I meet a new friend today--it’s kind of cold, a cruddy day, but I have to get out of that stuffy ward and take a walk, get away from Carrie and her wild escape stories.
Try not to think about Joyce and her ten ways of suicide.
Clear my head, figure out this thing with Jeff and his sudden feelings for that 17-year-old-chick who suddenly popped up.
I will go mad if I don’t go out and kick some snow banks.
A middle-aged guy, carrying some two by fours, is tromping through a snowbank when he drops the boards to the ground, stumbles over them, and then falls flat on his rear.
I run over to help. “You okay?” I assume he’s part of the maintenance staff.
“No, no, I mean, yes, I’m okay.”
“Let me help you.” I grab his hand and help him up.
“Thank you.” Very formal.
“You’re not hurt?”
He laughs and brushes himself off. “Nope.” He sticks out his hand. “I’m D.J.*”
He looks about 35, a big man but not fat, with dusky, reddish skin and slicked back shiny black hair, blue eyes, and thick lips. He wears a red knitted winter cap with ear flaps. No mittens or gloves.
I take his hand. “I’m Jennifer.” D.J. has the biggest hands I have ever seen, broad like paddles, with long thick fingers. His handshake is tentative, respectful.
He wears no winter coat, but he’s obviously layered in several shirts, the top one a gray flannel. A matching scarf wrapped around his neck. He’s clad in brand new overalls and old rubber boots, the kind with those lattice metal buckles that we all wore as kids. He looks a bit unsteady on his feet.
“You sure you’re okay?”
“Yeah, I’m always tripping over my own feet. I got a little bit of palsy.” Then he says, with a bit of a stutter. “I’m-m re-tard-ed.”
“I see.” I help him pick up his boards and walk with him to the maintenance shed, just to make sure he’s really okay. We rap--mostly, he raps--all the way to the shed.
D.J.’s kinda cool, and he’s only slightly retarded--if he hadn’t told me, I would’ve just thought a little slow. He works on the grounds, but he’s also a patient.
He’s been here for 26 years, since he was 17!
Oh-my-god! I can’t even imagine being here when I’m 43. I’ll be an old lady, one foot in the grave.
But D.J. seems happy. When I asked him, “Don’t you want to split this joint?”
He shrugged. “Not really,” he said. “I been here almost all my life. I got a job, my own room, and three meals a day.”
“But what about your freedom?”
“To do what?”
“Well, you could get an apartment, a job on the outside, an old lady--”
He shook his head violently. “Naw, no, I don’t think so. See, I don’t add and subtract too good, and I can’t read or write none too good either.”
“You like it here?”
“I dunno. It’s all right, I suppose. I don’t know any different.”
I hadn’t considered the possibility that someone would actually want to stay.
Maybe that’s what happen when you get stuck in the system and can’t get out.
I go to Donohoe to shoot baskets and then go for a walk and see D.J. again. I only ever see him when I’m outside, walking around on the grounds, never in the dining room or at any of the events.
When I ask him why he never goes to the social events, he says, “I’m too shy.”
I tell him he should go to the dance tonight, but he just shakes his head violently. “Too many people.”
I can’t imagine isolating myself like that. Scary to think that I might be D.J.’s only friend.
“I went to a dance once, when I first got here,” he says. “Some boys called me ‘re-TARD-do,’ and boxed me into a corner.”
Some guys are so immature, picking on someone like D.J., who’s about as sweet as they come. “Didn’t the attendants do anything?”
When Wolfie the psycho danced me into the corner, they were on him like a fly on shit.
“Naw, they just laughed.”
Man, this place must’ve really sucked back then. “It’s probably different now. You might have fun.”
He shakes his head, so I let it drop.
“How did you get in here, anyway?”
“My mother told me I had to live here.”
“Oh.” How must he feel, being rejected by his own mother?
“My dad left when I was five. Said he didn’t want to live with no retard. Mom tried her best, but when I turned 17, she got sick. I had to go to court.”
“Yeah, I know all about that.”
“You had to go to court?”
“Are you retarded, too?”
I laugh. “Just stupid.”
His face brightens. “My mom visited me every week, but then she died.”
“It’s okay. It was a long time ago. But she’s still right here,” he says, his hand over his heart.
“You have a good attitude, D.J.”
“Do you get visitors?”
I picture Mo and Dee Dee driving to Cherokee, via icy back roads, only to be turned away. “A few. All my friends live far away.”
“I don’t get visitors no more,” he says.
“But it’s okay.” He outstretches his arms and twirls around. “This is my family now.”
I can’t even imagine it.
I’ll be so glad to split this joint--
But not until I say goodbye to D.J.
I find him watering a fir tree. “Hey, D.J.”
“Well, this is it; I leave tomorrow.”
“I just want to say goodbye.”
“I hate goodbyes.”
“I do too.”
“Will you visit me?”
“I’m going to Pennsylvania, D.J., and it’s far away.”
“Yeah, I know. To see Jeff.”
“Thanks for inviting me to the dance. It was fun.”
“Yeah, it was.”
“I’m gonna miss you.”
He continues watering the fir, lightly shaking the hose as if to nudge the water out faster. Then he puts the hose down and hugs me, a tentative, holding back hug. I’m going away, after all, out of his sphere, and he has already begun the process of disconnecting.
My life is about to take a dramatic turn--how it eventually plays out, I’m not sure--but I’ll be out of here and into the world, doing my thing.
But D.J.’s day-to-day life is here, always to be the same, following the seasons, nurturing new plants, mourning the dying and dead.
If I were to return 25-35 years from now, I might find D.J., an old man, in this same spot, the fir tree a mighty sage.
"What a Wonderful World," Louis Armstrong
I made this video, when I was sad. It is not extraordinary, but maybe it makes you happy...maybe.
NOTE: This video describes D.J.'s attitude toward life exactly; he was one of the happiest people I have ever met in my life. He really did see the world through a rainbow.
*Names and identifying details of other patients have been changed.
Excerpt copyright 2008, Jennifer Semple Siegel.
Text may not be reposted or republished without permission.