She was of proud German decent and in her own words built for purpose rather than primping. Mother considered trendy clothes, stylish hair, and make-up to be frivolities in an already overly-complicated world. Her day began an hour before dawn and yet she greeted each morning with a smile, and I imagine the morning recognized her wearing the same dress as yesterday, but had manners enough not to mention it. She owned a total of six identical dresses, but she swore there were subtle differences that we were to obtuse to see. Mom was a creature of habit and as an extension gravitated toward a primary habitat. More often than not I recall her hustling about the kitchen; muted dress three-quarters covered over with a gravy-stained excuse for a white apron. She was the kind of woman who made no apologies for knee-high stockings rolled down mid-calf; the circumference of which could not be stretched any further without risk of cutting off circulation. Side to side and head to toe, my mother was stocky and thick like a good beef stew.
Where her children were concerned she exacted respect via a wooden spoon; the handle length and effective reach kept me guessing. Yet she was very much a contradiction in terms—one moment as strict and rigid as cold-formed steel and the next brimming with compassion and wisdom. From a very young age she impressed upon me that all people, no matter their circumstance, will choose to be part of the problem or part of the solution. In matters both large and small, choices were black and white and the mythical middle ground of gray only existed when those filled with indecision dragged their feet and muddied the water. God rest her soul; I loved her unbreakable spirit and simple interpretations of life and humanity.
I don’t suspect the memories of my mother differ much from any young boy’s recollections of the woman who brought him into existence. Like most boys I arrived unfinished; edges as rough as torch-cut steel, wielding a disposition that fluctuated radically, but even the mean of which fell too near mischievous for her liking. She molded my mind, bent my will, and polished the exterior. I suppose from her perspective she tucked me into bed one night and in the morning she awoke to an altogether different creature. I presume there is no greater sense of loss than when a mother finally considers her son generally presentable and suitable company only to realize that she must release him into the wild again.
In my early twenties I worked the night shift at the Maryville Asylum for the Insane. Still wet behind the ears, I suppose they assigned me a position they figured couldn’t be screwed up. My duties consisted primary of transporting patients to and from their rooms, the dining hall, the activity center, and the infirmary. I told my friends and relatives that I worked in transportation.
Arnold was a vibrant and adventurous ten-year old boy trapped in the crippled frame of a fifty year old man, so it only seemed appropriate that his wheel-chair become an Indy-racer. He had enough command of his motor-skills to grip an imaginary steer-wheel while I provided the sound effects of a roaring engine and squealing tires as we streaked down the straight-aways. Arnold was unable to verbally express himself, but I learned quickly to gauge the level of his pleasure by the intensity and frequency of his choppy and awkward bursts of laughter.
Phyllis barely stood five feet tall and weighed less than ninety pounds. She was adept in the art of cursing, and prone to streaking down the hallway at all hours of the night. In the blink of an eye she would disrobe completely and sprint down the hallway. Her nick-name was ‘Hell-Cat’ and she verbally and often physically accosted anyone that tried to get clothes back on her. Even in a sea of abnormality, teaming with unusual behavior, her actions struck me as odd, until one night one of the doctors pulled me aside. He explained that as a young girl she was the only member of her family to escape a house fire and that she honestly believed her garments were ablaze. As with all my patients, to one extent or another, I eventually discovered a connecting-point. Phyllis’ constant state of agitation and paranoia melted away if you sang to her in a low voice while stroking her head. Sometimes I stumbled over words or replaced entire stanzas with nonsensical gibberish, but none of it mattered as long as she believed we were riding on a magic carpet that floated high above the flames.
So between the Indy racer and the magic carpet, I truly did specialize in transportation. During my time at Maryville I learned a great many things about people, but there was one mystery I could never quite unravel. Circling in the back of my mind I continued to wonder if the patients had the capacity to recognize their shortcomings compared to societal norms, or if they considered themselves on an equal plane and somehow felt punished unjustly.
After four years at Maryville I left my position for a higher paying job several towns away in an entirely different field. As so many do, I became consumed with the course and advancement of my own life and am ashamed to admit I am uncertain of the outcome of Arnold and Phyllis’ lives. I am embarrassed that it has taken my life being turned upside down for me to reconsider the plight of those I cared for so long ago.
It was last Thursday afternoon or perhaps it was Friday, or even a Monday a month or more ago; that I found myself seated at a large dining table with a group of strangers. The decor of the room was tastefully artsy, but certainly nothing I would have chosen for myself. I gauged the behemoth of a chandelier alone to have cost upwards of three month’s wages. I recognized the pieces of art adorning the walls as renditions of famous paintings, but rather than breathing life into the room they appeared as if they had had been sentenced to death by hanging.
The female seated closest to me was quite attractive and full of life. I decided quickly that if I could determine she was not already committed I might introduce myself over a glass of wine following dinner. Everyone was seated with the exception of two blurry figures rushing to and from the kitchen. The servants were operating in such a harried state my fear was that they might soon cut a rut in the hardwood floor and then be reprimanded for doing so.
There were multiple conversations taking place and it occurred to me that if I eavesdropped long enough I might ascertain the host’s name or even the identity of those whom I had been seated with. The names and topics of conversations being tossed about were completely and utterly unfamiliar. The entire situation made me feel as though I was an understudy for a play—a foolish and irresponsible one who hadn’t taken seriously the real possibly of being asked to step in.
Even as I attempted to shake off this awkward awareness of not belonging somewhere, it intensified ten-fold when the attractive woman next to me placed her hand on mine. Without as much as a glance in my directions she cleared her throat, commanding the attention of everyone in the room.
“Welcome home, everyone. Frank and I are truly blessed.”
She raised her hand between us, dragging mine with it. “Not only are we celebrating forty years of wedded bliss, but in the company of such a wonderful family. Michael, can you say the blessing before we eat?”
My head began to swim in disbelief. Was it possible that she and I were married, for forty years no less, that we shared a home I found distasteful, and that we had grown children and grandchildren?
I gathered myself and used the reprieve of bowed heads and closed eyes to scrutinize them more thoroughly, but racking my brain for even the slightest remembrance or trace of a memory only perpetuated the rumbling in the pit of my stomach. I wasn’t physically ill, but it was rather a sickness in my soul to think that somehow I misplaced forty years of existence.
At the conclusion of the prayer she leaned and whispered in my ear.
“Frank dear, are you not feeling well?
The sickness in my belly boiled to the extent it backed up into my throat. I wanted to rush to the china cabinet, withdrawing, and smashing every item onto the floor until I remembered something—until the name Frank sounded familiar. I swallowed hard and accepted the opportunity of escape she had provided.
“Suddenly I’m not feeling well at all—I’m going to lie down in the bedroom for a few minutes.”
I pushed away from the table and was on my feet before it dawned on me that I had no clue which direction to head. She allowed me to plod only a few steps down the hallway before catching my arm, turning me around, and escorting me there.
“Frank, you seem terribly disoriented. Maybe we should go see a doctor?”
“Don’t be silly” I snapped. “We have a house-full of hungry guests. Go back to them, please. I’ll be fine with an hour’s rest.”
In my current condition there wasn’t an ounce of me that believed I resided on the same continent as okay, but I couldn’t bring myself to tell her that. She really did seem like the type of woman I would have married.
There were occasions when I had forgotten where I placed the newspaper or my reading glasses, but nothing approaching this magnitude. I tried to recall an occasion where I had bumped my head in the last few days, but then chuckled out loud as a moment of reason finally prevailed. With a blow significant enough to cause memory loss, how should the victim have the ability to recall it? Unless of course there was a delay in the onset of symptoms, but if there were a delay they would have thought nothing of the accident until the onset of symptoms, which would in and of itself prevent the remembrance. My private moment of levity was short-lived.
What if this ‘thing’ accosting my mind was some type of chemical imbalance associated with sleep? That with every hour I slept another month was erased—what if a minute’s rest equaled a year of lost recollection? “Then I must stay awake!” The words tumbled from my lips and echoed around the empty room.
What if conversely, rest was my only hope? Maybe some type of advanced parasite had entered my brain and learned to mimic my movements—he rested when I was still and used periods of physical activity to gobble up huge tracts of recorded data, and to disguise the gurgling sound of my memories rattling through his digestive tract. “Nonsense”! I bellowed.
Perhaps nothing could be done to slow the decay. What if I had unknowingly wandered through of the gates of insanity and all that remained was to discover my only option was moving forward through a wicked maze of entanglement designed with no exit?
The icy talons of the unknown took hold of me, ushering in a chill that ran the length of my spine. Lying on my side I stared holes in the wedding picture on the nightstand. The glint in her eyes was unmistakably the reflection of a promising and fulfilling life with a man she truly loved. How would she react to being shackled to him now—his mind as empty as a hollow tomb where silent cries of desperation echoed back at him like daggers.
It was early evening when I awoke to same nightmare. Nothing had changed for the better, and I supposed nothing for the worse, but how could I determine the latter? Each of the guests filtered into and out of my bedroom single file, reminiscent of a funeral visitation. I managed a wry grin and insisted on placing a kiss on each of their foreheads. I supposed it was good practice. If I remained a prisoner to this condition then I’d need to learn read people—to do what was expected based on other’s perceptions, unable to trust my own.
In the early stages you believe that you can learn to outthink this thing—that you can provide the answers or responses the requester is probing for. I adopted and immediately abandoned such a foolish philosophy in practically the same cloudy moment. I felt as though I was doing the right thing when I proposed cutting my wife loose from the obligation of marriage so that she might deservedly enjoy her golden years. In hindsight, I see that she interpreted it a murderous and merciless act—better I would have physically carved her heart from her chest with a butter-knife. She stayed with me round the clock for a month straight, weeping uncontrollably. I learned that trying to say the right thing is very often worse than remaining silent.
From that point forward when she arrived to my room with a cake, I no longer attempt to guess the occasion and instead simply enjoyed the flickering candles in silence. I understood that withdrawing into silence gave the impression I was more disconnected than I truly was, but incorrect guesses and untimely responses days or weeks later hurt her more than I could bear. I began to think Abraham Lincoln was speaking specifically of my condition when he stated “Better to remain silent and be though a fool than to speak out and remove all doubt.”
Although I am certain they have passed, I think of Arnold and Phyllis often. It is my sincerest hope that their final resting place fills them with a peace that eluded them on earth. I also pray that their interpretation of my gestures and actions toward them were ones of acceptance and understanding. Thinking of my former patients always leads me back to the question that I wish now I’d never considered. I’m dreadfully certain that they believed themselves normal while the world sees us in an entirely different light.
The error of arrogance was mine; I foolishly mistook the perceived differences between my patients and myself as eternal, but the gap is narrowing and on a collision course of ironic proportions. I used to pride myself on punctuality and believed that it was a prime indicator of a man’s character, but I must now add the perceived passage of time to a growing list of things I am no longer capable of tracking. It is as though the keeper of time has tossed my hours, days and weeks together in a mixing bowl. Although it seems a cruel twist of fate, perhaps it is an act of mercy—not knowing how many have passed or remain.
Words alone cannot begin to describe such an overwhelming feeling of helplessness. It seems the more desperately I attempt to cling to my remaining mental capacity the more quickly the gray matter turns to soup and slips through my fingers. Whatever small purpose she once had, this ship has undeniably lost her captain and is traveling in perilous waters. It is not within my power to change the angry skies above or the churning sea below. It pains me in unspeakable ways to admit this once proud vessel is rudderless and adrift, tossed against the jagged rocks again and again—I fear she cannot take much more. It is a broken process, from which there seems no escape. Yet she is asked repeatedly by doctors, orderlies, and even her loved ones to find the courage to sail again. Perhaps once I have convinced myself that I am capable of one final moment of lucidity, I shall ask them the question burning in my mind. “What is your definition of compassion and dignity, and why can’t both be served by allowing an old tired ship to simply slip beneath the surface”?