I learned, when I was too young to know, that life begins anew in the ashes of death, as it does in the harvesting practices on farms. I learned, when I was too young to know, that routine is part of the process. Routine builds tiny connections between people, and we don’t realize their impact on our lives until they are no longer. I also learned, before I was old enough to know the power of forgetting and moving on.
“I do believe you boys have set a record,” a nurse announced during my stay in a hospital. “We’ve never seen one room, in our hospital, receive so many visitors.”
The impact of that announcement was such that I still remember this nurse’s name, Nancy. Nurse Nancy offered me the gift with that announcement. Her gift was a distraction. The distraction activated a trip wire to my obsession: records. I knew just about everything there was to know about records. I could recite the names of the more prominent world record holders, and I could provide an audience some tidbits from their biography. Prior to my hospital stay, I fantasized about one day setting my own record. My copy of the Guinness Book of World Records was, at that point, a ratty, soiled, and Cheetos stained collection of pages.
The effect her announcement had on me was apparent in the next few days, as I peppered her with questions. “Is this hospital’s record determined through a total number of visits, or individual visitors?” I asked in a preteen’s vocabulary. “And if it’s the latter, is that based out over a number of days of a person’s stay, or is it just a total?” In the face of her confusion, I furthered, “Because it would be unfair to judge the total number of visitors, or visits, of a person that has been housed over a four-day period versus one of a thirty-day stay.” The nurse’s facial expression suggested to me that she hadn’t thought this whole idea through. “Is there someone else I can ask?” I asked after she made it obvious that she didn’t know how to answer my questions. “Someone who is in charge of keeping the books on such records?”
I now know that the woman I call Nurse Nancy was displaying excellent bedside manner, but her matter of fact delivery of that announcement was so believable that my ten-year-old mind couldn’t see the stitches in her curveball. It was also timely. I needed something else to focus on, and her ploy worked beyond her wildest dreams. It fed into my obsession for the manner in which record keepers tabulated records.
The fact that this nurse couldn’t answer my questions, coupled with her inability to provide me with an in-house expert, led me to believe that there might be some loopholes in the hospital’s record tabulations. I thought that if I could get more people to visit me more often, I could shatter whatever record had stood in the hospital prior to my stay. I thought that by the end of my stay, all of the various nurses, and hospital personnel, would be talking about the two boys that had a hospital stay some time ago that saw more visitors than anyone had ever imagined possible.
My brother and I had a crowded room, at one point, and I made an effort to reach out to the individual guests to inform them that I appreciated their visit. I wanted their stay in my room to be beyond pleasant. I wanted them to have an experience they would never forget. I wanted them vying for a return to my room. I wanted them to tell their friends that they needed to visit me. ‘Even if you don’t know them,’ I fantasized them saying to others. ‘You simply have to visit that room. It’s a blast!’
I told my closer friends to try to convince their parents to bring them back as often as possible. This prompted odd reactions, so I confided my goal to them, “I’m trying to set a record here.” When these people told me that they would visit again, I wondered if the nurses would remember the names and faces of those individuals. I thought about cheats in the system. I told friends and family to go to lunch and return. I didn’t mind some double counting involved in my final tabulation to pad my record.
I’m sure my demeanor surprised many of my guests. With all that had happened to me, I had an upbeat attitude. When I informed them why, I’m sure some of my friends saw through it. I’m sure some of them saw the Jedi mind tricks Nurse Nancy was playing with me. If they said anything, I don’t remember it. I maintained a blissful ignorance, and I maintain, to this day, that some blissful ignorance is acceptable when it procures happiness.
This blissful ignorance led me to believe that to get the most visitors possible, I would have to be an amiable host. Nobody wants to see a sad, little boy, I reasoned. They want a host that thanks them for their visit, that provides them a reasonably good time –or as pleasant a time as one can have in a hospital– and they want a game show host type of personality that makes them laugh. I made it a point to greet every guest, as if they were a guest in my home. I asked them if they wanted to watch something particular on the TV. I told jokes, and I offered refreshments, if I had any available. I was waging a war on the hospital’s record books.
With that swirling in my mind, I was not at all concerned that one of my dad’s visits involved his nephew and a priest. I simply saw them as three visitors to add to the grand total, and I was glad that my dad felt the need to have others accompany him. He didn’t often indulge my obsessive pursuits, however, and he didn’t this time either … knowingly.
“This is Father Johnston,” my dad said.
I forget the exact name of the priest now, which is unfortunate, but not detrimental, to the story. I greeted him with the same over the top, TV game show host bubbliness that I was greeting all of the guests into our hospital room.
“Father,” I said smiling, shaking his hand. He did not return that smile. He returned a smile, but it was pleasant, polite, and perfunctory. I was not student of smiles, but I knew a dismissive, perfunctory, smile when I saw one.
That smile broke my standard operating procedure. Smiles are always silent in the literal sense, but some are so busy that a five-year-old can read between the lines. This smile suggested that the priest would smile, but only as a part of the procedure. I couldn’t take my eyes off it. Even when my dad introduced his nephew to the priest, I remained fixated on that priest’s silent, non-smile smile.
Father Johnston was a quiet man. He didn’t speak much throughout his stay in our room, but he also had a quiet demeanor about him. He didn’t appear to be the type that anxiously waited for his chance to speak. I didn’t see anything anxious about him. I wondered if he was like that as a child, or if quiet study had led him to be more of a quiet man. When others spoke, he silently waited for them to finish. When I interrupted him, a practice many have said is my downfall, he would silence. He would wait for me to finish, he would answer my question, and he would continue with his previous sentence as if no one interrupted him.
Quiet men were not a part of my life at that time, but I met some. I did not interact well with them. My grandfather was a quiet man, and I considered his silence claustrophobic at times, but he didn’t live long enough for me to develop a sense of patience for quiet men. I was much more comfortable with loud, boisterous men that weren’t afraid to have their opinions known. Quiet men made me feel uncomfortable, because I couldn’t understand how anyone could just sit there, do nothing, and make no sound. I was used to men doing something, or having a solid excuse for their silence.
Even in my limited experience with silence, I’d never experienced the severity of silence before. This silence was weighted. It was foreboding. I wasn’t sure if his silence was a display of confidence, or if the man wasn’t well schooled in his delivery, but he appeared to want to get to the point, and all of these perfunctory greetings appeared to be little more than mindless chatter to him.
“You and your brother, and your great aunt were in an awful accident,” the priest finally said.
I cracked a joke right here, something smart alecky, something I can’t remember. It may have been something like, “No dor,” to which I waited for my brother to reply, “No window!” The “no dor” reply was that era’s equivalent to the “No duh” we now use. It wasn’t funny, but it was a kid thing, a ritual joke my brother and I had developed into a short comedic routine. I looked over at my brother. He didn’t attend to his end of the joke. He remained fixated on the priest.
None of them would look me in the face. I thought that either my joke had bombed, or they deemed it inappropriate and disrespectful. Whatever the case was, I felt uncomfortable for having issued it, even though my goal was to maintain the amiable host persona that attracted visitors. No one wants to see a sad, little boy.
The priest mentioned my name, and my brother’s name, here. “I want you both to know that you have many people that love you. The nurses, here, told me that you two have had the most visitors this hospital has ever seen.”
I smiled at the unlocked achievement, terminology those that are familiar with computer games know stands for the revelation of an accomplishment. I wasn’t sure if this was validation, or if it was mindless chatter the priest had picked up from the nurses. I chose to believe it was the former. I chose to believe that my brother and I had conquered an entire hospital.
“These people love you a great deal,” the priest added after going through a laundry list of our family members. “I want you to know that God loves you, and He always will. Your father also loves you more than he can say.” At this point, my dad broke down.
I’m not sure if I saw my dad cry prior to this week, but if I had, they were never these all-hope-is-lost tears. Those tears caused a flash back. It caused me to think of the moment when I spotted the stretcher that carried my mother. I caught the ankle portion of my mother’s stretch pants, as they wheeled her across the emergency room floor. My focus was on my pain, in that emergency room, and I didn’t pay it too much attention to her condition. I saw my dad trailing the cart she was on, and I saw him crying those tears. Now that I was no longer in pain, and my dad was crying those tears again, I flashed back to that memory.
I also flashed to a local news program that I caught the night before. I caught the tail end of that local news program. The female anchor said, “The woman was survived by two sons, and a husband.” When I write “the woman” it should be noted that the anchor mentioned my mother’s name, and then she mentioned all of our names preceded by the words: “survived by”. I had no idea what survived by meant at that point in my life.
I turned to my brother, “We’re on the news!” I said. I smiled. I felt victorious. I thought that this was great publicity. I thought that those that hadn’t learned what happened to us, via word of mouth, would now know thanks to this broadcast. I flirted with the notion that people that didn’t even know us might visit, just to get a look at the two boys that were on the local news. I thought our hospital record for most visitors, was a now foregone conclusion.
“What do you think survived by means?” I asked my brother.
“I don’t know, my brother said, “but I think it means Mom died.” My brother was on this kick, throughout our stay in the hospital. He was so such that at one point, he broke it down. He mentioned the fact that she wasn’t in the ambulance with us. He thought that was all the evidence he needed. I argued that with three people already in the ambulance, there wasn’t room. I suggested that she rode to the hospital in a separate ambulance. I didn’t know if it was logical, but with the three of us in that ambulance, it seemed plausible to me that she would need another one.
“No it doesn’t,” I said regarding my brother’s notion. We argued back and forth for a spell, and though he put up a substantial argument, I chose to believe that he was mistaken. “We would’ve been told by now,” I said.
“Maybe they’re waiting for the right time.”
Those of us that have been involved in a tragedy, learn that wanting to be in the news for that tragedy suggests a lack of decorum. It’s deemed peculiar and unseemly, for one to enjoy the limited fame, and recognition, that comes with news coverage. Especially when that limited fame and recognition pales in comparison to the tragedy one has just endured, but for some reason that coverage doesn’t just soothe us, it validates our tragedy. It becomes an event of note to know we were covered. This is made most apparent by those that haven’t been covered, that compare their tragedies to those that were, and the indignant feelings one has when their tragic event is not deemed newsworthy.
Preoccupied by these flashbacks, I’m not sure if the priest was speaking throughout them, or if he had been sitting in silence throughout, but whatever the case was, the priest gained my attention with the next sentence:
“Your mother, on the other hand, did not survive.”
“What?” I asked. “What do you mean?”
I would ask him to repeat himself in a variety of ways, as if clarification would somehow change the definition. After answering my first couple of questions, Father Johnston went silent. He allowed me to work through this on my own time. I didn’t think he delivered the message well, but is there a quality presentation for such a message? I didn’t know the answer to that question, but I was in no mood for the silence that followed. I wanted answers. I wanted direct replies. I wanted straight cold facts. The priest said nothing, recognizing my display for what it was. I pressed him.
“What are you saying?”
“In that horrible car accident you were involved in, your mother passed away,” he said.
No one looked at me. I was the focus of this exchange, as I badgered the priest to put it three to four different ways, but no one lifted their heads to look at me. The priest stared off into the distance, my dad collapsed into the arms of his nephew, and I’m not sure what my brother was doing, but none of the players in this scene would even look at me.
Eight years later, while medicated on morphine for an unrelated ailment, I relived the automobile accident that took the life of my mother. I saw the truck driver as clear as I had that day. I saw his cowboy hat. I saw his impenetrable sunglasses. I saw a beige shirt. The details this drug unearthed were so complete that I remembered that the man was wearing a beige shirt. I also saw a toothpick in his mouth. I would later learn, from former semi-truck drivers, that they often had toothpicks in their mouth. They laced the toothpicks with the recreational drug speed, these former semi-truck drivers informed me. They did this in the event that the police pulled them over. They lined their visors with toothpicks, one former driver told me. I don’t know how true that was for truck drivers back then, but I saw a toothpick between his lips. If it was the case with this driver, it obviously didn’t work, for this driver fell asleep at the wheel.
While medicated on morphine, I remembered trying to get this truck driver to honk his horn. I was there in this pseudo, drug induced stupor, pulling my fists down. After repeated attempts, I turned to my brother and said, “Huh, he must be asleep.” I couldn’t know that for sure, of course, due to the sunglasses, but his total ambivalence to us led me to believe that this was a reasonable assumption, and I didn’t gauge the ramifications of him being asleep at the wheel in the manner I may have three to four years later. I simply shrugged it off as a reasonable assumption, and I moved to get a piece of Freshen Up gum that my mom was offering us. I leaned over the car seat for a piece of gum, a simple act that police reports state saved my life.
Family scuttlebutt informed me that my great aunt, another passenger in this car on this day, blamed the accident on my brother and I. She declared that the accident might have been avoidable if those boys weren’t acting up. She suggests that my mom went to pull the car over to give us a piece of gum, and if we hadn’t been acting up my mother would’ve been more aware of her surroundings.
An “Uh!” escaped me at the point of contact. I remembered that “Uh” so clearly, while on morphine, that I probably said it in my sleep, in the hospital that day, eight years later. I remembered hearing my Mom’s screams, I remembered hitting the dome light as we went into our first roll, and I remembered watching the world spin. I remembered smiling moments before my hit the dome light.
For the most part, we don’t know when we’re sleeping. We often don’t know that we’re in our comfortable beds when we dream. We believe it’s all happening in real time, and that fantastical nature of dreams is what the brain needs to balance out the stresses of reality, say some psychologists. If we knew all of our dreams were dreams, in other words, they wouldn’t be the fantastical escape from reality that the brain needs.
The reason I write what seems such an obvious fact is that I’ve known I was asleep, in the course of a dream. Everyone has performed this feat once or twice, I would guess. On one particular occasion, I had what I can only call a soft wakening. I gained awareness of my being. I felt the covers on my chest, and I felt the pillow beneath my head. As soon as I gathered my setting, I went back into the dream with full knowledge of the idea that it was a dream. Performing what I considered a rare feat, I smiled upon reentry.
I carried this knowledge of manipulation of my dream world into a small town in Iowa. I drifted through what I considered the dream world with the knowledge that I could do whatever I wanted in this dream. I thought I could pull down my pants, and no one would know. I smiled at the idea of the tomfoolery.
That smile occurred moments before hitting the dome light. That blow knocked me unconscious. Prior to it, I looked around and thought about how detailed and realistic this dream was. The attention to detail was such that I thought the dream maker deserved a compliment. It was an horrific and chaotic dream, but I wanted to remain in it to see how it would end. I smiled again, thinking I was a little sick for enjoying such a dream.
Another reason for those smiles is that I knew that people would find this moment entertaining in a horrific and chaotic manner when I told them about it. ‘My gosh, you have some horrible dreams,’ I imagined them saying. I knew I would enjoy that reaction when I woke to tell people about it. The final reason I smiled is that I thought a smile was a message that I was sending to my dream creator that I wasn’t falling for all this. I knew it was a dream.
The smile was one of conviction that said that I know there’s nothing to fear here. I knew that I would soon wake to a room festooned with Atlanta Falcons banners, Looney Tunes covers, and Star Wars drapes. I couldn’t wait to wake, to tell my family members how vivid this dream was, and how I almost fell for it. “It was that surreal,” I pictured myself saying when I awoke.
Something broke when I awoke. There was no audible snap, or any kind of discernible crossover into reality, but the voices that played roles in my dreams became the voices of reality, surrounding me. Everything prior to the moment I crossed into full consciousness, I sensed people out there, in my periphery, saying things to one another, but they sounded like they were speaking in a tunnel. I sensed people moving about. I heard them step on dried weeds, but I imagined them moving about in slow motion.
I have never been so disgusted, or horrified, that I considered walking out of a movie. The more disturbing a movie is, the better, I thought. My favorite movies took me to an uncomfortable place and unnerved me there. Even as a preteen, my favorite movies took me out of my comfort zone and make me grateful that I wasn’t the character experiencing that type of horror. “It’s that type of experience that everyone should demand of their movie makers,” I said.
To this point in my life, I don’t think it’s much of stretch to say I’ve watched thousands of movies. I can count the number of movies that have unnerved me on a level that I considered walking out. One of those movies involved a scene in Saving Private Ryan. The scene is one that horrified many on many different levels. Some declare the D-Day scene, at Omaha Beach, one of the greatest anti-war statements ever made. It was vivid and realistic. For those that don’t remember the scene as vividly as I do, it involved the battle between the Germans and the Americans. Within this battle scene, one portion of it lasts a little over one minute. The overall scene on the beach begins in real time, but about four and a half minutes in, it switches to slow motion, and the director muffles the sound, as bullets pierce arms, lungs, brains, and every other essential organ and limb. It involved muffled screams of terror, grenades exploding, and gunfire. Another, similar scene occurs about seven minutes in that lasts about thirty seconds before snapping into real time. These scenes were almost too much for me. The violence was overwhelming, but I’ve witnessed violent scenes in other movies. It wasn’t just the violence, and I knew it, but I didn’t know why the scene affected me so deeply that I considered walking out.
It wasn’t until the movie ended, and I began to digest those two scenes that I realized the method the director used to manipulate the audience by slowing the terror down and muffling the sound to reach me on a level I’ve never experienced before. The reason it reached me is that I had a similar moment that day on the side of an interstate in Atlantic City, Iowa. The reason those two scenes affected me in a way that I’m almost embarrassed to discuss it was that it captured the feel and sound of the most horrific moment in my real life.
As happened in the movie, I progressed through the muffled horror, and the slow motion, into real time. There were no audible snaps, or visual cues, that brought me through the various levels of consciousness. I was smiling one moment, screaming the next, with a few confusing progressions in between.
The scene likely progressed quicker than I imagined, but in the morphine-induced reenactment, it lasted for a good five minutes. I considered my waking moment to be the equivalent of one that occurs after falling off a cliff in a dream. I’ve had several waking moments when someone, in the real world, touches my arm. I wasn’t sure why I couldn’t wake up during this moment when someone touched my arm, as I always had before, but I immediately considered it a fault in the dream world process.
There were a number of men touching my arm in my dream, and trying to grab me. I fought them off. I didn’t know why these men were trying to pull on me in my dream, but I knew I had to fight them. I stubbornly clung to the dream world, and the car seat before me, believing that aliens were attempting to pull me from my bed for the purpose of abduction. I also thought that I should end this rare feat of remaining in the dream world.
I shook my head a number of times, trying to get out of this dream. I’d had enough of it. It was too surreal. I was not able to get out of it, and this inability confused me.
This moment led to another horrific movie watching experience. The movie was Fire in the Sky. It was an alien abduction movie. Watching the scene of the abduction touched me on a visceral level. As I watched the movie, the scene moved me so much that I flirted with the notion that aliens abducted me too. I didn’t believe it in one sense, but I flirted with the notion that I either pushed this memory out of my mind, or that the aliens removed the memory from my brain. I couldn’t understand it, until I realized that I experienced such a moment, but it wasn’t an alien abduction.
My abduction scene involved good men that stopped at the side of an interstate to help pull me out of the car. I was slowly progressing to consciousness when they touched my arm, and the touches thereafter caused me to become more conscious.
I’ve read, since, of a state in the dream world that occurs seconds before one falls asleep or seconds before one awakes, that provides surreal elements to the dream. It is a state called the hypnagogic state. When those men woke me, they interrupted my dream cycle and for a couple of seconds I imagined that they were aliens attempting to abduct me. I also suffered a minor concussion in that accident, so my thoughts were even more muddled than they would’ve been in the surreal stages that can occur in a normal hypnagogic state.
I remember the first time I ran across the term hypnagogic state. I remember reading the definition a number of times. I remembered a dream I had where Satan was at the foot of my bed, and I awoke to see no one there. I remembered thinking this definition of the dream state explained that, but I couldn’t pinpoint why this term was so liberating. I never truly thought Satan was at the foot of my bed, but it seemed so real. The description of this dream state explained the surreal qualities, but who cares? It explained away a surreal state. It wasn’t until I conflated that term with the moment that men were pulling me out of a car, and it was no alien abduction, that I realized the dream state explained so much of my experience that day.
I pulled away from the hands touching me that were trying to grab hold, and I shook my head hard to wake from this vividly detailed dream. I remember hearing them argue about how best to extract me from the car without hurting me, and I think one of them said, “He’s fighting us.”
I don’t know how many times I shook my head, but there did come a time when I grew frustrated with my inability to wake in a world of Looney Tunes bedspread, a Star Wars curtain, and an Atlanta Falcons banner on the wall. I was waiting to wake with that confused, but happy smile that laughs at how foolish I could be to believe all of this in real time. I shook my head again, when it was apparent that the previous shakes wouldn’t wake me. I wasn’t sure if I had dreamed the previous headshakes or not, so I kept shaking, but that last time made me think I had some weight on my forehead. It felt like I had a low-lying hat on my head. I shook my head harder after that, and I tried to take that something off. That one hurt. That pain brought me closer to the reality of the situation, and I allowed the good men, standing outside the car, to pull me free.
“GOD!” I screamed when the sense of these people touching me became so surreal that it was finally clear to me that this was a real moment. I’ve also considered the fact that I had so successfully incorporated the people touching me into my dream that it took the heat of the day, on my skin to break the delusions completely. Blood began pooling in my face and head, and I began hyperventilating and screaming as I looked around me at all of the horror and chaos that lay about in my immediate surroundings. I reached a point in all of these extremes, that I simply went numb. Then, I heard my brother begin crying, and that soothed me. He was alive, I thought. Everyone was alive.
“OH MY GOD!” I screamed attempting to thrash out of the arms that continued to hold me. The men that held me were too strong for me to mount much of a defense. I spotted my mom in those few seconds it took them to extract me from the car. She was lying in a somewhat awkward position, her feet lying across the centerpiece floorboard. All I remember seeing was her lower body, and the entire scene scared me into hysterics. I don’t know how many times I screamed “OH MY GOD!” but I’m sure the spectators wished I could’ve found another way of expressing my shock at some point.
I was on the ground moments later. A young kid was holding an ice pack to my head. “Is anyone dead?” I asked him about four to five times, before he finally gave me an answer.
“We’re not sure,” was what he said, after consulting with the adults that surrounded us.
“Oh, my NFL Preview Guide is in the car,” I said switching concerns, “Let me grab it real quick.”
“We’ll get it,” one of the men said.
“It has Franco Harris on the cover,” I called out to the person that volunteered to perform a search. When they couldn’t find it, I began either telling them where it should be, or trying to convince them to let me have a look. When one of the men repeated that they couldn’t find it, I allowed that to be the final answer.
“Never been able to hold onto one of those things,” I told the young boy. “I always lose them.”
“I’m sure they’ll get you one at the hospital,” he said with a wink that spoke volumes.
Even though the kid was my senior by perhaps a year, his reassurance meant the world to me. It was the big kid, on the playground, telling me that I was all right. I didn’t know how cool he was, but being older provides a great deal of latitude in the arena of childish determinations.
As tattered and torn as my Guinness Book of World Records was my annual NFL Preview Guides were just as tattered and torn by the start of an NFL season. I not only knew stats and the records or promise of records they held, I knew backup players, and the colleges those players attended. The number on their jerseys were so imprinted in my mind, that I still associate numbers of players with experiences I have with such numbers. If general records, tracked by Guinness, were an obsession of mine, the NFL was my life.
I considered it my duty, as a fan, to hold onto these magazines through the season, and late into the post-season to read up on the players in the games, and to see how the experts had fared in their predictions. I never could hold onto them. It never failed. Either I lost them, or my mom threw them away. I never knew which. Whatever the case was, it provided me great consternation to learn that I had lost yet another NFL Preview Guide on November 7, 1980.
My subconscious latched onto the loss of another NFL Preview guide in a manner that would manifest later in life. We’ve all watched programs on hoarders. Our fascination with these shows stems from the idea that we all have some hoarding tendencies in us, but these people have a mindset that borders on a psychosis that many of them have trouble explaining. I became a hoarder the day I discovered that not only was all this random chaos occurring around me, but that I had lost another one of these NFL Preview Guides.
In the years, that followed, I would learn the harsh reality of chaos. I would learn that I have little control over the events of my life, but I found unconscious solace in the belief that if I could just hold onto one of these magazines, into the NFL postseason and beyond, I might be able to stave off the feelings of chaos and loss that I experienced that day.
As I wrote, this was not a conscious belief. For the next twenty years, however, I not only saved all of the subsequent NFL Preview Guides, but music magazines, and any other magazine I could find. I was proud of the fact that I now had so many magazines, at one point in my life, that I could fill an entire closet with them. There was some shame attached to it, however. I couldn’t explain that sense of shame, but I did hide the magazines in a closet that prying eyes would never see.
I rarely read any of these magazines a second time, but I did collate them by date, genre, and importance. When I would purchase a new magazine, I would place that magazine with the others, in a select place to achieve a degree of order in my life that kept chaos at bay.
We’ve all witnessed the desperation in these hoarders, when friends and family suggest that they discard some of their precious items. We’ve all witnessed the insult these characters feel when their loved ones deem their items inconsequential, and even unhealthy clutter. The initial reaction, of these hoarders is shock that their loved ones would characterize these precious items as clutter. The next reaction, if they eventually achieve some sort of acceptance, is to cling to some, too many, of the objects. They’re desperate. They aren’t ready to discard the items that for which they developed psychological attachments. The rest of us see those attachments as so unhealthy that they could be termed a psychosis on their part. We don’t understand it. They aren’t ready, I tell the person watching this show with me. I understand it, because for many years I wasn’t ready either.
There was no such thing as the show Hoarders when I collected all of my magazines in trash bags. The total number of magazines I owned embarrassed me, but I never considered anything unhealthy about keeping them. Should I have considered the idea of a grown man, holding a Dynamite magazine with Shaun Cassidy on the cover, at least a little unhealthy? Perhaps, but it reminded me of those days I danced with my seven-year-old girlfriend to Do Run Run, and I wasn’t ready to let go of that memory of my happy youth for decades.
The magazines were in tall, green trash bags for transportation, as I was moving from one apartment to another. I did not intend to throw any of them away. When I sat among them, however, I made a switch from the question of “should I throw these away” to “why shouldn’t I?” That latter question, though still not focused in mental health arenas, led me to believe that I had to throw these things away … I had to just to do it.
I may have just pared this internal argument down to simple constructs for the reader, but it was not easy. It was not another trash day, but I determined –without truly weighing it in the terms I am now– that I was ready to release the comfortable hold the magazines had on me. Although, I would not know the term hoarder for decades, I would no longer be one from that day forward.
I cussed at Father Johnson that day in our hospital room, when he informed us that our mother “didn’t survive the accident”. I can’t remember the exact word I used, but I know I cussed at him. He appeared slapped, initially, and his lips trembled a little when I apologized for doing it.
He didn’t have pronounced trembling lips. It was subtle, but I caught it. I later wondered how often he had had such a visceral reaction in a moment like that one. He was the hospital priest, and I’m quite sure he had had these moments, with so many families, so often that he couldn’t help but consider most of them routine. I’m also sure people cussed at him before. I’m sure that he had had so many people that reacted so poorly to his presence that he was somewhat used to it. People blame the messenger, for the message. They can’t help it. What was, perhaps, different about this occasion was that a young boy had lost his mind, but that he was also a good boy that eventually came to his senses and realized that you don’t cuss as priests no matter what’s going on.
I didn’t forgot the fact that my mom died in those initial days, weeks, months, and years that followed the accident, as that fact reared its ugly head in my life on hundreds, if not thousands of occasions, but I did choose to misremember some of the horrific details of the incident that caused her death. I did not forget the drama of losing a mother, but I did forget the trauma of it, and the painful return to routine that followed. I chose to forget, without making a decision to do so, and this decision allowed me the stability I apparently needed to make it to the day a doctor prescribed morphine eight years later.
The power to forget is a mechanism in the brain that psychologists are just now starting to appreciate. This new appreciation for the mind to reject memories that are not conducive to a person’s progress is similar, in some ways, to the liver ridding the body of impurities that will inhibit anatomical progress. This new appreciation also goes against the importance of remembering that psychologists –dating back Sigmund Freud– believed to be of paramount interest to their patient. They’re finding out that those patients that complained that they don’t want to remember, focus on, and obsess over certain memories are right. Some of the times, it’s better and healthier to forget.
I wasn’t there, is the best description of the process I went through. I didn’t choose to not be there, just like I didn’t engage in any sort of psychological process of dealing with it, but I did begin to fade out. I began to become another person that knew how to deal with the normal traumas and drama that crippled most young boys. I became a person that knew how to deal with matters of consequence, but I didn’t think that it was as vital as everyone was telling me that I should be the one doing it.
I got mad at my dad for wanting me to focus on our current situation so often, because I was trying to become someone that didn’t have to. I wanted to become a person that had a different, better grasp on all this, but when people would ask me about it, I would simply say, “I don’t want to talk about it.”
Any psychologist of note would tell you that if I was trying to get healthy, I chose all of the wrong tools to get there, and I would pay dearly for that later. I can tell you, however, that the mind is every bit the marvel the body is at mending itself and allowing the person to persevere. The body’s ability to recover simply gets better press.
A palindrome is a word that begins as it ends, as it does with the words racecar, and mom. Life could be said to be a palindrome in this manner in that if we were able to truly cross timelines and see the lives we may have lived if we were unaffected by the tragedy that crippled us, we probably wouldn’t end up in a place that much better than the one we’re in now. Some believe that they would be happier, healthier adults if their childhood had been different. They believe that if they could start all over, and their parents had more money, or their parents survived, they would be a lot happier. While it’s undeniably true that we would be different, we would also undeniably have different events, and different psychoses that result from other events, until we end up, like the palindrome, in a place that’s not that much different from the place we’re in right now.