Hospital Diaries: The Burning Man
When positioned squarely in the fourth decade of life, I found it necessary to fashion for myself a motto for living. It was twofold and I owed its birth to my Mom. After an unexpected relapse of Mom’s mental illness (of the paranoid schizophrenic variety) she needed me in a disconcerting, helpless sort of way. I was suddenly the Mother of a 79-year-old duckling. And she was my Mother. My nutty, but beautiful mother. The only mother I had.
I came from her body, from her heart. In some way shape or manner, I mysteriously passed through the gateway of her soul and flesh and blood and guts into this world. I am here and she was insane. Sometimes frighteningly so. Sometimes just pleasantly so. I have seen her in a spectrum of roles, from the doe eyed, terror-stricken woman trying to hide from our perfectly normal neighbors – trusting only me, me at age 5 and me at age twelve, me at age 16, and me at age 43. I have seen her look and talk like a criminal, wayward and delinquent with eyes signaling plans of something very naughty. Oh, she could be wily. She was wily as she flushed her medication down the toilet and got herself worked up into a psychotic mess. She locked the door to her room and called me – the one blessed soul in the universe that she trusted. She phoned me to get the police.
Tell them to bring a lot of strong men. Your father is murdering someone in the next room. I can hear him.
Dad was as skinny and brittle as an old twig that Mom could have snapped in half with her strong, psychotic, though mildly arthritic hands.
Which brings me to the first part of my motto. The part that I stole from the movie “Taxi Driver.” I waited nearly 30 years after its release before I could bring myself to watch it, because the previews of it scared me. I was afraid. The subject matter seemed too close to home, too similar, I imagined, to my Mother’s imaginings. I did not want anything to even remotely reinforce the terrible reality that existed for her and that she tried to convey to me at times. I spent many of my interactions with Mom trying to redirect her – redirecting, reorienting, and regrounding – for her sake and for my survival.
I took the first half of my motto from the taxi driver’s friend. In the movie, he’s the seasoned street philosopher who tries to cheer up the soon to be renegade and spinning off the edge taxi driver by telling him, We’re all screwed. More or less. I took surprising comfort in those words. I liked their fearless ring of truth. Tell it like it is, I thought. Don’t shy away from reality. We’re all screwed. More or less. Simple. Straight and to the point.
The motto came in handy in my work as an advocate in a hospital emergency room. One night I saw a man come in on a stretcher. He had been smoking his crack pipe, the police said, in an abandoned building. The man was screaming, Oh God, oh god, oh god! He was long, skinny and dark, except where the skin was falling off of him; there he was pink and red, muscled, bloody and raw. Blood was dripping from what was left of his fingertips. The image rivaled even my mother’s most macabre ramblings.
You heard we were coming, right? Tell me you got our call. The medics were desperate as they wheeled the man in quickly. Everyone flew into action. The man was screaming, though not as loudly as I thought he would. I was surprised, thinking his screaming would be worse, considering the look of him. He’s probably still high, someone commented.
This part of my motto was given to me by the universe. It happened in the waiting room of the same emergency department where I saw the burning man. I was working, and I was rounding the room, trying to give people some small encouragement, knowing there was no hope at the moment, knowing that the wait time was approaching four hours long, and that every bed was full, and that five ambulances were lined up at the door and that the nurses were doing their damnedest to do all they could do. They were screwed.
More or less. I went around talking to each person individually, as I knew I had plenty of time to do it. I came upon an elderly gentleman who was quite well dressed and also quite hard of hearing. I leaned in closely and began to tell him, in a loud voice how sorry I was for the long wait and how we were trying to get people in as fast as we could, but how we didn’t have a room for him just yet, and again how sorry I was. The old gentleman looked up at me, not having heard a word I had said, put his hand to his ear and said, Eh? What’s that you say? You mean to say that it’ll all be alright in a little while? And I could have kissed him right then and there, but instead I said, YES! Yes, sir! That’s EXACTLY what I was saying sir, it’ll be alright, in just a little while! And I felt the oasis of believing this with my whole heart, in the middle of that wretched, crowded place. It rippled out from the old gentleman and myself to the corners of that room. Somehow it all seemed better, in the gift of that instant.
I mutter this part of my motto regularly: silently to myself, out loud, when I am alone, afraid or nervous. I say it to my kids when they ask me hard questions that for the life of me I don’t have any answer for – at least not just yet. It served me well in those months after Mom’s relapse and slow but certain road to recovery, and it works especially well with its counterpoint, as so:
We’re all screwed. More or less. But it’ll be all right in a little while.