My son Herrick wad diagnosed with schizophrenia in his mid-twenties. Before that he moved around a lot. Once when he had been off “living rough” as he called it, he phoned ne, said he was in town and wanted to meet me for coffee. I wasn’t sure it was a good idea. Being around me seemed to make him angry. But I thought that seeing his face might make what was happening to him seem realer to me.
He showed up for our meeting on time, wearing cut-off jeans, a T-shirt and on his feet, a pair of wingtip shoes – the kind my grandfather kept in the back of his closet at the farm, smartly polished and ready for the next wedding or funeral. Herrick had polished his shoes as well, and since he’d worn no socks, he’d also caked polish on his ankles and part way up his legs. I tried to keep my face neutral when I noticed, but he still asked, “Problem, Mother?” He came up close and said the words into the top of my head. “Have I offended your middle class sensibilities again?” Then he rapped my forehead with his finger and walked away.
I don’t know what happened to Herrick’s black wingtips. I like to think they flew away from the city and landed on some country spread like my grandfather’s, where the farmer still squirted milk directly from cows’ udders into the waiting mouths of cats, and his wife made her own butter and bread and wore whalebone stays in her corset. That’s a fantasy, of course. No woman I know of has worn stays for generations, except in push up bras, which is an entirely different story. Hardly anyone stays in one place anymore, either. Not the farmer. Like my grandfather he probably gave up his house and moved to town. Not his wife. Definitely not Herrick.
He got a pair of black boots with two-inch heels and kept on traveling. Even acquired a motorcycle to go with them. For a while he sent postcards. “Highway 22, from Longview to Lundbrek is the most beautiful road in Alberta,” he wrote once. “I traveled south the whole length of it with the sun around me like a spotlight. Everywhere else it was raining, but I swear water never touched me on that road.”
The last post card he sent came from Toronto. Herrick had lost the motorcycle by then, but he still had his boots. He said the heels were so run down by then they made him walk on a slant, but he wouldn’t give them up. “There are some sacrifices you shouldn’t make,” he wrote. “I learned that from the wingtips.”
It seemed like a strange remark at the time, but now I think I understand. This earth we walk on has a harsh, relentless aspect. Shoes are a shield from that, constituting as they do a kind of proud, dry sanctuary for our feet. Herrick needed that. He still does. And I do. Is it that way for you?