WANTED: "Live-in person to help care for ten-year-old boy, wheelchair bound with muscular dystrophy. Must be loving and cheerful. Must piss child and turn him during the night . . . Must, after school when he tires of entertaining himself by drawing or listening to records, be willing to tell him stories, sing old camp songs, dance around the living room like a klutzy Makarova to Chopin polonaises . . . And if all fails, as sometimes happens, and you sense that the shadow has fallen across his soul, must hold him in your arms and tell him that you love him, and lift his arms and fold them around your neck so that he can tell you that he loves you too. Best salary for right person."
The "right" person never came along. Until her son Peter died at 15, it was his mother who circled him like a guard dog, chucked his chin, called him dopey names and -- as his life began to flicker dangerously -- began to catch his words, like wax drippings, in a journal that became the starter wick for a book. And what a book!
"Intensive Care" is tough, funny, heart-breaking and astute -- an astonishing achievement for any writer, let alone Mary-Lou Weisman, on her first time out of the gate.
It could be argued that one has to be a very bad writer to misuse the material that Weisman was handed -- the saga of a bright, upwardly mobile young Jewish couple from Connecticut suddenly confronted with a dying son. But one has to be a superb writer to lift the story above the wheelchair that Peter was confined to from his 10th year on and waltz around with it so brilliantly. And that is what Weisman, who vowed that "Peter's life must grow steadily and bravely upward, against a declining graph life of utter failure," has done.
The book never loses sight of its natural focus--the innocent, gutsy kid who wrote "Would You Have Let Franklin Delaware Roosevelt Sit Where He Wanted In This Cafeteria?" on a sign when he was made to move his wheelchair in the lunch room, who sighed "I'm not the man I used to be" when he could no longer put his own arms around his mother's neck. But in the Weisman family's struggle to channel their grief, conduct their lives and perhaps even prolong the length of Peter's ("I'll make you a deal, God. Let me have him as long as I can lift him. Okay?" pleads Weisman), they go on the road in search of emotional and medical help. It is here that the story, instead of narrowing, expands.
For four months, the family lives at the human potential center, the Esalen Institute in Big Sur, Calif., where the mountains "like heavy folds of Renaissance skirts, slide toward the sea." It was a beautiful setting but not a beautiful experience, and I am sure that Esalen rues the day Mary-Lou Weisman, whose eyes tend to get sharper when full of tears, ever set foot inside.
"You aren't back East anymore," says a beauteous, bra-less creature called Felicity Plum, "where people are such uptight a------- that they don't care about anyone else but themselves. Esalen is a real community . . . We're available to one another. If Peter should fall and you're not there, someone will pick him up."
" 'Just like that?' I ask. I feel my dry, withered spirit dare to dampen and dilate.
" 'Just like that.' Felicity touches my arm gently with her hand.
" 'That would be nice,' I say, feeling tears form in my eyes." But for the Weismans, particularly Mary-Lou, Esalen doesn't work.
" 'I feel sad that Mary-Lou is unwilling to trust us with her true feelings. How do you feel about this?' Felicity calls on Larry Weisman's husband .
" 'I take responsibility for hurting Mary-Lou,' he mumbles, as if there were a gun to his head.
" 'Why don't you tell her--remember to make eye contact,' Felicity coaches . . .
"Reluctantly Larry turns toward me. He looks very tired and very uncomfortable.
" 'I can take responsibility for hurting you, Mary-Lou. I can't say that I didn't mean to. I obviously did mean to, or I wouldn't have done it. Right now, I'm not in touch with the part of me that wants to hurt you. I'm only aware of the part that's sorry.'
" 'Beautiful, Larry. That was really beautiful,' says beautiful Felicity."
Finally, the Weismans check out of Esalen, after discovering Peter and their older son Adam trying to exorcise their anger, Esalen-style, by shouting the "f word" as they punch a pillow, perilously near the edge of a cliff. "It doesn't work, Adam," sobs Peter, flinging himself onto the pillow. "I still hate it here."
" 'C'mon, guys.' Larry lifts Peter up in his arms.
" 'Where are we going?' Peter sniffs.
" 'We're getting the hell out of here.'
" 'I never fit in . . .' said Mary-Lou, explaining the experience to a friend later. 'It was like being in the Garden of Eden.'
" 'That sounds rather nice . . .'
" 'Except that I was the snake.'
The scope of "Intensive Care" somewhat dares a reviewer to do it justice, because it is too elegant and earthy to reflect in a snippet, which is what a review, no matter how positive, is. But while managing to stick to her main purpose, which is to tell the reader a story that wants telling, Weisman lifts Peter like a candle to illuminate so much internal and external territory that "Intensive Care" exceeds without transgressing the bounds of the book. And in the end, Weisman gives you Peter, lowering him gently but directly onto your lap.
" 'You're really very fortunate to have a kid like me,' said Peter. 'You could have had a real spoiled brat.'
" 'That's true,' I say, kissing the tip of his nose, 'I count my blessings that I have a child as wonderful as you.'
" 'I wouldn't count my blessings if I were you,' said Peter.
" 'You wouldn't? Why not.'
" 'Because it sounds too pathetic.' "
There is nothing pathetic about "Intensive Care," although there are times when the power of Weisman's prose squeezes the heart like a sponge. But perhaps the best moments leave you laughing. It takes a bit of courage to pick the book up. But it takes too much discipline to put it down.