Here’s the thing I want you to remember: forgetting is everything. It’s not about memory. Memory is a bear trap. It’s that simple, really. No need to write a book about it. But I will anyway. Because sometimes the conclusion of a process does not do justice to the process itself. Just as a scar cannot adequately tell the tale of a wound.
I arrived at the Fallbrooke Mental Health Clinic in the fall of 2012, with a journal in one hand and a bible in the other. I had an athletic bag filled with sweats, shorts, t-shirts, and a few pairs of jeans slung over my shoulder, and beyond that, nothing. As a man, I arrived as close to zero as possible. Empty pages of empty dreams weighed in my left hand against the ravings of the prophets in the other. My sister-in-law had bought me the journal, my father had given me the bible, and in that way, I walked up the stairs of the front entrance accompanied mostly by words.
My mother was with me, too, stoic, looking dead with shame, but I hardly knew she was there. At that moment, I was beyond caring about anyone, or anything, anymore.
Here’s the thing: some of us make it through life just fine. We go to school, then build a career, along the way we find a spouse and then buy a home, and then we have kids and watch them grow. It’s a journey that is absent almost every notion of adventure. Maybe we change jobs a few times, or get a promotion and some stock options, and somewhere near the end we get a retirement package. Then? We go gray and read more, and watch the kids follow the same route, maybe by a different road or two—in their youth this is almost a pre-requisite—but by the time we die they, too, have settled. Not settled “in” mind you, but just plain “settled.”
Throughout our lives, we hear from many people that this is just the way things are. Our friends tell us so, and why wouldn’t they? They’re fighting in the same war we are, and in battle it’s no great secret that everyone wants someone else to raise the flag of surrender first. Our pastors tell us, and our teachers, our bosses, and our neighbors. At some point, everyone arrives at the same wasted opinion. Life is life. You live it, and then you die.
My problem was that one day I woke up and thought that this must be all wrong. Not in any deep way, but in a gritty, cold sort of way. I imagined what it would be like to taste the air of your last breath on this earth and what a horror it would be to do so while you knew it was happening. What now? How did it come to this? A cool bed. Arms at your side. Alone or with family all around, but alone either way because you were the one dying. And then I thought of all the people who pass away, each day, and it occurred to me that most of them are aware. They are. And those arrows of regret, dismay, and disbelief at what is finally happening to them are piercing them at all angles. As I type this. As you read it. It’s happening. To someone. Somewhere.
And what must that be like? What if you realized your life, though granted its few special and unique moments here or there, was pretty much—for lack of a better term—a repeat? A repeat of everyone else’s life. Not completely identical but along the same blueprint, so that when you died your soul fell headlong, be it into heaven or hell, alongside rows of so many others.
That morning, I awoke to find that these ideas had settled in my mind like quick-setting cement. I could barely move. Like a Kafkaesque insect. And then I gave up. I gave up arguing with my wife or trying to figure out my mother. I gave up wondering why my father had to die so young and so horribly, or why my kids would never get to know him and his laugh that could conjure up happiness like a spell. To my shame I must also admit that I even gave up on the kids too, which I think was the ultimate sin.
But at some point, you just get lost. Really, really lost. Maybe you’ve been there, too. Where that point on the horizon doesn’t seem to have any point at all anymore and you aren’t sure if you’re in your right mind, which you think might be a good sign because conventional wisdom says that most crazy people don’t know they’re crazy. I laugh at that notion now. I think of Seuss, with his wild shock of blond hair and the metered language he used to assert order in his world, and I know better.
But I digress. I’m sorry. I do that a lot.
My point was that right before the last straw, when you’re just beginning to slip, the blackness of each morning scares you and you fear for the children, for all that they will have to go through watching their father lose his mind, and then you begin to think that maybe you should just go someplace quiet, deep in the woods, and lose your mind all by yourself, like a dying animal, for the sake of the pack.
In that pit, if you are lucky enough, you see that there are consequences. Always consequences. My wife and I should never have married, but we did. We loved many things about each other but didn’t really love each other. We tried to bridge those gaps, first with the house, then with the dogs, and finally with the kids. But bridges are meant to connect places, not people. Abby and I would not have made it anyway, and me losing my mind made it easier for her to file the papers and still come out clean. No one blames anyone for leaving a crazy person, which is what she said and then did. Even I didn’t blame her.
The morning she took the kids with her was the night after I quit my job, the same job I had held across fifteen years and three promotions. The money was good, and the pay matched the degree on the wall that got me in the game. It bought us a nice home in a nice neighborhood with well-manicured lawns. It also gave me an untold number of sleepless nights and a hard count on a few ulcers, but the mortgage wasn’t going anywhere, so neither was I.
Or so we all thought. Until the boy on the street and the man who had been mean to him. The same man who I then nearly beat to death. Because I was tired of life being mean to everyone.
But, again, I digress.
Back to that slipping and that darkness again for a quick second. A bit of advice, if you’ve been there, or feel yourself headed there now. There is a point when you can actually feel it happening, the slipping. It’s almost an exterior feeling, but not. Like a sensory perception, but within. Graphically speaking, it’s almost like you feel your brain coming unglued from your skull. It moves around, like Jell-O in a mold, but not in a physical sense. No. It’s much worse than that. It moves emotionally. You can’t control yourself, your feelings, your attitude, your will. You move from joy to panic, from fear to elation, without method or reason. Suddenly, crying is no different from laughing. It’s as if you’re losing all the pre-programmed and pre-conditioned lessons not of your life, but of your instincts, of the very root essence of your ancestry as a human being, notions and ideas that have been passed down the gene pool for millennia simply begin to coalesce. There is no form to your thinking anymore, so you ride these violent, horrible waves from the darkest heights of hope to the burning light of utter despair, all hours at a time but seemingly seconds apart. Even now, looking back on it, I must shut my eyes and stop remembering for the chills it brings to the back of my neck.
That’s okay. We have time enough to talk about all that. To talk of the day I walked across the street to brutally beat the man who pushed over that crippled boy, and the days that preceded that moment, all of which led to my arrest and a court-ordered stay at Fallbrooke, and then all the magical and sorrowful and wonderful days that followed my arrival there.
I can still taste the rice pudding that was served up every Wednesday for lunch. I can still hear Seuss speaking in rhymes in our room at night, the sounds rolling gently through my ears, and the maniacal laughter of Dr. Cribs. I can remember Bob, and for him I remember Victoria. And then there are the French twins, reciting lines of Proust to one another to help put each other to sleep.
So many things to remember.
But most of all I remember her. I remember Cinel. When I close my eyes, I can still feel her hand, resting in my own, as we sat there in the library just off the lobby, in the place everyone called The Window. I can still feel her trembling because she was so excited over the news about her garden. The one they were going to let her plant and that was somehow going to help her live forever.
And then, of course, there was God. Of all my fellow patients that wandered the sacred, solitary, hopeless halls of Fallbrooke, He would be the one that made sure that I never forgot.
Or any of it.