Breaking Down

Mum was admitted to Riverview Psychiatric Hospital in Port Coquitlam and we didn’t know when she was coming back. Kim and I were afraid of what was happening and afraid of what might happen to her and our family. Being young, we couldn’t really express our fears – we just experienced a nagging feeling of dread.

At the time, all I learned from Dad was that Riverview was a hospital of some kind, and our Mother had gone there to get some help. I really didn’t know much more than that. In actual fact, Riverview was the provincial psychiatric care facility and our Mum had suffered a nervous breakdown.

It was the end of the school year, and Dad had arranged for Kim and I to be babysat at some local households during the day while he was at work. Going to some stranger’s house for the whole day was a bit scary and unnerving for me and especially for Kim, who was only about five or six years old. When he dropped us off in the morning, Dad would kiss us and say “Be good, kids” and then we wouldn’t see him for the rest of day.

It was hard to be away from home like this, even if it was just during the day. We were babysat by a couple of different people, but the lady I remember the best was a young wife with short black hair who really tried to help us feel comfortable. She lived in a new blue and white house only a block or two from my school, North Otter Elementary. She obviously could tell that Kim and I were both scared and unsure of our situation. Using a calm, gentle voice and manner, she set us both at ease before too long. We introduced her to one of our favourite stuffed toys, a baby clown doll whom we had simply named “Clownie”. Our new mother-of-the-day inspected Clownie, and amazed us by immediately getting out her sewing kit and patching up Clownie’s torn rear end. I thought that fixing our old toy like that was quite a nice thing for her to do. She was friendly and kind to us, and before long we were telling her little stories about our home, school, and our dogs.

For lunch, we were fed a batch of chicken noodle soup and grape juice to drink. Kim soon discovered (quite by accident) the joys of purple chicken noodle soup when she spilled some of her grape juice into it. We laughed and had a happy afternoon, forgetting our worries for a while.

I remember a vague memory of driving a long way from home. One day, Dad, Kim and I drove along the highway for what seemed like an eternity, and then went down a hill and over a giant orange bridge. As we went over, I watched the boats and logs floating down below in the muddy brown water. We had actually crossed over the Port Mann Bridge into Port Coquitlam, and were about 20 miles away from our home in Langley. This was our Sunday trip to visit Mum in Riverview Hospital.

My memory of this first trip to Riverview is pretty vague. I remember feeling uncertain of this place – a little afraid. There was a long hallway with a shiny linoleum floor, and tall windows with old heaters underneath them. Generic paintings of carefree country scenes contrasted sharply with the sight of metal grills on the outsides of the windows. The ceilings seemed far too high up and made me feel rather small. It was an imposing and lonely place for an eight year old.

Dad rang a bell on the wall, and with the loud click of a very large key, went in through the heavy orange door at the end of the hall. Kim and I lingered in the outer hallway for a long time, hearing occasional shouts or shuffling feet from behind the big door. We waited for Dad to return and take us away from this weird, depressing place. After what seemed like an eternity had passed, we heard the large metallic click again and the heavy orange door at the end of the hallway finally swung open. Dad walked out slowly – alone. He looked tired and resigned to something that we couldn’t understand. He just said “Let’s go kids” and we went home without Mum.

In the hallway at Riverview, waiting for Dad to come back out.

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The memoir and family history of E. John Love