I have been at this mental hospital for 12 years now, having been voluntarily committed by my husband for hitting him and trying to stab him to death with my grandmother’s steak knife. It’s only because of his affair with Fern, his boss’ wife. As all miserable bastards do, he’s always denied it. The staff don’t know if I’m a schizophrenic or a con-artist which is the way I like it. I have decided being here is the best thing that ever happened to me, and I never want to leave, even though the staff are saying I am “institutionalized” and want me to move into a group home. Why they think I couldn’t still kill my husband is anybody’s guess.
Since I have played my rummy cards right, never looked Dr. Messer in the eye and lied about setting Gerda on fire three years ago, I have been rewarded by being placed on the open ward. I can now take solitary walks on the grounds in the morning. I discovered that the hospital was, indeed, a sprawling estate bordering on quiet neighborhoods. At the north end is a hill with a water tower at the top of it. I climbed up the ladder one morning and from the top I could see all over the town. As I gazed north, east, south and west, I saw childhood memories come to life at New Stanton Bridge, Pembridge Hill, the S— River. Almost being able to see my childhood home on Givens Street, I remembered having to come home from playing every day at 3 o’clock in the summer to drink my glass of chocolate milk “so I wouldn’t get too tired when I was having fun.” I couldn’t gulp it down because that would give me a case of the belches. I had to slowly drink it over a half hour period of time. As a result, my friends decided they generally couldn’t count on me to join the posse to catch the bandits, build mud forts, catch butterflies or even to play Mary Pickford. I finally convinced them that cowboys and actresses only worked in the morning.
I was surprised I could see Backworth Elementary School. My first day in kindergarten there was quite eventful because I pulled a chair out from under a fellow student, and as she fell on her behind she let out a mournful screech. Since I was generally not mischievous, my behavior mystified me. I spent most of the morning sitting in the corner and glancing back at the children marching in circles. Since this looked very boring to me even at that early age, I devised ways to be in the corner or at the nurse’s office whenever the marching music began.
At the eastern end of the hospital grounds is the patient cemetery. This is a lovely, peaceful and lonely place. Ancient maple, sycamore and oak trees line the large plotted area. No hospital buildings are visible from the site. Small grayed and moss covered stone markers lay in unkempt rows. “Patient Number Six”… “Patient Number Forty Seven” … There are no names or dates anywhere. Madness took everything away from these poor souls, even their names.
One morning I laid down on one of the unmarked graves, looked up at the blue sky and visualized my body going upward into the unknown. As I left the earth, I heard screams, cursing, wailing and tortured howling coming from the graves. I wanted to turn my body to look back, but as I did I fell to the ground with a thud and sprained my ankle. It began to swell immediately, and I didn’t know if I could walk all the way back to the ward. Fear gripped me. I couldn’t move my hands. I knew I could not depend on the staff to care for me. They would amputate my foot! I would get gangrene! I would get bulbar pneumonia! I would get bed sores! I would languish on the sick ward, but not die, for 30 years. I couldn’t have a sprained ankle!!!!
Suddenly, a woman walked up to me. She was gaunt, looked quite like the beautiful sacred witch in “Wizard of Oz” and had only one hand. The other wrist was full of oozing green and gray pus, but it smelled like lilacs. She wore a hospital frock like those I wore on the closed ward years ago.
She glared at me. “What are you doing here? Can’t you see this is our final resting place? Why do we have to be plagued by you ugly humans even after death?” Her voice was low and sounded like a threshing machine. Her eyes were deep black eye sockets. Although I got real close to her face to see where her eyes were, I couldn’t find them anywhere.
“I’m sorry. I agree totally with you. As soon as I die, I will not ever want to see another human either. However, I suspect I will run into a few from time to time, mostly my parents, who died too early for my liking. I wonder what marriage is like in heaven. I was just curious and sad about the graves with no names.”
She pointed to me with a bony finger that immediately fell off. “Why should you have to know who suffered here and died with no funeral, no friends or family to bury us? I never had one visitor in all the years I was here. My grandmother just dropped me off, and that was the last time I ever saw her or anybody else. Do you realize I am buried next to Olga, my worst enemy! She screamed every night. I never got more than ten hours sleep in 40 years. That’s how I died…of exhaustion.”
“What happened to your hand?”
“It got infected. I was chained to a wall for several years because I would tear my hair out, pull other patients’ teeth out and because I punched Dr. Landor. Whatever happened to him, that reprobate?”
“If he was the superintendent, I think he was found under his desk in a fetal position. At least that’s what Georgie says. I don’t know if it’s true.”
“Serves him right. He had the intelligence of a fetus.”
I wanted to hear more about the horrendous conditions in the hospital years ago but my ankle was throbbing. “When you die do you gain special powers? For instance, I don’t want to go back to the ward with this sprained ankle. God, does it hurt now! Can you fix it?”
“Yes. Now that I am dead I have many talents, opportunities and accomplishments never enjoyed when I was alive. Let me see it.”
She placed my ankle in her hand. She mumbled something like “Do what you have to do to get her the hell out of this hallowed space.” In a second, the swelling went down, and there was no more pain.
“Oh, my goodness. That was quick. This certainly gives me more things to look forward to when I die. I hope I run into you when I die. I don’t have any friends here, except Myrna. She looks just like Myrna Loy if she were 150 years old. I fear I will be dying soon. Did you die in a calamity?”
“Yes, I died in my life.” She faded away into the grave marked “Number Twenty.” I looked down at my healed ankle and wondered why death brings out the best in all of us.
Connie Woodring is a 73-year-old retired therapist/educator/social activist who is getting back to her true love of writing after 45 years in her real job. She has had ten of her poems published, one of which was nominated for the 2017 Pushcart Prize. Two articles, one on domestic violence and another on violence in the gay community have been published. Both are excerpts from her yet-to-be-published non-fiction book, “What Power? Which People? Reflections On Power Abuse and Empowermen