I watched a documentary last week that included some clips from Geraldo Rivera’s career-making 1972 short, “The Last Great Mistake,” about the way mentally handicapped kids lived in an institution on Staten Island called Willowbrook. I did not expect these clips. I was not prepared for them. They were amongst the most devastating and heartbreaking things I have ever seen. Something broke inside of me when I saw them and it hasn’t knit itself back together again. This happens to me sometimes. Sometimes I become so overwhelmed by the violence of our world, as that violence ends up being encapsulated in this or that event — Indigenous children frozen in the snow trying to find their way home, Nazis using dogs to chase down little kids outside the camps, a baby scalded with coffee and left to die three days later in his crib, and now these kids naked and wailing and flailing and covered in feces in darkened rooms where the curtains were never opened, some clustered around a couch, some curled up in fetal positions on the bathroom floor, some isolated in dark corners, naked and sitting bent over hugging themselves because they are sad and they are scared and they are alone and there is no one else to hug them – that I feel like something snaps and disappears. Something inside breaks and goes away for awhile. And I also want to disappear, go away, stop. Which is not to say that I want to die but that I don’t want to know anything anymore, I don’t want to say anything anymore, I don’t want to do anything anymore. I want to lay down and stop talking and not get up for a very, very long time.
I want to cry and not be comforted until these things never happened.
(My brother, too, I remember my brother curled in a fetal position on the bathroom floor and me, too, I remember being on the floor after my father’s fist hit me where the tears were falling and I was a boy and my head bounced off the wall and I was crumpled like a ball of paper on the floor and for me, too, there was no help and no comfort and no salvation. And I don’t know what it was like to experience what children experienced in Residential schools and what children experienced in wars and what children experienced in institutions but what I have known of terror and loneliness and the lack of comfort is enough that it makes me want no child ever, anywhere, at any time past or present or future to experience anything like that and maybe that’s why something breaks inside me when I am exposed to these things.)
For several months, one of my mantras has been: “I want to be open to the world without being annihilated by it.” I don’t want to close myself off. But I don’t want to be destroyed. I don’t want to hide or lie or deny or refuse to bear witness to what my people do (and I, too, am counted as one of my people—what my people do, I do), but I also don’t want to lose my ability to care for Charlie and Ruby, to be there for Jess, or do to everything I still can to fight alongside those whom I try to serve in other areas of my life. It is very hard to be open to the world without being annihilated by it. This is why most adults (children are open, children are annihilated) are very closed to most of everything and everyone apart from a select few (and even that can be too much for a lot of people). I try to push myself further and not give in and not close off just because I hurt (others, after all, are hurting, too, and many are hurting a lot, a lot, a lot). But I’ve learned that if I keep forcing that openness, then the break happens inside of me. I don’t close up. I just… stop… disappear… whatever… on the inside. And I’ve also learned that the break can come more easily and feel like it wants to stay around for longer the more frequently it happens.
I know there’s a pill for the symptoms. But there isn’t one for the story.
(This morning I went to the Critical Care Trauma Centre at the local Hospital so that I could say my farewells to a fellow I’ve known for the last four years. He was in a medically-induced coma and was non-responsive but I didn’t take that to mean that he wouldn’t hear me or experience me or feel me and maybe he didn’t but maybe he did.
Mostly, I wanted to say thank you. Thank you for sharing your life with me. Thank you for choosing to spend time with us. Thank you for looking after others the way in which you did. Thank you intervening in situations when things were escalating and thank you for preventing any harm from being done (harm that included the possibility of people being suspended from programs and spaces when they had nowhere else to go that would be warm or dry). Thank you for telling me about the time you saw me with my son on the bus and thank you for telling me you could see, just in the way I was with him, how deeply I loved him and how fortunate he was to have me as his dad – thank you for being grateful that you witnessed that, thank you for rejoicing in that with us.
His eyes were half open but they didn’t move or blink. There were tubes going into both of his arms. There was a tube down his throat to help him breath. There was another tube going into the side of his neck. The stump of his amputated leg was exposed. He looked like the crucified Christ. And by that I don’t mean to say he looked like he came down to us from God. I mean that he looked like a body that had been tortured and shattered and broken and left for dead. A body forsaken. A body destroyed. But that shattered, tortured, broken, forsaken and destroyed body is a man I love. A man who loves me. A man who loves a lot of people.
Once upon a time, he was a Golden Gloves boxer. I told him it was okay to put his gloves down now if he wants to. I told him that we would miss him but we would understand. You can’t win ‘em all and if he is tired of the pain and the loneliness and the grind, the never-ending grind, I told him it’s okay to stop fighting if that’s what he wants to do – we wouldn’t forget him or think any less of him. I held his hand and stroked his arm and told him that I loved him. I told him he was lovely. I told him that I loved him very, very much. I said thank you. And then I left.)