Morning Zen Guest Blog Post ~ Caroline Wolff ~
I set him up. I had promised to meet him for breakfast the next morning. In the throes of a mania so severe that it directed nearly all his actions, he somehow loved or trusted me enough to override his manic thinking and keep our breakfast date.
When the knock came on his door that morning before breakfast, it wasn’t me. It was the police. They had come to take him to a psychiatric hospital. He had told me he preferred not to go to the hospital; he had asked for more time to consider treatment options. I didn’t listen. After I called the police, I stayed far away. I made no attempt to see him. I sat outside the hospital on a curb, too afraid to face what was inside.
Several months later, a scene in a movie triggered thoughts of that day, and I began to cry. My husband guided me into the backseat of our car, where my crying intensified and spun out of control. I wiped at my face until my right hand became coated with mucus, thinned by tears and webbing the spaces between my fingers. He cupped my hand and clumsily flattened it against his lap, running it down the length of his thigh. “Here,” he said. “This is where we wipe our nose.” He didn’t recoil; he didn’t distract me; he didn’t tell me everything was OK when it wasn’t. Instead, he sat quietly and streaked his jeans with my hand, over and over. It was a gesture that convinced me that whenever I chose to leave that backseat, I could manage what came next.
The following day, I reread Leo Tolstoy’s short story “The Death of Ivan Ilyich.” In the story, a servant named Gerasim comforts a dying man throughout the particular horrors of his death. Gerasim is bright and cheerful and strong. He dresses neatly and smells good, like the outdoors. He doesn’t shirk from emptying the chamber pot. He holds Ivan Ilyich’s legs because the dying man feels better when he holds them. Gerasim accepts the ugliness of wretched illness and offers what he can to ease it because he would hope, he says, that someone will do the same for him one day. The only moments of comfort the dying man has are when Gerasim is there.
I wish that on the day the police came, I had dressed practically but respectfully: a white button-up shirt and jeans; brown boots; a sensible, pretty watch; rose perfume—the scent the strongest woman I know wears. I wish I’d waited outside and averted my eyes at the exact moment the patient was brought out of his room. I wish I had ridden with him in the fenced-in backseat of the cop car: not staring, not pitying, not chattering nervously. Just sitting quietly, perhaps putting out my hand, now and then, to touch his arm. I wish I had walked beside him into the lobby of the hospital. Perhaps the patient would not have wanted me there. Perhaps the police would have refused to allow me to be there. But I had been too scared even to ask. So again, I will borrow from Tolstoy’s story and end, as he does, with this: “Forgive me.”
* * * * *
Caroline Wolff is the author of one of the essays in the book Writing Away the Stigma.