Alzheimer’s

On Monday, I visited my Uncle Ralph, who is in a hospital in Maryville, TN, waiting for his kidneys to clear up and recovering from an urinary tract infection.   Then, he will undergo a heart catheterization procedure to see if his heart attack last week damaged his heart. A few weeks ago, he had finally put his wife, Polly, in a facility called Asbury Acres for people with Alzheimer’s disease. After seeing my uncle, I went to visit my aunt and here’s what I saw:

 

Yesterday evening, I was driving around Maryville seeing all the new subdivisions being built and I drove by Asbury Acres. Against my better judgment (I was still a little nerve-wrecked from visiting Ralph), I turned around and drove back to Asbury Acres. I walked into the retirement home and was told by the receptionist that Polly was in the medical center. The receptionist then proceeded to give me instructions about access to the building. Here is a summary of my visit:

 

I drove up to the medical center building, which is around the corner from the retirement home (from the entrance, the medical center appears to be a single story structure, although you can see there are what appear to be “underground” stories). I entered the foyer and walked down the hall past an interesting birdhouse to the elevator. Inside the elevator, I had to punch in a code on a keypad (*234) before the elevator floor buttons would become operational. I punched the first floor button, and the elevator went down.

 

Upon exiting the elevator, I turned to a door on the left, where I had to press a button on the wall in order to unlock the door. As I opened the door, I saw several people who seemed at least halfway coherent standing around or shuffling down the hall. A floor nurse (I’ll call her floor nurse #1) stood behind a counter and gave me instructions on how to get to Polly’s section. As I walked down the hall to Polly’s section, I observed two women looking at a picture of themselves posted on the wall outside a room. I stood at entrance to Polly’s section and watched the two women for a moment. One woman said to the other, “See, this is your room because that’s your picture. My picture’s there, too, so I must live in this room, too.” Floor nurse #1 kept yelling at me to press the keycode on the wall so I looked around and finally noticed a small keypad on the wall on the right side of the entrance.

 

I had to punch in the same keycode I used in the elevator in order to unlock the door. As I opened the door, I saw several people (who looked liked ghosts of their former selves) standing or shuffling along. My nervousness shot up a notch. I asked the floor nurse of Polly’s section (floor nurse #2) where Polly was. She told me that Polly had just been put to bed (it was around 7 p.m. Eastern time) and pointed me around the corner. I walked through another set of double doors (these doors were already open and did not need to be unlocked). Polly’s room, 132N, was on the right. At the entrance to Polly’s room, a woman in a wheelchair stared at the nameplates. She looked at me as if I was going to scold her and said, “Oh, I’m just looking at the names to see if it’s anyone I know.” I nodded my head and walked into the room.

 

I had seen Polly recently and already knew how thin she was. Laying in bed, she looked even thinner. Her eyes were shut and she was curling into and out of a fetal position, while talking out loud. From what I could tell from the words coming out of Polly’s mouth, there were several streams of conversations taking place. In one stream, a mother and her young daughter were talking to each other. In another stream, she was describing something she was seeing that I could not understand. In another stream, she was just mumbling. I stood by her bed for several minutes and listened to her, not knowing if I should speak because I couldn’t tell if she was in a dream state, in a state of delirium from drugs or wide awake. In any case, she did not know I was there so I looked at the pictures on the wall. The most touching picture was the one of Ralph and Polly from 1995 — they both looked very happy. I waited until my nerves could no longer take it and walked out (I almost ran out of the room). To calm myself down, I spent a few minutes talking with floor nurse #2 about the latest word on Ralph. She had not seen any of Polly’s family yesterday and did not know if the heart cath procedure was a definite thing; she knew that Ralph was very worried about Polly. I told her the heart cath was planned for this morning and asked her to pray for Ralph — she said she had been and would continue to do so.

 

After I left Polly’s section, I hurried to get…to get out of the next section but was blocked by a man in a stand-up wheelchair. He insisted on shaking my hand and was mumbling. Floor nurse #1 told me that he spoke only Spanish so I told the man, “Hasta manana”. He shook his head as if he wanted me to stay and talk with him. I nodded my head and repeated, “Hasta manana” and patted him on the shoulder. Floor nurse #1 gave me a smile of sympathy and pointed me to the exit. I punched in the keycode, opened the door and walked over to the elevator. When the elevator door opened, two women inside were as confused and nervous as I was and we could not determine which floor led to the building exit. The elevator moved to the third floor and a man stepped on who said he had been as confused as we were and had ridden the elevator up and down a few times himself. We figured out that the building exit was on the second floor.

 

We all stepped off the elevator with relief. I stopped to look at the birdhouse, which is like a glass aquarium except it has birds, mainly finches from what I could tell.

 

I got in the car and was ready to cry. I drove around Maryville some more and ended up at the old Kay’s ice cream store. I had a refreshing vanilla milkshake. I called my sister and told her about the experience. We decided that perhaps I shouldn’t tell Mom about the trip to Polly’s until after the outcome of Ralph’s surgery.

 

I can see why Ralph cries anytime he mentions Polly at Asbury Acres. I’m sure it was a tough decision to put her away, so to speak. I can also see why he’s able to get a full night’s sleep, if what I saw was Polly’s normal condition.

 

 

so, b, you’ve seen the world — what’s it all about? i feel like we’re just supposed to live our lives and hope we aren’t too much of a burden on others. but what’s the definition of a burden? if we do something for someone out of love for that person, no matter how much we suffer in the process, should that be considered having a burden placed on us by the loved one? no. then i guess we’re supposed to live our lives and hope we’ve generated enough love that others will want to take care of us at our worst. but what is love? love is many things to many people, of course, but in this case, love is the…the biochemical attraction that makes us go crazy when we’re not with the other person, that makes us do what it takes to keep that other person with us…a mutual attraction…a positive reinforcing codependency, of sorts. so why do some humans have this love for one other human and some do not? if we’re just here to procreate, then this love would be beneficial to the whole species (and seems to be so for other species, as well). why the disparity between members of our species? in the end, when i’m sitting in some nursing home pooping in my pants, will anything i have said really matter, even if i have said something that has benefited our species? after visiting my aunt and seeing the unnamed faces in the hallway, it sure didn’t feel that way. but that’s just me, of course, i always look for ways to feel depressed, a kind of euphoria that’s down instead of up, a kind of emotion that’s addictive in ways that are detrimental to my daily living, a habit i have to constantly ensure i’m not picking up again, like some kind of ex-druggie surrounded by pushers i have to keep saying no out loud while inside i’m saying yes.

 

enough already, i have to get ready to go see A Mighty Wind.

 

– 28 May 2003

A detour

The collection of connected states of energy we call our nervous system — central, peripheral, etc. — combined with our civilisation, lead to remarkable differences between one member of our species and another.  And yet, similarities, too.

Some live with disabilities.

Some cannot.

Recently, in the news, I learned of the death of a manic comedian/actor named Robin Williams, the main guest on the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson the one time my parents saw the show live back in the 1970s.

As he pointed out, with his bright, manic humour, Robin was accompanied by symptoms in his nervous system we call depression, debilitatingly so, a condition that some clowns display up front, such as Henry Fonda and Emmett Kelly below, both dressed as “Weary Willie.”

Henry Fonda and Emmett Kelly Dressed as Clowns

Or my favourite, Red Skelton, the “Clown Prince”:

Red-Skelton-Clown-Prince

I do not know Robin’s thoughts in the days, hours and minutes before he died.  Imagination speaks for itself.

Robin-Williams-as-clown

But I do understand that when we are comfortable inside, when we have met our needs, and sated our wants, we often don’t seek change — perhaps that’s what our global culture is reaching for: a society in which recombinant technology meets our needs and anticipates our wants, no matter how outlandish, the mythical land of Cockaigne:

Pieter_Bruegel_d-Cockaigne

Until then…we’ll keep looking for answers, such as the mysterious missing link, while we ponder a famous entertainer’s untimely stage exit.

I’ll let a few chapters of a novella titled “Passing the Time” say the rest in this blog entry, in tribute to Robin Williams and others who suffer the incurable affliction we barbarically call depression (maybe Robin just needed a few leeches to drain and cleanse his blood vessel system?):

Chapter 1: The Cuckoo’s Nest, Revisited

Karen and I sat in the lobby next to the hospital admitting desk, staring at each other, anxiously holding hands, squirming in our seats, and wondering what they would look like. I expected to see the guys in white coats coming around the corner any minute. I had just admitted myself as a patient in the psychiatric unit of the hospital and had visions of the state mental institutes of the 50s. I could just see them strapping me to a stretcher and taking me away from all I knew and feared.

While we sat waiting, I pondered. What brought me here? So what if I had thought about suicide? All intelligent people face death sometime during their lives. I had not carried the thought to fruition, after all, so why did “they” (that ominous sounding word that strikes fear in the masses) want to lock me up in some dungeon for the insane? I knew I was different but crazy? No way!

We waited for what seemed like hours. Waiting, waiting, waiting . . . waiting forces me, when I can’t find anyone around me to look at, to go over the past, as if somehow I could correct any mistakes I had made. “I failed to kill myself today,” I thought, and reviewed the scene when Karen had called me earlier in the day.

“Hello. This is Lee,” I said in my businesslike voice, the voice I used to answer calls at the office.

“Darling,” Karen blurted, “do you have a gun?”

I hesitated. Do I go ahead with my plans or let my family pull me out of another of my suicide attempts?

“Yes.”

My wife started crying over the phone. “I’ll . . . I’ll have to get call you back,” she sobbed. “Don’t do anything until I call you back,” she said and hung up.

I looked over to my briefcase and thought about its all important contents – an Off Duty .38 Special – how I had planned to shoot myself at work with a note beside me that read, “Another sacrifice for the company.” Was I brave enough to go ahead and shoot myself before my wife called back? Just how important, how strong, how meaningful, was my relationship with my wife compared to the emotional turmoil I was facing? I loved my wife but was suffering this internal battle worth staying alive for her?

While I sat there trying to make a decision about eternal death versus eternal love, my wife called back.

“Darling, I’m coming to get you. I’ll be out front in five minutes.”


 

Chapter 2: Is This Why I’m Here?

Hi there. While nobody seems to be watching or listening, I’ve got to tell you something and you’ve got to promise not to tell anyone because anything can and will be used against you if they want to, you know what I mean? You don’t know me but I think I know a little about you. I can tell you’re curious (why else would you be here?) so I’ll tell you about myself. My name’s Lee. I work for a sewer company. In case anyone asks you, I’m not really here.

Right now I’m sitting at the dinner table in our three-bedroom corporate apartment near Atlanta. It’s about one o’clock in the morning and several folks from our corporate office in Huntsville, AL, are sleeping here tonight. Carter, our resident alien from Deddington, Oxfordshire, England, and sometime engineer, sleeps in a bedroom in front of me. Terrence, my boss and our senior vice president in charge of domestic operations, co-occupies the bedroom behind me with a colleague of mine, Capitula, who hails from Stuttgart, Germany.

Capitula used to work in the international operations group until the Big Layoff and a close relationship with Terrence brought her to our group. You could pick her out in a crowd — manila blonde hair, strong jaw, sharp nose and slender body — the near-perfect embodiment of the Aryan race. I only mention this because I grew up in the South and we still are surprised when we see interracial relationships. By the way, did I mention that Terrence is African-American/black (actually a deep brown)?

Yeah, Terrence and Capitula go way back. They’re ol’ drinkin’ buddies from the early days of our company, when beer bashes were held regularly, starting every Friday at 4:27 p.m. in the front lobby, back when the founder’s sons would just as soon give you a few grams of coke as they would a cash bonus for sticking around with the company through the next crisis. The early 80s were good to all of us who survived. Despite the maturing of our company and elimination of on-site parties, Capitula still drinks pretty hard, coming in late most mornings with a lame excuse about a flat tire or heavy traffic and scenting the hallways with her breath trail of yesterday’s corn mash and fermented potatoes. Terrence, a wackaholic (you know, the wacko who drinks all day and works all night) usually has a barstool warmed up at the local sports bar for Capitula when five ‘o clock rolls around. If they aren’t closing the place down then they’re escorting the other to the nearest out of the way hotel which spouses aren’t supposed to know about. You know what they say…the spouse is always the first to know but the last to find out.

I’ve never heard the full story of Peyton Place but the author must have modeled the community after my company. Every time I walk down the hall I hear about someone who’s slept around or stolen someone else’s boyfriend. There’s no denying we humans are fickle. We try out new lovers like a new pair of shoes or Baskin Robbins’ flavor of the month. Don’t like Ol’ Dependable? Try out Miss Flirtatious or Mister English-Accent. Yes, even Carter, our quiet design engineer, was involved with another employee’s wife, who was also a secretary with the company before the Big Layoff. Speaking of nepotism, I often wonder where nepotism stops and incest begins at our company…well, that is, before the Big Layoff changed all that.

I suppose all companies go through phases. Being a sewer company, we’re closely tied to the environmental movement. Our company was founded in 1975 by an ex-NASA employee who took a space-age measuring device and turned it into a sewer diagnostic tool. Phase One of our company you might call Getting Our Ears Wet. We went from project to project, getting cash advances from one customer to pay off our creditors so we could borrow more money to build equipment for our next customer. Oftentimes we went without pay just so we could stay in business. Instead of paychecks we got expensive pieces of paper that the president called stock (a fancy word for IOU in those days). We figured the stock got better use wiping our butts than saving our ass so we referred to it as TP. Little did we know then that that acronym would change from Toilet Paper to Tons of Profit.

Phase Two was ushered in with the Reagan era and the near abolishment of the EPA (our major source of funding). If we went hungry in the 70s we starved ourselves in the early 80s. Every dollar we made went to the party-till-we-die fund. Then, just when we thought the end was in sight, municipalities suddenly saw us as the godsend to save them construction costs through the use of sewer diagnostics. We couldn’t grow fast enough.

By this time the founder’s sons were fully involved with the company. They convinced their father to go to Phase Three, the Corporate Buyout. In the mid-80s, the founding family decided the only way to stay alive in the business was to get an influx of cash. They spent a few years doing longterm financial planning and finally decided in late 1987 to approach investors about an IPO (initial public offering), about two weeks before Black Tuesday, the stock market crash that ended the decade of big spending. Instead, they held on until 1989 and sold 80 percent of the company stock (all privately held) to a Scandinavian firm famous for its grocery store chain and shipping business. All the employees who had held on to their stock became nouveau rich sewer gods. The lucky ones had enough stock saved up to retire. The rest of us got enough cash to buy new cars or improve our homes.

Like cows in a slaughterhouse pen who sense something is wrong, we all dreaded the day when the corporate owner bought out the remaining 20 percent of the company. Phase Four we now call the End of the Family Business. Up until then, we still called the founder Papa (a term the old Bulgarian enjoys to hear when you shout it at him above his deafness). After the full buyout, though, we saw less of the founder and noticed that the new owner was sending lots of financial consultants down from New York to check our financial status and having our books audited annually by Price-Waterhouse. Not that we had anything to fear. We had gone from a 20 million dollar company in 1989 to a 40 million dollar company in 1994, doubling our worth in five years. Unfortunately, as sales grew so did our expenses.

Enter Phase Five, the Big Layoff. Until a few months ago, our president was the eldest son of the founder. Although he had graduated from Stanford with a degree in drama and was more suited to acting than to leading, he provided the right projecting-voice corporate look for our company while most of our competitors still looked like a mom-and-pop operation. He just didn’t know how to run a company. When he could no longer control our rising overhead, our savvy Swedish owner brought in the big guns to clean up the place. At first, we had an interim financial advisor who reviewed our budgets and business plans in detail. When he could only identify the problems and not get our president to resolve them, along came the introduction of Phase Five. A memo came out saying our president would report to the new vice chairman of the company, a guy who had turned around many a dying company and earned the reputation as a team builder and hatchet man (otherwise known as the guy who says, “my way or the highway”). We knew we were in trouble when our president announced he was still in charge, kinda like Alexander Haig, you know, making a fool of himself before a multitude of those who knew better.

A week in the making, the Big Layoff occurred during a sabbatical the founding family was taking in the jungles of Australia. The Monday of that week, the halls were ablaze with the talk of big changes coming. On Tuesday, a list of potential layoffs was floating down the halls. Then, Wednesday, the layoffs began. By Friday afternoon the dust had settled and 15 percent of the corporate office and 25 percent of the international operations group were gone. I lost only one colleague in my group (to make way for Capitula, of course). She was completely shocked because she was one of the ones to get a copy of the original layoff list and knew she was safe. Little did she know she didn’t have the right credentials to “keep up the good work.”

I suppose there’s something to be gained from all this. It pays to have friends in the right places, that’s for sure. Of course, it also pays to keep one’s mouth shut so do me a favor and don’t tell anyone about this. The walls have ears and if anyone finds out that I’ve been giving away family secrets…well, if the tension around here doesn’t kill me, something (or someone) else will. Remember, I did you a favor. I’ve satisfied your curiosity and kept you entertained for a few minutes. I think your silence is a small price to pay.

 

Chapter 3: The Big House

Karen and I looked up. A big man in a green hospital outfit, the kind orderlies wear, came around the corner and looked at us. Karen and I looked at each other and asked each other with our eyes, “Is HE the one?” My heart sped up as if I was biking up Mt. Mitchell. The man walked past us to help an elderly woman into a wheelchair. I breathed a sigh of relief but my heart kept pounding.

My blood pressure had already risen after having to see my parents at home while I packed my bag for a stay at the hospital, a stay of which I had no idea about the length nor why I was going. My parents had come to our house to celebrate the 4th of July and spend a few quiet days with us while they were in town. When I walked into the house, I looked at my parents and saw two mourning doves cooing with remorse. At that moment, my heart started pounding and my face flushed red as my blood pressure increased. I had not prepared for this scene; it was not in my script of the play I had created in my mind, “The Death of Lee Colline: The Tragic Story of a Middle-Class Boob.” I loved my parents but had already put them out of my mind in preparation for a nonemotional suicide.

I had attempted suicide before but had always been stopped by the emotional side of me, the child who threw temper tantrums when he didn’t get what he wanted and knew that death would take away all his chances for getting more toys. This time, strangely enough, the child in me had taken control and told the rational side – the adult – that the suicide preparation was just a game and not something to take seriously. The child told the adult to handle my emotions and hide them from the child, who had no control of my emotions and only used them to make a fuss. To help the child, the adult filed away my emotions in a locked cabinet in a locked room in a locked building in a crowded city and threw the keys into an unfathomable ocean. How was the adult to know that I would survive? He went along with the child because, as I would discover during my stay in the psychiatric unit, the adult was passive and had not been trained in assertiveness. Though responsible for his daily actions, the adult let others make decisions for him.

I knew other sides, shades, or personalities within me would surface and I did not want them to show up while I was at the hospital. Instead of showing my real self (which I wasn’t sure existed), I put on my clownlike face – a mask of sorts which gave me the air of a sarcastic comedian or a clown with a happy face and derogatory demeanor – and pretended everything was “hunky dory.” I had practiced the role of clown for 10 or 12 years and knew exactly how to treat myself and others. Everything becomes funny or part of an inside joke. I always carry this mask with me and use it whenever I become tense in a situation.

“I suppose,” Karen began, trying to fill the void, to keep her mind clear of unwanted thoughts and her fear of loneliness and loss she knew would feel during my hospitalization, “I won’t see you for a day or two while they run the tests on you. Didn’t Dr. Forrest say he’d keep you overnight?”

“I don’t know,” I mumbled, trying to sound cheerful but unable to hide my fear of the unknown. A wave of anxiety ran through me like a current of electricity. I just wanted to see the men in white coats. I wanted to get on with the psychiatric evaluation the doctor promised me and be cured.

Several people walked up to the admitting desk, giving me an opportunity to watch them and learn more about what other people do.

A young couple walked up, the woman obviously pregnant. They smiled as they answered questions for the nurse. I wondered if they realized they had a new life ahead of them. Had they played different scenarios in their minds about the mistakes they would make with their child? The firstborn child always has to put up with the ignorance of new parents with their baby care books in one hand and a bottle of warm formula in the other. Every move the child will make will be analyzed by the parents. Every bowel movement will be looked at, every wiggle of the toes will be compared to statistical evidence, and every noise out of the mouth will be listened to with anticipation until the parents recognize a word in their native language. How prepared will they be when this new life doesn’t speak English or run across the room?

An elderly man in a blue flannel shirt and beige polyester pants walked up. He talked to the nurse for a few minutes, kicking his dirty right boot against the desk, his face terse and upset. He pointed behind Karen and me. We looked back to see an equally elderly woman bent over in a chair, her face racked with pain, managing a smile for her husband and clutching a red vinyl handbag to her faded, flower print dress. I looked at her for a few seconds and saw a woman who remembers cold walks in the winter back and forth along the path to the outhouse, ants in the sugar jar in the pantry and the cry of the rooster as she got up out of bed this morning. She probably sat there, worried her husband wouldn’t show the nurse their insurance card, hoping they could stop the pain, and wishing her children were here with her.

I turned back around to Karen. I smiled at her, and she returned the smile with a soft, loving look. We both were thinking the same thing, wondering if we would end up like the man with his pregnant wife or like the elderly couple who only had each other for support.

“Are you Lee Colline?” a voice asked beside me as I jerked around to look. A chunky, black woman, wearing a faded T-shirt and tan slacks, stared at me with a questioning look and a smile. She looked like I felt: a clown caught in a room full of serious people.

“Yes.”

“Hi there, then. I’m Betty. I’m your case worker.”

“Oh,” I responded with relief, “I expected a couple of big guys in white coats.”

“We’re nothing like that. In fact, they tell us to wear our street clothes. Is that your bag?”

I nodded. “By the way, this is my wife, Karen.”

They greeted each other.

Betty continued her introduction. “As you’re probably aware, you won’t be staying in the regular part of the hospital. Our psychiatric unit is called Dune Timbers. We don’t have bars on the doors and we’re not a hotel but we’ll try to make you as comfortable as possible.”

“Thanks,” I said wryly.

“Well, if you’re ready, we can go on upstairs.”

“Sure . . . oh, can my wife go with us?”

“Of course. We’re aren’t running a prison here.”

I blushed. I liked the way Betty reacted to my comments. She seemed to have a sense of humor a bit out of the ordinary and made me feel more at ease. At the same time, I wondered how much of her reaction to me was due to professional observation. She carried a clipboard and manila folder with her. I imagined she had already seen my chart or had been briefed that I had attempted suicide and was told to treat me carefully. In any case, she was doing a good job and I appreciated this initial contact at the hospital. My memories of hospitals have always been of people dying and nurses in white outfits. Sometimes I get those confused with my memories of nursing homes that always smell of urine and are filled with old people wandering through the halls.

I was scared. As we walked to the elevators, I was consumed with fear. What if they dissect my mind and can’t put it back together? What if they find out how crazy I am and give up and throw me in a state hospital or torture me with electroshock treatment? I knew as soon as I got the chance, I was going to escape. I was not going to let the doctors tear me apart at their leisure. I just wanted to walk in for a psychiatric evaluation like any normal person goes to a doctor for a physical examination and walk out the same day. I didn’t want a mind biopsy. I still wanted to kill myself before they found out. “Find out what?” I asked myself rhetorically ‘cause I knew I didn’t have an answer. I only knew I wouldn’t have control of my life in the hospital and was scared, more than any other time in my life, of what lay ahead.

As we left the elevator and walked down a hallway, I looked around me and noticed how everything seemed to be in a movie, like nothing was real, and I was experiencing a new three-dimensional holographic projection. Two women dressed in bright house clothes floated by me, their voices trailing behind them like ribbons in the breeze. My face felt like a mask and I held my wife’s hand through an invisible glove. Betty was talking to me and I was answering, or at least my body was answering because I was talking small talk but not realizing what I was saying, while at the same time I was recording a silent movie around me. I thought I knew what was going to happen to me but now . . . my thoughts wandered back and forth . . . should I still try to kill myself at the next available chance? What was Betty trying to tell me? Should I tell my wife I don’t love her anymore because she smothers me?

I noticed we were walking through the maternity ward and laughed silently at the thought of the “baby” my psychiatrist wanted me to delivery. He suddenly took the form of an ancient priest in my mind, trying to exorcise the angry beast within me, chanting and wailing, splashing water on my face, waving crosses over my body as he asked the devil within to leave. Oh, I knew there was something evil inside me, some creature that wanted to control my body and wreak havoc on the world but did I believe I could be healed by a human being? I had no God to save me or a religion to comfort me, just the mystification of the wonders of modern science and its miraculous cures. Unfortunately, the mystification had been fading over the years as I discovered the lack of knowledge we humans have in the 1990s. All this talk of modern medicine and we still have no cure for the common cold!

I wanted to blame somebody for something but what? I couldn’t even figure out what was going on around me, let alone inside me. I was scared somebody would wake me and I would really be dead, that the afterlife is just a series of mental recreations of life on Earth for those who had not lived a complete human life and I was eternally damned to dream of life on Earth. Somehow, though, my wife, Betty, the nurses and patients we passed by – they all seemed to go along with this dream. No one was reaching out to touch the real me, just my apparition.

Betty stepped up to unlock a set of double doors. In each door was a small window with wire mesh embedded within the glass just like elementary schools from the 50s always seem to have. I cringed. What was I about to enter? As Betty fumbled for her keys, I looked through the windows to see a hallway with walls made of glass. The floors and glass looked clean and sterile. Sunshine bounced up and down the hall, laughing at me, pointing its sharp, hot finger at me and daring me to hide behind my shadow. I expected the guys in white would be hiding behind the doors to take me away. Betty pulled a handle and let Karen and me through one of the doors. I looked behind the door and only saw a ball of dust in the corner.

“Welcome to Dune Timbers,” Betty announced cheerfully.

On a wall at the end of the hallway was a sign that read, “Dune Timbers: A Center for Effective Living.”

I laughed.

Betty turned around to look me in the eye. “What’s so funny?” she asked with a hint of caution.

“Oh,” I answered, “nothing really. I just didn’t expect to get hit with a euphemism as soon as I entered the place.” I pointed to the wall.

“Funny, I’ve never really noticed the sign.”

Karen smiled nervously and squeezed my hand. I could tell she was afraid I would say something to excite the nurse. I just jaunted down the hall, daring the sunshine to take my shadow away, knowing the nurse could never hear what I was thinking, since even my wife was deaf to my silent monologues. Still, hospitals have a way of making you feel naked.

Betty checked us through another locked door and led us to a hospital room, room 304. Betty put my bag on the hospital bed nearest the door while I quickly glanced around the room. I looked over at the other bed.

“Are all the rooms semiprivate?”

“No, but if you have a problem with this one . . .”

“Oh, I don’t mind. I just didn’t expect this. That’s all.”

“What did you expect, dear,” Karen asked, while fumbling for a chair to support herself. “I kinda like the place.”

“Yes, well . . . I don’t know. I . . . uh, I didn’t know what to expect.”

“Lee, let me tell you about this place while you’re getting used to it. Your bed can be controlled by the buttons on either side of the bed. The sink on the other wall is for both of you to share, although it doesn’t look as if you have a roommate right now. In the bathroom, you’ll find the toilet and another sink. Next to the toilet is an emergency button. You’ll also find one right there on the wall next to your bed. If for any reason you feel you are in trouble, pull the string. A light will come on in the nurse’s station and someone will come assist you as soon as possible.”

“Can I test it right now?”

“If you really want to, go ahead, but I would rather you not pull it.”

“Okay. Go on with the intro.” I was beginning to feel smug.

“Anyway, I’m gonna have to ask you some questions that may seem ridiculous to you but we need the information to begin our evaluation of you. First of all, I need to take your vital signs. Please roll up your sleeve.”

Betty dropped her clipboard on the bed and walked out of the room. I turned to Karen and breathed a sigh. All the thoughts and activities of the day had made me anxious. I could feel the muscles in my neck were tight and getting tighter.

“I’m not sure if I can take this.”

“Oh, darling,” Karen whispered with tears in her voice, “you’ll be fine.”

“How about you?”

“Don’t worry about me. Let’s get you well first.”

I turned from Karen and sat down on the bed, crossed my right leg under my left and relaxed in a stooped position. I noticed the bedspread and pillow had Brownsburg Hospital stamped all over it as if a kleptomaniac would be discouraged from stealing them. A knot formed in my stomach.

“Well, I can see you’re getting used to the place already,” Betty exclaimed as she came back in the room with a stethoscope and blood pressure gauge. “Most patients pace around a little before they decide to sit down.”

“I’m tired.”

“Yes, I expect you would be. Let’s check your blood pressure, if you don’t mind.” Betty wrapped the Velcro sleeve around my biceps and began pumping. With each pump, I could feel my blood pressure increase. When she slipped the cold amplifier of the stethoscope under the sleeve, I nearly jumped, my nerves were so bad.

“One-forty over ninety.”

“Really?” I asked with honest surprise. “I expected it to be worse.”

Betty slipped the blood pressure gauge off my arm and set it down on the bed. “You might as well get comfortable. I’ve got a lot of questions I have to ask you.” She picked up the clipboard, fumbling through some mimeographed forms.

I looked down at my hands in my lap. They were clasped together loosely like two fern leaves in a forest, growing closer together everyday, rocking in the wind like two dancers on a stage, their movements timed to violins hidden inside speakers hanging from the ceiling. I held up my left hand and flexed the fingers. Computer signals ran from my brain, down my neck, through my shoulder and arm, shooting through the wrist into the fingers – “Bend the first digit of the forefinger, bend the second digit of the forefinger” – while signals came back saying, “Digit one bent, digit two bent.” How did that computer get inside my mind? Was I so crazy that I couldn’t recognize the operations of my own body or was my mission to Earth coming to an end and I was slowly letting go of the human host?

“Okay, let’s run a reality check.”

“What,” I mumbled, looking up at Betty.

“What’s your name?”

“Bob Jones. What’s yours?”

“Okay, look Lee. Just answer the questions for me and we can get this over with, okay?”

“Yeah, sure, whatever you say.”

“What’s your name?”

“Lee Perry Colline.”

“What day is it?”

I looked over to Karen and shrugged. “Hell if I know.”

“What day do you think it is?”

“July 3rd?”

“Good.” Betty checked off a box. “What do you think brought you here?”

“What do you mean? Karen picked me up and drove me over here in her car.”

“You really must be very nervous.”

My eyes widened in anger while I maintained my clownlike composure. “What do you expect from me? I just want to have my psychiatric evaluation and get it over with.”

“Well, Lee,” Betty began, “we can’t officially start the evaluation until tomorrow but part of our policy is to run a small check, something like a physical examination, when you enter Dune Timbers. We need to record your behavior patterns so we can inform the staff how you’re doing?”

“And what if I’m not ‘doing?’”

“I don’t know what you mean.”

“I meant what I said.” I paused and took a deep breath. “Oh, just forget it. Get on with your questions.”

Betty smiled weakly and rolled her eyes. “Let’s see . . . hmm. Okay,” she said while checking off some more boxes and nodding her head. “Now, if you will just tell me in a few words what you think is your reason for coming here.”

Karen touched my elbow and I jerked. “Sorry, dear,” she whispered.

“I’m still not sure what you mean.”

“What we’re looking for is a brief description, in your words, why you’re here.”

I looked at Karen. “My wife and doctor thought it’d be best.”

“Why?”

“Cause I was contemplating suicide.”

“Uh-huh,” Betty mumbled, as she scribbled more notes.

“I’m just not feeling well right now.”

“Why do you want to kill yourself?”

“Did I say I wanted to kill myself?” I flared my nostrils in anger. Didn’t they realize who they were dealing with? Betty acted like she was dealing with another suicide attempt. I wanted to tell her that I was tired of this body but she’d only ask more questions. I looked at my wife again – maybe I was just tired of living with her, day in and day out, without any intellectual conversations – she raised her eyebrows and gave me a questioning smile. I watched my hand reach over and grab hers. What was happening to me? It was beginning to feel like the time a friend of mine had freaked out on mushrooms.

. . .

Chapter 11: Quiet Time Room

Someone knocked on the door. “Excuse me, Lee, but according to your records, you were supposed to take this medicine an hour ago. Could I ask you to sit up to take it?” the nurse asked me kindly.

“I don’t want to get up,” I responded wanly, rolling away from the door.

“We’ve let you lay in bed for four hours now. I’m afraid that you’ll have to join us sometime and I would love to see you out with the other patients during my shift.”

“The doctor said I could have some peace and quiet today. He didn’t say anything about being interrupted for medicine.”

“Well, Dr. Forrest probably didn’t tell you a lot of things because he knew you have a lot on your mind. Tell you what. I’ll give you a few minutes to wake up while I finish checking on a couple of other people on the hall. How does that sound?”

“Dandy,” I sarcastically mumbled.

As the nurse walked out of the room, I crawled back into my mind, where no one could get me and I could finish what I started, ceaselessly punishing myself for choosing a career that valued my automaton talents over my artistic creativity, reaching a sort of death of self because I didn’t really want to choose death of my body (the latter was only a symbolic, philosophical expression that my family and the sterile, antiseptic medical professionals couldn’t understand). I’m a writer, for God’s sake, not a murderer!

 

Chapter 12: Forever Lost

I will always be attracted to someone like you. At the same time I will be repelled by your inadequacies, your humanness. I sit down to write, though, and I only think of you, you who is a reflection of me, a human, yet never completely like me because you are human. How can I ask you to be perfect?

If you stood in front of me right now, I would consume you like a can of soft drink, sucked dry and discarded. You would only provide temporary relief from my thirst and then I would want another. I consume you now, burning my thoughts of you to fuel the writing machine within my head.

You have lived a thousand years in one moment. You blinked your eyes and Rome fell. In one heartbeat, your children gave birth to a hundred generations. Yet . . . yet, yet, yet . . . yet you have one life to share with me, one life of remorse and forgiveness, regrets and love, a life filled with pain unbearable to look at. I want to have all of your pain, not because I want to relieve your burdens but to squeeze them in my hand and watch stories drip out one by one. I am mad with desire.

And don’t think you can run away from me. Once I have reached you, and you know I have, you will always cart me along with you like a monkey on your back. I won’t weigh you down but you will feel my presence all the same. You’ll cringe your neck muscles every time my hot breath creeps down you like a tentacle, feeling for a limb or appendage to grasp. You’ll relax your muscles when I whisper in your ear that I love you. You will love me and hate me.

I never worry about losing you because you are always there for me. Your name is different this time but I don’t care. You will give me what I want – a fleeting moment of humanity – and then I reduce you and our relationship to mere words. Don’t underestimate the humility of words, either. If you think you can escape unscathed then you have not lived. After all, life is painful.

I never lose you but I will miss you when I have used you and our shared moment of humanity is gone. Even now, I sense the emptiness inside of me swell up and beg for escape. I have to fill the emptiness or I have no choice but to die. I will not allow myself to die so I must take a part of you.

I cannot allow myself to live. Other people deserve to live their lives without fear of people like me, a leech.

“I believe we’ll have to commit him indefinitely this time,” the examining doctor told her. “He seems unable to separate fantasy from reality.”

“Can you snap him out of this? He still has moments where he seems normal.”

“Only time will tell.”

Time stands still at the corner, waiting for the bus. Cliché walks up and asks how long Time has been waiting. “Seems like forever,” he says, shaking his head. Cliché decides to walk on, he has had enough of the watered down years of standing on street corners and telling tall tales.

In the end, we’re all clichés for living.

I cannot help myself. I reject you with one sweep of my hand because I can never have you. I have nothing and hate myself for thinking any different. I am but a collection of entropy states swirling together.