The Awakenings Review, Volume 4The Awakenings Review, Volume 4

“Wilbert. Su madre.” It was like clockwork. Every Saturday. No exceptions. Even if the New England winter was chucking icicles instead of snowflakes, his mother came. Wilbert perked right up. He knew su madre meant a big hug from Mamma, the familiar sound of his native tongue, and chocolates. I’m pretty certain his enthusiasm was mostly about the chocolates. Not that I could understand their conversations, despite my ringside seat. Wilbert spoke only Spanish, when he spoke, which wasn’t much. He seemed to find his voice mostly in grunts and head nods. Even with his madre. That must have been hard on her. Then again, having a big American, too old to be her son but too young to be her husband, sitting in on her weekly visit with her baby boy must have been a bit of a drag, too. Plus, there was the ever-present aide. It was like a talk show, with Mamma in the host’s chair, Wilbert the guest of honor, me relegated to the far end of the couch, and the aide as off-camera director, watching the clock and cueing the commercial breaks. Only Mamma spoke.

Wilbert and I were patients in a psychiatric hospital. We were both under constant supervision. This meant that we were never without each other’s company and never without the company of a psychiatric aide. Privacy was nonexistent. At 31 years old, I found this difficult. Wilbert, on the other hand, was largely oblivious.

Wilbert was 19, but his emotional age was maybe 9. He lived in a mental haze that required substantial medication for him to function even at the grunt-and-shuffle level. The staff considered him a risk to himself, and others, which is why he was under constant supervision. I never saw him even attempt to harm anyone, thankfully, because he was a powerfully built little bastard on whom, I am sure, the concept of restraint would have been all but lost. The aides were alternately wary of him and protective of him. Me too.

I was 19 once, and full of beans. I was the starting fullback on the Rutgers football team and a celebrity member of my fraternity. I was even enthusiastic about my newly designated major—journalism, despite Joe Namath’s highly publicized selection of journalism as his major at Alabama on the criteria that it was “easier than basket weaving.” Perhaps I was overly sensitive to Joe’s none-too-flattering description, given that I did arrive at journalism by default, thanks to my nemesis of a math prerequisite, calculus—a subject that I had failed spectacularly as a freshman and could not possibly live long enough to understand. My best friend, TD (for teardrop, in homage to his body shape) was my roommate at Ford Hall in the heart of the campus’ idyllic quad, and just around the corner from fraternity row and the TEKE house—once a genteel family residence, now a monument to resilience. Rocked daily by its roster of 85 brothers, only a handful of whom lived in the house, but all of whom hung there constantly (save for the annoying interruptions dictated by class schedules), the TEKE house took a pounding. Meals were particularly special, so much so that they were confined to the basement for ease of clean-up (read: hose-down). Italian hoagies were a weekly luncheon favorite, appealing not only to the boys’ nutritional appetites but also, thanks to the phallic properties of the sausage and the bun, their more prurient fantasies. Friday evening’s beer-and-spaghetti dinner, a.k.a. Friday night’s food fight, was also noteworthy. Given the theoretical relationship between food and sex, I suppose it was all a weekly build-up to Saturday night’s unleashing of the libido.

No libidos were unleashed on Wilbert’s Saturday nights, aside from whatever pleasure he derived from chocolate consumption. It was just another dark end to another tedious day. Worse, it was the night that led into the seven-day desert of waiting to once again hear the words, “Wilbert. Su madre.”

To experience constant supervision is not pleasant, and certainly not natural. The only privacy is that which takes place in one’s mind. Too much time alone in there can be a little scary, especially when you consider that it was the mind (or the disturbed state of health thereof) that dictated the need for constant supervision in the first place. Nighttime was the worst. Wilbert’s bed was next to mine, separated only by a simple nightstand. Many nights I awoke to Wilbert’s dreamy mumblings. It was the most I ever heard him speak, though madre was the only word I could ever make out. Too many nights I looked over and saw him crying, the plaintive tears of a lost child. I felt bad for him, though truth be told, he made me feel sadder still for myself. I missed my family desperately, and wanted to join in Wilbert’s crocodile tears. But as always, an aide sat sentry at the foot of our beds, so instead I escaped to happier days…

The campus exploded on Saturday nights, and the TEKE house sat in the middle of the action on Union Street. Girls were everywhere; a mix of townies and college coeds from around the state. The girls paraded past the frat houses as brothers performed their best circus-barker routines to get them inside. At the TEKE house, it started at the sidewalk where several brothers perched on the post-and-rail fence to steer girls onto the big porch, where a large welcoming committee proffered free beer and loud music inside. Once inside, it was a short putt to the heart of the party—the basement, now festively decorated and, hopefully, devoid of dried spaghetti on the walls. That’s where I met Jackie, a pretty blonde from nearby Fairleigh Dickinson University, who had come to fraternity row that night with some girlfriends. My roommate, TD, had already attached himself to the pack. He called me over to help splinter the group. I peeled off Jackie.

We talked. We danced. We made out. We exchanged phone numbers. And all that happened while I was still oblivious to her best asset, which I discovered when it was time for her to go. It was beautiful…a new, sleek, metallic-green Mustang convertible. Talk about sex appeal! Over the coming months, I saw Jackie every weekend and spoke with her every day. She dutifully followed my football exploits on Saturday afternoons, and on Sundays, we’d ride that glorious Mustang through autumn’s rich colors, soaking in the sun’s warmth, tasting the fresh air, and wishing the day would never end. It was a beautiful time, full of promise for the future. Who knows where the relationship might have gone, had I not been 19 and full of beans.

Then again, who knows how much sooner I might have gotten out from under constant supervision, had I not spiked the M&Ms. It seemed like a rational idea at the time, albeit for the suicidally depressed individual that I was at 31. In fact, the whole point was to convince my shrink that I was better. I simply gummed my meds, rather than swallowing them. Then when I thought no aides were looking at me, I’d cough the meds into my hand and, later, pop them into an M&M’s bag that I kept in my nightstand. Theory being: anyone who’d sit on a perfectly lethal bag of meds shouldn’t require constant supervision. Of course, as soon as I heard the words, “Did you swallow those?” I knew I’d never get the chance to execute that bit of convoluted institutional logic. The gig was up. The search was on. My stash of more than a thousand milligrams of pseudo M&Ms was discovered. And bad things rained down upon me. But nothing that was subsequently done to me had the sobering effect of realizing what I might have done to Wilbert. What if this little boy, wrapped in the body of a young adult, had opened the drawer of the nightstand that separated our beds and seen candy? I still think about it. Along the spectrum of “really stupid things we do in this life,” it’s over there on the serious edge. At 19, losing the Mustang was on the considerably lighter end of that spectrum.

One Saturday night, Jackie had a family commitment and couldn’t make it to the fraternity party. That night, I put on my best just looking face and joined my brother fence-sitters directing girls onto the TEKE house porch. I stayed admirably on plan for about an hour, until a tall, lovely brunette appeared. Her name was Cheryl, and mine would soon be mud. Another hour passed, and Cheryl and I were now sitting on the porch, engrossed in getting better acquainted, when I heard the words, “Big Boy. Jackie’s here.” I looked up to see Jackie standing at the sidewalk, not 10 yards away. She had decided to short-circuit the family event and surprise me. My heart sank as I saw the disappointment on her face, followed in short order by the depressing realization that my days of saddling up the Mustang were over. But I was 19. I got over it.

Not so with all 19-year-olds. After several months of life in the relatively civilized world of a private institution, Wilbert was transferred to a state mental hospital. It saddened me to see this hopelessly lost man-child going to what I knew would be a place more basic and less forgiving—a place where his future would be indefinitely suspended. I expect he lives there still.

How lucky I was to have been 19, and full of beans.




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