The novel "Insight" explores how managing a loved one's severe mental illness can affect the mental health of their family members as caregivers. The novel’s title, “Insight”, is a psychiatric term referring to the ability to recognize one's mental illness and how the illness affects individuals' interactions with the world.

I have never deified my older brother, Eddy, in the way younger siblings often worship their older counterparts. I didn’t have a desire to follow him around like a lost puppy, demanding to tag along on adolescent excursions. For one thing, he was four years my senior. An age difference vast enough in our youth to stagger our life stages too much to have a lot in common. The first four years of his life were spent with our grandparents in a rural part of Jamaica, his grandmother standing in for our mother. “Waiting to be sent for” was the term used to describe the limbo of uncertainty for families broken up in transition. It also defined Eddy’s experience as a first-generation Jamaican-Canadian whisked away to the City of Toronto. He had no say in this transition from relatively lateral Caribbean seasons to the moody uncertainty of North American environs. There was no postcard beachfront view awaiting him. No dazzling Caribbean sun dancing on saltwater tides, nor any infinite body of water to cradle his relaxed frame like some demigod offspring of Poseidon. The view from a ferry could never compete with the view from his grandfather’s fishing boat—a lush island emerging from the sea like a risen Atlantis. Unlike me, he was a child of Oliver and Beatrice Glassford, the former seeming like a mythical but absent God. Neither of us would grow up hearing much about him. Oliver Glassford didn’t survive long enough for either of us to know him anyway.

There’s a photo of Eddy and me holding hands in our building lobby. Me, an afro with chubby brown limbs clutching his slender boyish hands. He, in a skinny Cub Scout uniform in beige shorts, scraped knees exposed. He’s maybe six in the picture, which would place me around my terrible twos. Our mother, Beatrice, keeps this photo in an album in the same cabinet as her good china. A child’s cabinet of curiosities with more security than the Louvre. You could look but don’t touch or risk being touched. Within, lay a Queen Elizabeth commemorative plate propped up like a family photo. There’s a certain irony to a lashing attached to the protection of an altar to old Britannia in a Caribbean household. Its presence in my mother’s home today mocks me like a choir of monarchists singing the crown’s praises, a collective chorus putting history to rest with a thunderous lullaby that drowns out the screams of the colonized and enslaved. A contradiction made convenient for liberals who advocate for DEI in the workplace but vote for leaders who wear Blackface in the poll booth. A point of pride for conservatives who bristle against limits to their freedom of speech, while giving rise to fascist ideologues buoyed by the toxicity they spew. A proper place for everything and everything in its proper place.

“When last you hear from your father?” My mother, Beatrice, asks in a watered-down patois, the result of thirty-odd years of assimilation.

In her day, mimicking the Queen’s English made you “proper.” I remember growing up around an older generation of island expats who congregated in churches and birthday gatherings. The hint of a British lilt hung off their elegant parlance at parties where men with nicknames like “Corporal” masked birth names like “Reginald.” They slapped dominoes on dining room tables with a force that rattled rum-soaked ice cubes in snifter glasses and caused their wives to glower. Women would gather in the living room on the good furniture to celebrate and reminisce about the islands and family they left. Kids who will never feel at home “here” or “there” chase each other in basements and backyards, assuming their host was lucky enough to have either. The excitement reaches a fever pitch until the inevitable injury brings a child’s tears and concerned adults to the scene of the accident. A band-aid, a warning to “play nice with each other,” and a return to the party. A memory soundtracked by a cacophony of raucous laughter dueling with Kool and The Gang, Gregory Isaacs, or Byron Lee and The Dragonaires.

I avert my gaze, feeling a shame that should belong to my father.

“It’s been a few weeks, I guess,” lying while sounding nonplussed because it’s been more like five years.

After almost two decades of random visits spaced out over several months, I’ve grown somewhat accustomed to his disappearing acts. I would usually reach out to remind him I existed, but my patience is taxed. I inhabit a world of imperfect people prone to life-altering decisions without lengthy contemplation, decisions that ripple through lives like a flat stone skipped across calm waters. So, five years ago, in the space of a few uneasy beats of white noise, I resolved never to call the man who fathered me again. Chasing his love had finally exhausted me. It was his turn to prove his interest. The fact that I’d never heard from him since that day was telling.

“If I ever know he would be so untrustworthy—,” begins Beatrice before falling silent. Her attention returns to her crochet, her arthritic fingers still weaving silken worlds out of polychromatic thread. I know she’s suppressed her disappointment for my benefit. As if I don’t know about my father Delroy’s numerous failings. As if I haven’t been an unwilling recipient of them.

“It’s fine,” I say, more to placate her than myself.

My dad didn’t make his entrance until after Eddy’s died. At least, that’s been the official story told at parties and Centre Island barbeques. Beatrice became a widow while my brother was just beginning to climb mango trees in our maternal grandmother’s backyard. By the time Edward arrived in-country, the courting of Beatrice by Delroy had become a full-blown love affair. I was the result. So, Eddy met the man who assumed his father’s role the day he met his baby brother. Even at four years old that must have been a mindfuck. As an adult, you realize these kinds of stories are what adults tell children to spare them intimate details of the messy relationships that spawned them. As time passes, more hunks of the tale get chipped away like a sculptor’s clay until something resembling a figure emerges. Through experience gained from your messy relationships, revisionist history becomes unnecessary. With your knowledge of human sexuality and the chaotic “monkey mind” of evolution that governs it, you understand that “widow plus new husband shouldn’t equal a baby less than a year after the first husband’s death.” The unlikelihood of your mother falling in love with another man, never mind doing that fast enough to marry him and give birth to you in the same year, doesn’t add up. At twenty years old, I can see my parent's drama for what it was and not judge them for it.

“How’s Marlina?” Mom asks, mercifully changing the topic.

“Fine,” I answer. “I’m meeting her for dinner tomorrow night.”

Beatrice cocks a knowing brow. “That's how it starts.”

I counter her brow with a smirk. “Dinner sounds innocent enough to me,” I say, trying to nip the direction of this conversation in the bud for reasons I’m unsure of.

The insertion of a key into a lock, followed by a “click” announces Eddy’s arrival. A sweltering summer humidity invades the air-conditioned confines of the two-bedroom apartment that sheltered us in childhood. Eddy forces the door shut and the hot breeze loses the battle.

“How you tell me you a’ come t’ree and it almost five, Edward?” interrogates Beatrice.

He and I both roll our eyes for different reasons. Eddy, because he has heard some version of this question for the last twenty-four years, and he is tired of hearing about it. Because Eddy is never less than an hour late for anything, I am also tired of hearing about it. Eddy was born a week late, and I have no doubt his body will show up an hour late to his own funeral.

“Sorry Mom,” Eddy offers half-heartedly. “I was helping out with the installation of our grad show.”

“On a Sunday?” asks an exasperated Beatrice. “On the Lord’s Day, you’re making art?”

Eddy leans in for a peck on her cheek. “Art gets made anytime the inspiration hits, although I wasn’t making art, Mom.”

Beatrice loosens up after her elder son displays affection and nods toward the dinner table. “If you can set up art on a Sunday, then you can set a table too,” she commands.

I level a smarmy grin over Beatrice’s shoulder the same way I’ve always done when my brother’s gotten in trouble. I can’t help myself. As the runt of the litter, evolution has predisposed me to revel in my senior being reminded of his order in the pack. He would enjoy it no less if our situations were reversed.

Over dinner, Eddy and I share our scholastic success with our mother. She listens in poker-faced silence. The only thing betraying her pride is the incandescence behind her eyes. Beatrice survived the physical loss of a first husband and the emotional loss of a second. She raised two Black boys in the city practically alone, and now one is about to graduate from university. I mean, it’s an art school, which anyone with an immigrant parent knows isn’t perceived as the best use of an education. When Edward told Beatrice he was going to be a great painter, I’m sure she believed he planned to be a contractor and paint houses or something. Still, neither of us ended up in the news as a victim or a perpetrator, nor did we weigh down our life prospects by becoming teen fathers. I honestly can’t take too much credit for the latter. I was pretty useless when it came to enamoring the opposite sex, so it wasn’t something I had any control over. All things considered both of our situations were a win for our mother. I was just out of my second year in the Creative Writing program at York University. Considering all the mountains she climbed for us to get to this point, this alone was reason enough to celebrate.

Toronto is not a Monday city.

It’s more complicated than you would think to find a decent restaurant to eat at in a city this size. As usual, Marlina saves the day, which is embarrassing, because I invited her on this dinner date.

“So, creative writing, huh?” Marlina sips her drink.

“Uh-huh,” I answer. “I’m thinking with a degree in journalism and a minor in creative writing, I can leverage that into some kind of career to keep myself off the dole while I write novels. Kill two birds with one stone.”

“Stay away from food writing,” she says. “You might have to know when the restaurants you’re reviewing are open.”

Marlina snickers. I bury my face in my hands. Her laughter intensifies.

We sit facing each other at a square table in the corner of an Ethiopian restaurant along the Danforth strip. Solar rays pierce raised garage-style storefront windows, flooding the modest dining room with the ethereal glow of a clear summer evening. Middle-aged cabbies who were probably engineers back home gather at the bar. Diverse groups of diners sit in booths on ornate wooden banquettes talking about the news of the day. Passing motorists and the evening chatter of pedestrians become part of the restaurant’s ambiance. We’re all making the most of these strange days, dining out while living out the Book of Revelations. Wars and rumors of wars. It’s been almost two years since an attack on New York City led to a war in Afghanistan. Just a few months back, a war in Iraq. The world feels like it’s being run by warmongers, and we have agreed to drink and be merry for tomorrow we might all die. This is Greektown on a Monday night in 2003.

Marlina scoops a savory morsel of stewed carrot and cabbage between her fingers with the aid of velvety injera. I observe as she greedily pops the vegetarian delicacy in her mouth. “Remember to chew,” I advise her, despising sarcasm unless it comes from me.

Marlina raises a middle finger. Her pleated onyx braids brush against lithe, molasses shoulders. I have never minded being given the finger less than I do right now. She folds more stewed vegetables into the bread and deposits the food on her outstretched tongue. Her gemstone-manicured digits linger there as she draws the food into her waiting portal. Something carnal stirs in me as she wraps plush lips around her thumb and forefinger. I am enthralled by her devouring as an errant drop of grease spills down the dimpled crease of her mouth. I lurch forward, holding a napkin to her face as if making an offering to the gods.

“Thanks, but I have my own napkin,” replies Marlina, removing it from her lap to dab the sides of her mouth. “I appreciate the effort though.”

“Bare minimum effort is my specialty,” I say. “It’s my way of rebelling against the burden of working twice as hard as white kids cuz I’m Black.”

Marlina laughs at the bad joke. She must be in love.

“Now, I know your mom taught you better than that,” she reproaches.

“The poor woman sent her sons off for a higher education and they came back as artists and writers,” I shrug. “By now she’s used to disappointment.”

“Stupid!” she squeals, tossing her dirty napkin at my face.

I catch it midair and pretend to wipe my brow nervously. “I don’t know if this thing between you and me is going to work. You sound too much like my mother.”

“She sounds like an intelligent woman,” Marlina retorts.

She’s smiling, which I take to mean she knows I’m not being serious. This is good since I have a dry sense of humor that I’ve been told can be hard to read. Hence the whole, ‘being useless when it comes to the opposite sex’ thing. Most girls I’ve dated wanted to know what I was thinking. It turns out that dropping humor into serious moments in ways that aren’t obvious can make that difficult.

“Maybe to change up the direction of this conversation, can we talk about you for a bit?”

I want to change the subject because I’m very interested in her. Also, comparing the ways my date is similar to my mother feels weird. I know I started it, but still.

“Sure,” she says. “I love talking about myself.”

A howl emanates from my side of the table because she is the least extroverted person I know.

“It's not that funny,” she pouts.

“Look at you being all ironic,” I say after regaining my composure. “I’m impressed.”

Marlina crosses her arms. “I thought we were going to talk about me?”

“Please,” I say. “You have the mic.”

Her cocoa butter bare arms drop down to her sides.

“I can’t just start talking about myself like that,” she says. “Ask me something.”

I rub my hands together. Marlina’s back straightens as if bracing for impact. I lob, what I believe to be, a softball question her way.

“So, what’s up with that whole Regent Park development thing? Is that for real or what?”

Marlina recoils as if I’d just passed wind. Her orbs narrow and her eyelashes become serrated edges.

“What do you mean?”

I shift uncomfortably in my seat before stammering, “I-I just meant, is it a good thing for your community? Is it going to turn out well?”

Her features soften. My heart beats again. A finger purses her lip, and her gaze turns upward as if to read her thoughts.

“I’m not sure,” she offers, eyes lowering from the invisible speech bubble. “They’ve already moved some folks I know out of their homes. One of my girlfriends is up in Scarborough with her parents waiting for the construction to finish.”

About two years prior, the city wonks, with the help of a condo developer, decided that Regent Park was a blight on Toronto that was ripe for redevelopment. In an area of the city once described by a sitting mayor as “a crack capital,” it suddenly became of utmost importance to revitalize this downtown neighborhood amid a condo boom. Revitalizing meant building more condos to attract a different social class into the community by knocking down homes that currently existed. It meant making way for new homes by resettling the families that lived there elsewhere—just until the work was completed, of course. Is it gentrification if you leave some of the prior inhabitants on the land when you take it? Is it still colonization if you don’t kill the whole tribe?

“I don’t know how I feel about anything right now,” adds Marlina, looking beyond me. “It feels like it’s all happening to us instead of for us.”

“Go, go, go, go, go, go, go shorty, it’s your birthday.” A car screeches to a halt on the street in front of the restaurant. “We gon’ party like it’s your birthday.” I lean right to peer over Marlina’s shoulder and observe the commotion out front. A screaming match between a motorist and a shirtless, barefoot Black man threatens to drown out 50 Cent’s smash-hit single. The music pulsates from the driver’s silver Lexus. “We gon' sip Bacardi like it's your birthday.” Almost in unison, the entire restaurant stops to take in the spectacle that is becoming a daily occurrence in every part of the downtown core.

“It’s not my birthday you bastard!” the man bellows, blocking the car and snarling traffic.

“Get the fuck out of the street!” the frustrated driver yells.

The blaring horns of backed-up traffic join the chorus of obscenities hurled between the driver and the disturbed man, an unhinged symphony of madness and urban rage.

“Whoop, whoop!”

The sound of police sirens accompanies the orchestral chaos. It all happens so quickly that the thought of asking for our bill and making an escape comes too late to avoid what I fear will happen—a thing that has happened dozens of times before. Three police cars weave through stopped traffic from the opposite lane and encircle the man. Marlina has twisted her body in a way as to remain seated but still bear witness to the thing now in motion. Like everyone else in the restaurant, she is enraptured. Six police constables circle the man which only serves to enrage him further.

“Devils!” he screams, spittle collecting in his patchy beard. “Demons!”

One of the officers steps forward, a weapon already in hand and aimed at his target. He carries himself with confidence and seniority, suggesting to me he is the highest-ranking officer.

“Sir, move out of the street,” instructs the officer. The man instead steps forward.

Why am I standing now?

Marlina exudes horror as she watches me cross the short gap between joy and potential oblivion.

Why am I walking toward the open storefront window?

“Brian,” she hisses, a whisper suppressing a scream. “Don’t.”

The intensity of her plea stops my progress and brings me back in control. There’s the “click” of a trigger. For a moment, we are all confused because the expected “pop” of gunfire isn’t what follows. It is the crackle of an electric current cooking the nervous system of the man in the street. The whimpering he emits is reminiscent of a kicked dog as he writhes on the ground. Even though he is unmoving, the other cops descend on him like a pride of lions on their prey. The man is turned over, pressed to the ground, and contorted by devious holds designed to inflict compliance through pain. He doesn’t scream. He doesn’t resist—he just lies there. The motorist, who also happens to be Black, steps out of his car. The anger that once hardened his features falls away, becoming as ashen as the body in front of his vehicle. Several restaurant patrons have joined me in standing to observe. After cuffing the man, one of the constables checks for a pulse. The look over his shoulder at the sergeant who tased him is a failed attempt to be discreet. The sergeant reaches for a radio.

“We need an ambulance to Danforth and Greenwood stat!”

A white trustafarian in a Che Guevara T-shirt pulls out what must be the only cell phone with a video camera in the whole place. Like tasers, they’ve only just become available within the last year, and they aren’t cheap. The communist bourgeoisie is recording this mentally unstable man’s death rattle, and I don’t know how to feel about it. Inherently, we all thought this man was dead the minute the cops showed up. I can see people mouthing something. The veins on their throats pulsed with blood and rage. They must be screaming, but I can’t hear them.  Women with eyes like my mother’s shed tears, but I can’t hear their wailing. More police cars arrive and yet, I can’t hear their sirens. There’s a hand on my arm and Marlina’s familiar voice summoning me back to my senses. I hold her close as saltwater stains her cheeks.

Marlina and I escape before the police can corner us for statements. The last thing either of us wants to do is talk about what we just witnessed with the people who had a hand in it. I ride the streetcar with Marlina from the restaurant, a ride southwest that takes about half an hour. She rests her head on my shoulder, but we say nothing to each other the whole ride there. My cell phone periodically vibrates in my pocket, but I don’t care to answer right now. We depart the streetcar and begin walking to her house, passing the evidence of a community under construction—cranes, tractors, porta-potties, and portables—along the way. She lives in a townhouse complex, periodically receiving a head nod from passersby who are her remaining neighbors, family, or friends. A limbo for the uncertain where people wait for their turn to disappear for the common good.

“Well,” she begins, standing at her front door. “THAT was horrible.”

My laughter echoes down the street. The understatement is so absurd, and my response is even more so, but I can’t help it. I’ve felt like a passenger in my own body since the incident, and I have yet to regain control of the steering wheel.

“I’m sorry,” I say. “This night was—”

“Yeah,” she replies, staring at her feet.

Am I supposed to ask her on another date now? What do you say after watching a man die? ‘Let’s do this again?’

Marlina spares me from having to say anything. Cradling both sides of my stubbled face in velvet palms, she presses her lips against mine.  We both taste like Berbere spice and garlic, but neither of us seems to mind.

“Call me,” she says, turning in her doorway.

“Of course,” I offer, watching her door close.

There she goes, saving me again.

About the Author

Byron Armstrong

Byron Armstrong has been awarded literary grants from the Toronto Arts Council and the Canada Council For The Arts, and was longlisted in the Top 100 of the 7th Annual Launch Pad Prose Competition. His work is published in Heavy Feather Review, The Malahat Review, and Decolonial Passage. His feature writing exploring sociopolitics and art has appeared in The Globe and Mail, Whitehot Magazine, and Arts Help, among others, and he is the recipient of a 2022 Canadian Ethnic Media award for best online article. He resides in Toronto, Canada (Tkaronto) with his family.