I arrived at this hospital yesterday. When checking in, I told them I had been feeling suicidal. Someone put me in a wheelchair and brought me up to the 4th floor: the psychiatric ward. Someone else went through my belongings and found a pair of draw-string pants and pulled out the thin, cotton strip that would cinch around my waist. Did they really think I would kill myself with that?
Then, I was shown to my room with a single bed, the only window looking out at a drab grey building. I was told someone would check in on me every fifteen minutes. Instead of this unnerving me, I felt a great sense of relief. I felt safe for the first time in what seemed a long time.
The next day, I meet the other patients. There’s Andrea, who has obviously either been here for some time, or has come here before. She shows me “the ropes”: where to do laundry, where to shower, what time meals are. She rooms with Jasmine, who appears to be about Andrea’s age and it’s clear they have formed a friendship. One time, I hear a commotion, so I poke my head out of my room. Jasmine is in a wheelchair and Andrea is pushing her hard and fast down the corridor. They are both laughing and whooping it up and I find myself smiling a much-needed smile.
Then there’s Oscar with his droopy mustache and shuffling walk, who hangs out often with the waif-looking Toby; the two of them often having private conversations.
And then there’s Henry, who is wall-eyed and Asian, whose black, untended hair stands straight up. He can’t bear to look anyone in the eye and his whole body language is apologetic. He exudes both sweetness and confusion.
Victor is the only patient I am afraid of. He exhibits that kind of behavior that you see on the street that you want to avoid. He stands in a corner and argues with someone – someone the rest of us can’t see. Sometimes his voice becomes louder, turning to rage. Because I am so very anxious, and because there often seems to be no orderlies around, my fear escalates. I wring my hands; will he become violent? Will he unleash his violence on someone here? Me, even?
The other patients and I keep our distance from him. We all, excluding Victor, gravitate to one another, forming a kind of short-term family, while he remains a loner. I don’t know about the others, but I want it to remain that way.
But on my third day here, something changes that.
We are all gathered in the community room, including Victor. We take our places – Victor in the corner arguing, the rest of us sitting around the table, loosely interacting.
The TV is on, as usual. Today, someone has put in the DVD “Ghost”, which we look up at occasionally. Then the famous scene comes on with Demi Moore at the potter’s wheel, while Patrick Swayze comes up from behind, puts his arms around her, his hand joining hers. Then the familiar song, “Unchained Melody”, by The Righteous Brothers starts up, enhancing the scene.
Suddenly, Victor stops arguing. He turns from his corner and walks towards us and looks at the screen. He listens for a second, then opens his mouth and starts singing. His voice is full. His voice is tender. His voice is full of feeling. He knows every word, and every word is pitch-perfect. His gaze, usually hard and glazed over, becomes bright and clear, his blue black face is beatific and glows with an inner light. He is angelic.
The rest of us watch him, our jaws dropping. We are transfixed. We can’t believe what is happening. We know we are experiencing some sort of miracle.
And then the song stops – and when it does, Victor’s demeanor changes, and he turns away and goes back to his corner, resuming his argument.
For a full moment, no one says anything. We are stunned into silence. For a full moment we drop our roles (and our guard) and fall into that silence.
And then the moment passes. Patrick Swayze removes his arms from Demi Moore. Andrea and Jasmine look at each other and giggle. Oscar and Toby exchange glances. I bite my nails, my nerves returning. Henry hangs his head, as if embarrassed to be alive.
∗ ∗ ∗ ∗ ∗ ∗
Now, looking back at that incident, I realize many things. The first, most obvious realization is that music has the power to heal, if only for a few minutes. Everybody knows this, to a degree. If I’m feeling funky, I can, for example, listen to Al Green’s “Belle” and my whole mood shifts. When his beautiful, soulful voice enters the room and for some time afterwards, I feel uplifted, changed.
The second realization is that for as long as “Unchained Melody” lasted, Victor was no longer “other” – someone to be feared and avoided. For those few minutes, he became a part of our weird, dysfunctional family. He became a part of us, and we were a part of him.
For years afterwards, I thought about that incident and wondered about Victor: How did he get that way? Why was he so angry? Was it purely a “chemical imbalance”? What was his life like before he came to the hospital? Did he live on the streets? Does he now? Did he ever fall in love, have a family?
Of course, I don’t know the answers to these questions. I only know he is my brother of sorts. I know his metamorphosis made me believe in miracles. I know I want beauty to be always a part of his life.
And, wherever he is today, I hope he is singing.
Unchained Melody by The Righteous Brothers/Produced by Philles Records (1965)
Belle by Al Green (producer, 1977)
∗ ∗ ∗ ∗ ∗ ∗
If you think you are
not the drunk at the post
office reeking of alcohol
and loneliness, you got
another thing coming.
Pain is pain.
Nobody wakes up one day
and decides to be homeless
and carry around a bottle.
What happens in that space
between the precious baby
and the stumbling man?
If there’s one thing I know,
even though at times it
may seem otherwise,
is that there is no such
thing as “us” and “them”,
and until we realize that
there will be no peace.
So lend a hand, a smile,
some money, sign a petition,
say a prayer, tip higher
if you can.
Each act helps us yield
to the simple truth that
there is no separation
between me and you.
No one is going
to come along
and save us from our
own undoing but ourselves,
of each other, each of us
a part of the holy web.