They say you were something in those formative years/hold on to nothing as fast as you can

How are you supposed to feel when someone dies who was very important to you for a very short time very long ago? It seems like I shouldn’t be allowed to be as sad as I am. Like I’m grabbing the coat tails of someone else’s tragedy. But all I know is that there are a small smattering of people who played a role in my life during pivotal periods who I’ve never been able to reconnect with through social media as an adult, and I can now stop my periodic Google searches for this one guy. I never found him. And there’s a tiny hole in my heart because of it.

The end of my eighth grade year was a time of shifting loyalties. In my overly dramatic brain, I was beset on all sides by friends who had never been friends, by enemies who had always been enemies, by people who did actually like me but sensed which way the wind was blowing and desperately jumped ship when being my ally became a liability. I had always been something of a joke, but as middle school marched towards its close, my value as a target for ridicule seemed to reach a terrifying crescendo.

But then something strange happened. An odd assortment of people began to tentatively stand by my side. People who had written me off as a hopeless nerd got to spend some time with me and realized I was actually funny and interesting. People who had always blended into the woodwork emerged and reached out to me.

I have no recollection of how my running joke with this guy started. We were in art class together; that was it. To be quite honest, there may have been some casual inhalation of rubber cement that made us think the whole thing was funny in the first place. But suddenly every time we passed in the halls, he would hip check me and we would trade our silly lines, act out our tiny play. There was no romantic aspect to it (that was already developing elsewhere with someone else I had barely noticed before). This was just a simple affectionate gesture between two people who were practically strangers until that spring, that spring that had been so bleak for me until that point. Did we recognize our mutual dysfunction? A similar darkness inside, a sensation of being lost and directionless?

1994 was a long time ago, and due to a variety of factors my once formidable memory has begun to crumble, so all I have left of him are snippets, small vivid moving pictures of the two of us from that summer and fall. I remember us at a birthday party, both having escaped from the main celebration, hanging off a bed and watching The State upside down. (It was the episode with the Sleep With the State Concept and Barry Lutz Monkey Torture, for the record.) I remember both of us leaving tryouts for soccer teams that we had very little interest in actually joining, strolling with another friend across a baseball diamond, a parking lot, a grassy quad. I don’t remember what we talked about, just a feeling of contentment.

I remember the new school year starting and alliances shifting yet again, making a new set of friends through the fall play, never really seeing him beyond the occasional nudge in the lunch room. And then I remember him being gone. And I remember myself losing my mind, and being too distracted by my own crumbling sanity to have any consideration for his disappearance. I knew he had disciplinary issues. I knew he had dismal grades. I assumed our school had “asked him to leave” because unless someone was actually caught doing drugs in the gym the administration was reluctant to do anything so déclassé as expelling anybody. I heard he had transferred to another local prep school. I decided he was fine. We were never the kind of friends who would chat on the phone, so we disappeared from each other’s lives.

One day he appeared at school, alongside another former middle school classmate (who had, presciently, left after 8th grade rather than bother with another four years of snobby nonsense). He shambled up to me with a huge smile on his face, I yelped with surprised delight and gave him an enormous hug. We fell immediately into our little script from years ago, a script that we had tossed out in favor of actual tentative friendship before he had vanished but still, always, the core of our bond. It was a stupid little bond. I was nothing more than a blip in his life, I’m sure of it. I called him Vinny. He called me Gina. And then he was gone. I never saw him again.

I saw his brother once, when I was living in New York City. I asked how he was doing. The answer was generally noncommittal but clearly not good. I could commiserate. That same night I caught a cab home from Grand Central, rode with the window down, watching the city fly by, letting the air hit my face, feeling that old emptiness, that old darkness. I woke up the next day and found I had plunged into my worst depression in years. It took me another two years to pull myself out. From the sound of it, whatever my old friend was going through, he was in too deep.

I searched for him every time a new social network popped up. Friendster. MySpace. I was actually briefly Facebook friends with some other rando from Buffalo who happened to have the same name until I read his profile and discovered this kid was about seven years younger than us and a drummer in a Christian rock band. Definitely not the same guy. I was apparently not the only one who had left town but occasionally poked around the internet trying to track him down; he had left absolutely no digital footprints. But he had never gone anywhere. As I now understand it, he was in Buffalo the whole time. And tomorrow, I am going to his funeral.

When you’re an adolescent, you break your identity down into pieces and then put yourself back together at least once, if not multiple times. Sometimes in that interval when you’ve fallen apart, you have a moment where you are briefly no one in particular, where you can look around with some peace and clarity and relate to other people with no baggage. The end of 8th grade was that moment for me. I was tired of everyone’s bullshit, sick of their expectations, over their preconceived notions of who I was and who I was supposed to be. And in that moment, I made a friend. Just for a moment. Not enough of a moment to merit the feeling I had in the pit of my stomach when I was told he had died, logically, but no one has ever accused the emotional portions of my brain of having much connection to logic. In that moment when I needed him, he was Vinny and I was Gina. Some days that was what made the difference.

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We shall board our imagined ship and wildly sail/Among sacred islands of the mad till death/Shatters the fabulous stars and makes us real

When my family went to visit Rochester this past spring, we drove past a huge old brick building that had obviously been vacant for quite some time.  “What is THAT?” my husband wondered.  “That’s an old insane asylum,” I told him flatly.  I was quite confident, and I was right.  I know what those things look like.  There was one on the street where I grew up.

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When I was an adolescent struggling with mental illness, I found the abandoned towers of the Buffalo State Asylum for the Insane both haunting and troubling.  I was never in any real danger of being institutionalized myself — for one thing, “institutionalization” the way it was practiced until the latter half of the 20th century simply does not exist anymore.  There was a brief passing threat that I might need to be hospitalized in the short term at a small inpatient facility, one with more modern methods, but also one where, as the ER doc informed me solemnly, “they do electroshock therapy.”  That put the fear in me pretty quickly.  I have a bad habit of wallowing in media that I know will upset me, so at that point I had read One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, The Bell Jar, Girl Interrupted…even thought I knew intellectually that a stay at the small clinic wouldn’t leave me lobotomized like Randle McMurphy, I also knew I didn’t want to take that chance.

The towers have been long since abandoned, but there is still a psychiatric hospital on the grounds near the old asylum.  The summer after my first year in college, I worked at a gas station across the street, and our clientele was largely composed of inpatients with day passes.  They were a colorful crew, all of whom had earned mildly humerous nicknames from the Stop-N-Go veterans.  They came in all day long, buying cigarettes, coffee, hot dogs, beer.  They had day passes, but nowhere to actually go during the day.  So they wandered up and down the street, hung out in our parking lot, mumbled to themselves, and drank.  There was one gentleman who my co-workers had dubbed “Rod”, because his feathered blond hair lent him a vague resemblance to Rod Stewart…if Rod Stewart was made entirely out of sandblasted leather and wore a torn-up denim tuxedo rather than flashy blazers and leggings. Rod would come in about four or five times throughout the say and buy 40 ounces of King Cobra malt liquor in a paper bag.  One day Rod came in to buy probably his third 40 of the day, and as I rang him up, he leaned forward and whispered conspiratorially, “You know, they’re all crazy over there.”

Mildly taken aback, I just smiled at him politely.  “Yeah?”

He nodded, and then added, “After a while it starts to rub off on you.”  He looked rueful for a moment, then turned and walked out the door as the Backstreet Boys crooned over the sound system.

“But I don’t want to go among mad people,” Alice remarked.
“Oh, you can’t help that,” said the Cat.  “We’re all mad here.  I’m mad.  You’re mad.”
“How do you know I’m mad?” said Alice.
“You must be,” said the Cat, “otherwise you wouldn’t have come here.
-Lewis Carroll

 

When my father was a child, he also lived near the asylum.  He and his cousin would ride their bikes past it after school, and the patients would be at their windows, shouting lurid things at them through the bars.  Hearing that story as a kid left me aghast.  It sounded so Dickensian somehow.  Mental patients hissing vulgarities at children from their cells.  Every time I drove by, I would hear the hissing in my head.  It felt uncomfortably real.

As an adult, my dad had a friend who worked at the asylum.  In a recent email, he described it thus:

“While I was waiting for my…friend to be available so we could go to lunch, I overheard my first schizophrenic conversation between an aid and a patient.  The striking this was that he kept repeating the same tape or gambit over and over.  And the aid had no other option but to put up with it and play her part over and over.

When I read this, I felt a chill.  Because it was immediately apparent to me that the patient in question wasn’t just schizophrenic.  He was autistic.  Because people with autism were often diagnosed with “childhood schizophrenia” (a diagnosis, by the way, that is almost unheard of to this day, to the extent that one girl with the diagnosis, Jani Schofield, has been making the talk show rounds like a carnival side show for half a decade now) and put in asylums.  That’s what we used to do with disabled children.  We locked them away.  Kids with autism, kids with Down Syndrome.  Doctors told their parents these children were hopeless cases. Temple Grandin’s parents were told to insitutionalize her.  Daryl Hannah’s parents were told to institutionalize her.  They were not to be seen.  They were not to be spoken of.

The great wave of deinstitutionalization in this country began with the one-two punch of the publication of Cuckoo’s Nest in 1962 and the Community Mental Health act passed in 1963 by President Kennedy.  Kennedy understood the state of mental health care better than most — his younger sister, Rosemary, was lobotomized and institutionalized for relatively shady reasons.  She had a low IQ and grew volatile and disobedient as a young woman.  By the age of 23, her father unilaterally decided that she needed radical treatment. The doctor who performed the procedure would “ask her to recite the Lord’s Prayer or sing God Bless America.

“We went through the top of her head.  I think she was awake.  She had a mild tranquilizer.  We made an estimate on how far to cut based on how she responded.  When she began to become incoherent. we stopped.”

Men reaching out past the bars. Autistics scripting endlessly to bored orderlies.  After a while, it starts to rub off on you.

“The thing that I have understood is that madness entails no obligations.  There’s no need to kill people in order to prove to them that you are insane.  They know it already.”
-Carl Solomon

 

“Carl Solomon!  I’m with you in Rockland
where you must feel very strange…
I’m with you in Rockland
where the faculties of the skull no longer admit
the worms of the senses
I’m with you in Rockland
where you scream in a straightjacket that you’re
losing the game of the actual ping pong of the abyss 
I’m with you in Rockland
Where you bang on the catatonic piano the soul
is innocent and immortal it should never die
ungodly in an armed madhouse.
I’m with you in Rockland
where fifty more shocks will never return your
soul to its body again from its pilgrimage to a
cross in the void.”
-Allan Ginsburg

 

We don’t really have institutions anymore.  The schizophrenics and manic depressives are in and out of prison instead.  People struggle through the waking world disguised in a cloak provided courtesy of Pfizer and Blue Cross Blue Shield, where we can quietly refill prescriptions and hide in plain sight.  Autistic children are integrated in mainstream classrooms, triggering horrified queries about the rising rates.  1 in 88.  Where did they all come from?  Where were they before?

They were in the institutions.  The ones that are slowly but surely being turned into luxury hotellike the one in Buffalo, on the street where I grew up. I am glad for continuing urban revitalization in my hometown, but I would rather spend a winter at the Overlook with Jack Torrance that spend a single night at the Richardson Olmsted Complex with the voice of a thousand McMurphys hissing in my brain.  Because after a while, it starts to rub off on you.

“And at times the fact of his absence will hit you like a blow to the chest, and you will weep.”

Aside

When I was in middle school, my mom received a delightful invitation one day from a family friend.  Richard Lee was going to be consulting on a case for the Buffalo Zoo; there was a newborn giraffe who had something wrong with one of its four stomachs (fun fact: giraffes have four stomachs!), and he thought maybe I would like to tag along.  I’m not sure what made him think of me.  Maybe he knew I needed a small infusion of whimsy in my life.  But I do know that, because of Dick Lee, I ended up in a cage with the most amazing animal I’ve ever had the opportunity to touch, getting licked by its enormous sticky purple tongue.

I remember thinking, at the time, “Why is Dr. Lee working at the zoo?” I was under the impression that he was an OB-GYN. I’d been to his office at Children’s Hospital.  But it turned out that Dick Lee had a resume longer than my arm.  According to this exhaustive interview, he was Director of Medical Clinics and the Primary Care Center at Yale, as well as chief of General Medicine.  Then he was vice-chairman of the Department of Medicine at SUNY Buffalo, while also chief of medical services at the VA.  Then he became head of the Department of Medicine at Children’s Hospital, Chief of Maternal and Adolescent Medicine and the Division of Geographic Medicine at UB, professor of anthropology, professor of social and preventative medicine, professor of pediatrics, chief medical officer at the WHO Center for Wealth in Housing, medical director of something called Ecology and Environment, Inc., and, yes, consultant in Internal Medicine at the Buffalo Zoological Society.  He was also one of the smartest, funniest, kindest and most captivating human beings I have ever had the immeasurable pleasure to know.

And yesterday, he died of a heart attack.

I was talking to a friend recently about how ages that seemed old when we were children don’t seem old now.  Obviously this is mainly due to a change in perspective as you yourself age, but I think it’s also due to men like Dick Lee.  When I told my husband that my parents’ friend had died, out of the blue, he asked how old Dick had been.  I told him 75 or 76, something like that.  “Well, then it wasn’t REALLY out of the blue.  I mean, he was 75.” But Dick somehow seemed ageless. I hadn’t seen him a couple years, I suppose, but the last time I did see him he was as vibrant and vital as he had ever been in all the time I knew him.

I met Dick when I was 7.  I had already known of his son, Ben, who was a year ahead of my sister in school and had given indelible performances in their productions of M*A*S*H, The Music Man, and The Man Who Came to Dinner. Ben was always much nicer than he really had to be to the kid who showed up backstage at her sister’s plays and gazed at him in awe.  But then I met Ben’s parents and realize that he simply came from very very good stock.

My dad got to know Dick when he helped facilitate an exchange program between Nichols and a boarding school called Loretto, in Scotland, which Dick had attended briefly as a teenager.  The teacher who came to Buffalo from Loretto, Peter Wood, became a great friend and colleague to my father, and he began coming to dinners at our house.  Soon, Dick and Susan Lee began coming along.  And that summer, we were invited to our first of many gatherings at the Lees’ house.

The Lees lived out in the country, on an expansive property called Many Barn Farm.  The name was apt.  As a kid, my favorite barn was, understandably, the stable, where they rented out stalls, and where I took one of the two horseback rides I’ve ever gone on in my life.  (Both were before the age of 10. It’s been a slow 20 years, horse-wise.)  Another barn was converted in the ‘90s into a guest house and library.  I remember Dick and Susan being very eager to show off the renovations to my parents and me once they were complete.  They envisioned holding salons there, gatherings on cold winter nights in the large library loft with a selection of the most interesting people Buffalo had to offer, where they could trade ideas and drink wine.

But every party at the Lees’ house was essentially a salon.  A salon with swimming, and volleyball, and kebobs.  Dick had, over the years, curated a collection of friends who were smart and funny and very occasionally skirted the line of pretentiousness, but regardless a fabulous array of individuals for me to be exposed to at a young age.  I didn’t really appreciate that exposure until I was quite a bit older.  When I was young, I used to spend much of the time at their parties exploring the house, which was crammed to the rafters with books and papers and maps and globes and relics and an enormous tiger skin rug that I would lie on and read the old magazines (mainly Harvard Lampoons, if I recall correctly) that I had scavenged out of his older son’s bedroom, because the actual books in the house were all too intimidating for me to touch.  Dick Lee seemed to ingest information whole, absorb it through his skin.  He knew everything and somehow wanted to learn more.  He was among the most well-read people I have ever met.

He was also one of the kindest, and almost certainly the most benevolent.  He spent his summers for years and years taking students as young as 14 on medical treks to Ladakh, a remote mountainous area in Kashmir, where they would help treat infections, administer vaccines, and care for pregnant women and their children.  He apparently took similar trips to Brazil and Kenya.  He spent much of his residency in rural Montana, doing housecalls for families in the middle of nowhere and then working on a reservation.  He managed to combine his drive for adventure and thirst for knowledge with a relentless do-goodery that touched thousands of patients over 50 years of practice.

And he somehow managed to take the time out three months ago to respond almost immediately when I sent him an email about my health concerns.  He provided some clarification about auto-antibody tests and reassured me that it was certainly possible to have positive results on those tests and never develop full-blown symptoms of lupus or Sjogren’s. (He also followed up with my mother a few weeks ago to see if I’d gotten any answers from my rheumatologist visit, and just to express general concern.)  I look at our email correspondence and feel, as my mom put it yesterday, bereft.  It doesn’t make sense.  How could he have just been here, and then, in a moment, gone?  I listened to a radio interview last night that he and Ben did a couple years back, discussing his discovery of their hidden Chinese heritage, and I just smiled hearing his voice.  His voice that was alternately calm, clear and wise, or else boisterous, rollicking, Shakespearean.  I can’t imagine never hearing it again.  The world is richer for him having been here, and poorer now that he is gone.