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)
“I’m sorry. I’ll be quick. I want to let you know a caregiver won’t be coming today, after all”.
“Oh. Who was on”?
“Liza”, I say.
And then I quietly leave the room, closing
the door gently behind me.
As I return to the living room, I reflect on our relationship. Cari and I met through a mutual friend. I had heard she had epilepsy, too, and I really wanted to know how she managed.
I had a lot of compassionate friends, but I knew it would be different if I met someone who dealt with the same issues that I did. I wanted to know: how did she cope? Did she have seizures often? What kind? Did she take meds? Were they under control?
We eventually got together and shared information, and shortly thereafter, became friends. The friendship turned into attraction and we fell in love. A year later, we exchanged vows in a wedding ceremony in our front yard.
When I knew we were falling in love, when I knew this was a relationship I wanted to pursue, I realized at some point we would need help (I had learned in the first few months of knowing her that she had other health challenges, including debilitating migraines, chronic sinusitis, and what eventually culminated in arthritis throughout her body, due to past injuries and years of playing sports. On top of that, she occasionally walked in her sleep!). At first, this help came from friends who were willing to step in when we were both down for the count, mostly to do needed errands. But I knew as we aged, we would need more assistance.
Evening is my favorite time of day, because it means that Cari will come out of her den and we’ll watch TV together for a couple of hours before the caregiver shows up for the night. One of our cats (Reggie) curls up between us as we watch our favorite programs. It’s family time for us.
I love this ritual. We may not talk much, but that doesn’t matter; her presence is really all I need. She gives me something that no one else can, because she understands what it is like to live with chronic conditions and because some of those conditions overlap.
Over the past 25 years, we have seen each other through seizures, pain, emotional ups and downs, struggles with doctors, changes in medications and even menopause. We have figured it out. We get each other. And that gives me incredible comfort, and that is what has kept us together.
There are times, though, when one of us becomes insecure and wonders: Am I too much for her?
Here’s my response when it’s she that feels this way:
Dieuwke, one of my nighttime caregivers, settles herself in the rocker next to my bed, as I sit up and pull the covers up around me. She tells me about her lunch date with her friend. I always like hearing her stories and look forward to them.
“She had this insight about herself”, Dieuwke says smiling. “She realizes she’s pretty tuned into the broader aspects of reality”, she spreads her arms out wide. “She meditates regularly for long periods of time, she can have all these revelations, and can be quite psychic. But the practical things in life, she’s not so good at”. She pauses and rearranges the blanket around her knees.
“You know, it’s funny – I was just thinking about the same sort of thing just today”, I start.
It seems to me that there are 2 realities going on at the same time. There’s this boundless dimension of reality you could say, and then there’s this concentrated, detailed reality. It’s hard for me to put into words”.
Dieuwke nods and looks at me intently as I sit up straighter.
I continue, “I can relate to your friend. I meditate, contemplate, I ponder about the Big Questions in life, but I have a harder time focusing on getting things done, even when I’m feeling ok”. I laugh “I can get these great ideas about what I want to write about in my blog and jot them down. But then the work of it is harder for me – the writing and re-writing, the editing. I’m not as fond of that as I am about the initial idea. I have to get my head out of the clouds and my feet on the ground”. I look at Dieuwke, who has a slight smirk on her face. She knows this about me already. She looks like she’s about to speak, but I put up my hand to stop her. “Wait a minute. There’s more”. Dieuwke raises her eyebrows.
I go on. “How does this understanding of the vastness of being help when we’re in the middle of great difficulty? When we feel like we can’t go on? When the pain, whether it’s emotional or physical, is just too much? For that matter, how does that kind of awareness help when we’re organizing our closet, cleaning out the fridge, or other kinds of chores”? I pause again. “I’ve been thinking awareness is kind of like a Maglite”.
“A Maglite”?, says Dieuwke skeptically. “Yes, a Maglite. If you twist it one way, the light becomes broad, like the vastness of the universe, but you can’t see the particulars around you. If you twist it the other way, you can’t see the bigger picture. To get things done in the physical world, you have to minimize the beam”.
Dieuwke tilts her head, considering this.
I continue. “Let me give you another example: I continue, “when I drive my car, I have to focus on driving, not the wonders of the Infinite, or else… I don’t know, I’d run off the road. Or, if I have to have a difficult conversation with someone, I can’t just focus on The Realm of Unlimited Possibilities – I have to say something”.
Dieuwke nods slowly (taking this in), but I see I need to say more for her to grok what I’m talking about.
“I remember one time when I had to go to my neurologist. I knew it was not going to be an easy visit, and that I needed to talk to him about a medication I was taking, so before I went into the office, I got very centered. When he came in, he already looked cross and in a hurry. I brought up how I wanted to handle my medication situation and he started to raise his voice, and even got a little angry. But, I immediately narrowed my focus – twisting the Maglite to one end, you could say – and stood my ground. I was not going to be intimidated! I was very, very tired that day and my stress level had been high or weeks, so I really had to use my energy wisely and not get distracted by his attitude, or veer off course. I didn’t back down, but I also didn’t retaliate. And although in the end we didn’t agree, and I had to go to another doctor who could better serve me, I felt good about how I handled myself. If the Maglite had been twisted the other way, I would’ve probably gotten scattered and spacey and maybe given in to how he wanted things to go down”.
Dieuwke responds, “Well… it’s like you said. The Maglite has the same power, whether you twist it this way or the other. It comes from the same source. My feeling is we have to be skillful about how we use that power. Every situation requires something different. It’s not really that there are 2 realities. There’s only one”. She nods, as if agreeing with herself. “Some people have an easier time in the physical world. Other people seem to have it easier in the unseen world. But, they’re both the same world, really – they just seem different. We all need a certain balance. Some people think that the physical world is pretty much all there is. Others pretty much dismiss the physical world, thinking it’s insignificant”.
I feel satisfied with this conversation and am starting to feel sleepy. I scooch down and get my entire body under the covers and position my pillow under my head.
“We’ve figured it all now, I’m sure of it. We finally got enlightened”, I say, and smile.
It’s about time”, Dieuwke says. We both chuckle and I close my eyes.
“In a real sense, all of life is interrelated. All persons are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be, and you can never be what you ought to be until I am what I ought to be. This is the inter-related structure of reality.” ~ Martin Luther King, Jr.