March 2, 2015 / Creative Writing
A poem longing for the place of taste
May 10, 2018
His mother felt burdened by Guy before he was even born. Two weeks past her due date, she was heavy and exhausted before the labor began. At his birth, the delivery nurse announced, “Looks like you have a little guy here!” and so he was named. During his infancy, he and his mother both slept fitfully and wailed inconsolably.
By the time he was twelve, Guy was troubling anyone in charge. The truancy officer threatened juvenile detention and suggested that his mother make him a ward of the state. The petition sat unsigned on the kitchen table for days. Eventually the paperwork got buried in a stack of old newspapers, and his mother used it to line the parakeet cage.
When Guy turned eighteen in the tenth grade, he quit school. Working as a day laborer on landscaping or construction sites generally paid the rent at a cheap rooming house. He spent a few nights each year in the local jail for public intoxication or possession of marijuana. Winters, when work was scarce and his spirits plummeted, he retreated to the small back bedroom of his mother’s house.
Guy was about thirty years old when the psychiatric hospitalizations began. On a blustery February morning, Guy appeared at his mother’s door, wide-eyed and disheveled, coatless and sockless. “This really is the last time you’ll stay here,” she declared, as he carried his dirty backpack to the spare room. For several days, neither of them slept well. Guy was never tired. Hour after hour, he paced a large figure eight through the small split-level house, clockwise and then counterclockwise, up and down the stairs. He pivoted and reversed directions in the entryway, just where the mail fell in from the door slot. His mother was worried and angry and frightened.
“Would you please just stop,” she finally pleaded from the kitchen table. “I can’t take it anymore!” Guy continued walking, delivering a portion of his response with each trip across the linoleum floor. “I have to keep watch,” he said going clockwise. “To keep out the enemy,” as he returned. “God has chosen me,” once again clockwise. “To be the savior of the world.” That was enough. His mother called the crisis line. The police came. The judge signed the commitment papers.
Over the next twenty years, Guy worked a few odd jobs and seldom stayed in one place for more than a few months. His meager belongings were easy to carry as he cycled through a handful of rooming houses, the public mental hospital, and his mother’s home. The rotation was punctuated by a few short stays in jail for panhandling or disturbing the peace. With each hospitalization, the psychiatrists changed their minds about his diagnosis, shifting from manic-depressive disorder to schizoaffective disorder or an unnamed personality disorder and then back again. Multiple medications were prescribed and sometimes he took them.
Over time, Guy’s hospital stays grew longer, and the rooming house managers grew less tolerant. At fifty-four, he underwent extended residential treatment at Central State Hospital. Upon discharge, the psychiatric social worker transferred Guy to an adult home, where his medications would be managed and meals provided. From his first day at the adult home, Guy complained about his suffering. He said that his neck hurt. He said that his back hurt. He was too weak to walk to the dining room. Could someone bring his dinner on a tray? Frustrated with Guy’s complaints and demands, the manager eventually dropped him off at the emergency room.
Guy’s case was not, of course, an emergency. The thin, stooped man with salt-and-pepper hair huddled under a blanket in the waiting room for hours. There was a steady flow of motorcycle accidents, seizures, heart attacks, and asthma flares. Finally, a nurse moved him to a curtained cubicle and helped him into a faded blue hospital gown. The X-rays of his back and chest showed that multiple holes had been chewed through his bones. There were scattered splotches on his lungs. It was almost certainly an advanced cancer. Guy was given a dose of morphine and transferred by gurney to a seventh-floor hospital room.
By the time he talked with the admitting doctor, Guy could not recall how many people had already questioned him about his pain. But he acquiesced to the routine and repeated his story: “My back and neck kept hurting worse and worse at Central State. The pain kept me from sleeping. They told me it was my fault because I sat around all day, and they tried to make me walk more. They wouldn’t give me anything strong enough to take away the pain.” Guy explained that even simple things had become hard to do, like taking a shower or carrying a plate of food. He was somber but dry-eyed when he said, “I think this might be something real bad.” The tears only began when he talked about the adult home. “Doc,” he begged, “I just want to go home and live with my mother again. She moved away while I was at Central State, and no one will give me her address or phone number. Can you get it for me?”
Although Guy had every sign of cancer, a biopsy was performed to confirm the diagnosis. When the doctor walked in with the result—“poorly differentiated adenocarcinoma” according to the report—Guy was propped up with pillows in bed, staring out the window as the city lights emerged against the darkening sky. The doctor spoke in awkward halting phrases, and Guy interrupted: “It’s cancer, isn’t it? I know that I’m dying. All of those times that I thought I didn’t want to live, all of those times I tried to end it all myself, and now it’s real, and I wish I could live. I’ve done some bad stuff in my time. I guess I’ll never have a chance to tell people that I’m sorry.”
The cancer was too far advanced to treat, and the bony tumors in Guy’s neck were pushing against his spinal cord, disrupting the nerve supply to his arms and legs. Each day he grew weaker than the day before. He had taken his last steps on the day the adult home brought him to the emergency room. Just lifting a forkful of food to his mouth became impossible. He depended on others to wash his face and to offer him water when he was thirsty.
Guy received only one visit during his hospitalization. His sister had been notified by the adult home administrator when he was taken to the emergency room. By phone, she learned that he was dying and contacted the nursing staff about a visit. The attending physician, informed of the sister’s arrival, came to Guy’s room. She extended her hand in greeting, but Guy’s sister, observing the doctors white coat and stethoscope, said, “You’re not the chaplain.”
“You were expecting the chaplain?”
“Yes, I made arrangements to see the chaplain. I am here to see that Guy is baptized before he dies. I’m sorry I don’t have much time. My car is parked at a meter, and it’s a two-hour drive back home.”
The physician paused. “And Guy’s mother? Any chance that she will visit?”
“Oh no, she is much too old and sick herself, now. She dealt with him for so many years, and she just can’t handle it anymore.”
Soon, two chaplains arrived. The older of the two stood back, allowing the younger chaplain-in-training to proceed. “Guy, do you really want to be baptized? I have to be certain that you want it for yourself, not just to satisfy your sister.”
“Oh yes,” he said, “I’m sure. After all, I want to be with God when I die.”
She looked skeptical and motioned her supervisor into the hall.
When the chaplains returned, they wore simple albs and stoles. They carried a glass bottle of water, a bowl, and a small aspergillum. The chaplain-in-training stepped back, and the supervising chaplain sprinkled Guy with water, saying, “I baptize you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Let us pray. Heavenly Father, we thank you that by water and the Holy Spirit you have bestowed upon your servant Guy the forgiveness of sin and have raised him to the new life of grace. Sustain him, O Lord, in your Holy Spirit. Grant him peace of body and soul.”
The tiny congregation—Guy, his sister, the doctor, and the two chaplains—joined together in the Lord’s Prayer. Moments later, after a few handshakes and one quick kiss on the cheek, only Guy and the doctor remained. She held his glass of water and watched him drink. She gave his hand a gentle squeeze and slipped out.
Rita Willett practiced and taught internal medicine for over twenty years in Richmond, Virginia. Now retired from medical practice, she is active in prison ministry. Willett graduated from Earlham School of Religion, where she studied in the writing as ministry program. She is a member of the Richmond Friends Meeting (Quaker).