsey on Unsplash

Watching their retreating shapes growing smaller and smaller, I thought of how the doctor had offered possibilities other than schizophrenia: bipolar disorder, drug-induced psychosis, unspecified psychosis. She’d said the onset of these illnesses often began in the late teens. In my head, I started praying for him to be one of the other things. Any of them. I stood on the beach thinking, Please let it be bipolar. We could live with bipolar.

I yelled again, “Is that too much to ask?”

I closed my eyes and listened. All I heard was the rumble of the sea. 

The Carpenter’s song “Sing” popped into my head. I knew all the words, mostly from the 50 times I’d heard Elmo’s rendition when my kids were small. I found myself singing “Sing”. I felt ridiculous, until, those dolphins? They swam back. I couldn’t believe it. I sang louder, sang stronger. I sang till “Sing” burned my throat, till I could feel it vibrating in my chest. Meanwhile the whole giddy pod frolicked offshore. One dolphin knifed into the air, another raced along the curl of a wave.

By the time I turned for home, I just whispered the “la, la, la” part over and over. I have no idea if the dolphins could hear me. Probably not. I only know they accompanied me the whole walk home.

Featured image (dolphin tail) by Gulfside Mike on Unsplash

Beach photos by the author

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About the Author

Coley Gallagher has written about women’s soccer for US Soccer and the site Playing for 90. Her stories and essays have appeared in The Chicago Tribune, Green Mountains Review and The Evanston Roundtable. She is currently at work on an essay collection. She lives between Illinois and Florida with her husband and children, and Tyson, the 10-year-old Covid dog of their dreams

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