I’m not sure what happened. But you see, when these things happen, no one is ever sure what happened. Not even the one who “happened.”
Slowly, they say. It happens slowly. One sad day onto the next.
First thing he said to me when I walked into the ward was something vague like, “they keep changing the rules, Gang, I follow the rules then they change them!” I nod and tell him that they will always change the rules but smart people will always adjust. I never looked down on the right side of the floor, we stood face to face while a hundred people surround us. Eighty of which were also residents of Ward 4.
Ward 4’s floor wasn’t clean, I could smell the urine on cement, alternatingly sharp then faint depending on the wind. I could hear the chain slide on the cement every time he shifted his weight, left to right. He remained upright talking to me like we were in a tea party in a garden somewhere instead of Ward 4. He asked me about the typhoon and I said countries recover from typhoons, and he looked like he didn’t believe me. He went on and on about how unsure he was about things and where was he to sleep that night? I said, you’ll figure something out before the sun sets. And he says, he’s not even sure where he is. I said that happens to me all the time.
I told him to read books and he asked me how I knew that he likes books, I said, “Well, I know that because you write very well.” He said, “I write?” I said, “…yes-very well, in fact.” Then it hits him after a long period of chatting about his world that I was his creative writing teacher. Then a real flicker of recognition happens, he smiles at me and says, that’s right, I do know you! (as if gleeful that he was fooling me this whole time with a charade, patronizing and pretending that he knew me when really, he didn’t.)
I am not allowed to leave a notepad or a pen for him because of the potential harm it may cause. (can someone invent a pen that retracts, one that can’t hurt the writer in an episode?)
So I say, “I’ll be back on Wednesday,” he asks me why. I said, “…well, to teach the class and to see you.” Then he tells me he’ll come and see me instead. I said “..sure, why not.. “ Then I am more and more aware of the chain around his left ankle. So crude and heavy and there. It was there.
He repeats his thought, “I’m not sure where I am, Gang, do you know where you are?” And I say, “…well, sometimes I don’t, but it’s okay, the more I move, the more I figure out where I am. And you will, too.” He says, “…you think I will?” My turn to lie. I say yes.
I’m not sure if he will ever find his way back to where we are. What the psychiatric experts call baseline function. He picks his whiskers til the skin around his chin bleeds, he doesn’t notice that he is not in his cell, he’s not sure where he’ll sleep. He wasn’t sure who I was til he found clues in the context of our conversation. But he stayed polite because that is his baseline function.
I ask around again. And I call the experts. “His brain wanted him to forget his reality.” My doctor friend says. So I said, so that’s his brain’s way of protecting him? He says something like that. It is survival. Reality is too dark that forgetting is the only way to survive the torment of memories and facts.
There’s a murder in his past, whether by his hand or not. His wife is gone but he sees her in other people or under his bed. He doesn’t sway while talking to me, keeps his eyes on mine. I am more and more aware of the chain around his left ankle. But he is polite. And he’s my star pupil. And I am his teacher. He remembers my voice but says I look different that day. (I had a hair cut and wasn’t wearing my eternal black shirt–so he’s correct!) My keen observer, I always teased him –valedictorian of the class.
And he says, “..was I valedictorian of your class?”
I say, “..absolutely.”
“And I write well?”
“Yes, you write well.”
He says “..wow,” with a look of genuine surprise.
He smiles warmly, I smile back too.
One hundred men huddled around us are ignored, it was just me and him there when he says, “Don’t tell anyone that I know that they change the rules, I know that they changed the rules, Gang.” And I promptly reply, “And you will adjust, because you are smart.” This time he doesn’t ask, he just says, “I am.” He doesn’t notice his saliva dripping from his mouth to his chest. I don’t mind it at all. I know he doesn’t mean to offend me and like he says, “the rules are now different.”
I walked out of the prison psychiatric ward that day. He didn’t.
But he will forget I came to visit.
My turn to be imprisoned.
His turn to be free.
Blogger’s note: I am a Creative Writing teacher in the Maximum Security Prison. Here is a blog entry from August, 2007 — the first month of my teaching there. Rock Ed Philippines is celebrating the 4th year of “Rock the Rehas” – an alternative learning system project in prisons this July. 🙂