Mr. Willard’s Going Home – Part I
Posted on August 21, 2012
Some stories just stick in your head. They might not seem like real stories at the time, just things you know you want to remember, because although they don’t all ‘come together’ in meaning for you at that point in life, you know they’re important enough to remember, that somehow there is a lesson to be learned, something you need to know about life right there in front of your face that just won’t ‘jell’ yet for you in meaning.
Mr. Willard’s Going Home is one of those stories. I’m not even sure why its been wandering around in my own head looking to be written somewhat like the lost tribes of Israel wandered until they found the ‘Promised Land’, but it has. Not right up on the surface all the time, but it’s plagued me for a bit now to be written and today is the time.
Mr. Willard wasn’t anyone most folks would consider important. He was a middle-aged Black man of no particular means, without much formal education, without a job, who just happened to suffer from mental illness on top of the other things that would have been enough of a handicap for so many people
When he first came to us, he had been in a mental hospital for a period of years. He wasn’t, therefore, accustomed to living in the outside world, doing things for himself, managing his own life. Prior to being diagnosed with mental illness and hospitalized, he had done what many people do who are among the undiagnosed mentally ill – he’d abused drugs and alcohol. I suppose back in that period of time, he might have been considered something of a hell raiser, but he was not that anymore to be sure.
He was a little over five and a half feet tall, of slight build, finely chiseled features to his face. Mostly, he wore jeans and a tee shirt, but when it was cold, he favored sweats. He was quiet, not real talkative. He listened and you could tell that because he mostly always followed directions implicitly. Despite being quiet, not having a lot to say, he made friends readily enough and in a short enough period of time, was making a good transition to living outside of the hospital, filling his time with what needed to be done and having some enjoyment out of his life.
Since he lived off Social Security benefits, he didn’t have a lot of money, but that didn’t seem to bother him, all of his friends shared that lot and learned to find ways to enjoy themselves without spending all they had. Cigarettes were probably his one luxury in life.
After a period of time, Mr. Willard started having heart palpitations that made him feel dizzy, weak and sometimes almost pass out. We brought him to doctors and they diagnosed him with an enlarged heart, that they said was probably the result of years of drug and alcohol abuse combined with lack of self care. They prescribed medications, more medications and still more medications. All of this on top of what he was already taking for his mental illness…and you wondered that he had any room left for food in his stomach.
As time went by, despite all the doctor’s care and the medications, despite that he even gave up the cigarettes that were his one luxury, there were increasing trips by ambulance to the hospital for Mr. Willard when he would be experiencing rapid heartbeats…or slowed ones. Every time he had to go to the hospital…he was so afraid, it showed in his eyes and we always made sure that one of us rode in the ambulance with him, trying to comfort him. Even after countless trips, that look was still there and it took days after his release to see his normal, easygoing countenance to return.
One day, it was about Halloween, we were helping everyone to find costumes for a big Halloween party being planned. People were thinking devils, witches, ghouls, mummies…all the traditional Halloween costumes. We brought a group of them to the Goodwill store to look for things they might use to make costumes. Mr. Willard had none of those things in mind. When he spotted a tuxedo, complete with the tuxedo shirt, his eyes lit up and he smiled. We knew right then and there, he’d found what he wanted. Despite that it was little large on him, making him appear even thinner, he knew that’s what he wanted to dress in for Halloween. When he found the hat to go with it…and had the whole outfit on, he looked like some jazzman of yesteryear…one cool blue note, played on a saxophone, floating right up into space. It was perfect….even if it wasn’t the traditional Halloween attire.
Little did we know, that Mr. Willard had discovered his alter ego, the flip side of his coin, the other him that might have been….had so many things gone differently, been different in his life. When Mr. Willard was wearing his tuxedo and that hat, he could have easily walked into any 5 star restaurant or hotel…and been treated like he deserved the best the house had to offer. After that Halloween party, Mr. Willard returned to Goodwill and got a couple of other suits, but the tuxedo was always his favorite. Instead of the usual jeans and tee shirt, he was now dressing everyday in a suit…and at least once a week, he was wearing that tuxedo. He always wore the hat. Something about wearing that tuxedo had changed something in him. He walked a little differently. The hat was worn at a jaunty angle on his head and he was even more debonaire than before. Everyone noticed it. Now, you only saw Mr. Willard wear his jeans or his sweats if outdoor sports were involved or he was at home relaxing.
A few months after Mr. Willard’s fashion awakening, he said he wasn’t feeling well. We couldn’t get him to describe what was happening, but I saw a look in his eyes that I’d never seen before. They were just…full of grace. We had him sitting upstairs, in the office, hoping whatever was going on would pass as it sometimes did, but also to be ready just in case we had to call for an ambulance. I sat down next to him to talk with him and noticed that the cross he wore on a chain around his neck was bumping up and down on his chest…literally jumping…every time his heart beat. I’d never seen anything like it in my life and I admit I was fascinated at that happening and a bit frightened for Mr. Willard.
While I was taking his pulse, he was talking to me. He told me that he’d been talking to his little brother. At first, I thought that was nice enough because most of our people didn’t have a lot of family contact and it was always good for them when they did. I asked him how old his little brother was and where he lived after I finished counting his pulse. He told me that his little brother had been dead for many years, having died in a motorcycle accident when they were young. I suppose Mr. Willard noted the look in my eye (wondering if he was becoming psychotic or delusional) when he told me that. He quickly added that his little brother ‘came’ to him at night, when everything was quiet and talked to him, telling him not to worry or be afraid, reassuring him that all would be well. He told me that he had heard the ambulance come for this little brother and seen them take him away from the accident site, only for him to die en route to the hospital, alone in the ambulance. That’s why Mr. Willard, that quiet,debonaire, cool blue note of a man, was terrified to ride in the ambulance. Now, I knew. The sound of the siren, the thought that he wouldn’t even make it there…those replayed in his mind and reminded him of the last glimpses he’d had of his little brother.
Although his pulse was not as rapid as it had been in the past, this time I was afraid for Mr. Willard. I had a pervasive feeling that something was about to happen, something bigger than what we could handle with his physical health. We started to call some of the general hospitals that had psych units. I was pretty sure that we could not get him admitted to a hospital based on his physical problems, those symptoms had been much worse on other days than today. But, maybe, we could do a little fudging and get him admitted to a psych unit…maybe if we told them he was seeing, hearing and talking to his brother who had been deceased for years. Make no mistake, I truly believed that Mr. Willard was doing all that. I believed his brother had reached somehow from beyond and was trying to help him, much as Mr. Willard had longed to do for his little brother, but could not. I just knew…and I didn’t know how I knew…that he needed to be in a hospital because something bad was about to happen.
It was a Friday and we had to call a lot of hospitals to find one with an opening. The people who worked for me were looking at me as if I had gone over to the other side…of sanity…because I believed Mr. Willard, because I only had some premonition that he was about to have a physical health crisis. Since they believed he was delusional, they quickly were able to get the hospital to send a van to transport him. I suppose I’m lucky, that they didn’t come out and ask for a second bed for me, judging by the way they were looking at me.
Saturday evening, we got a call from the hospital. Mr. Willard had an ‘incident’ and was now in cardiac ICU. They were able to revive him…only because he’d been at the hospital. When I heard that, I knew I wasn’t crazy, that he would have died had we not told that little white lie. I knew to a certainty that I did the right thing telling that lie. It was what all of them expected to hear, after all…the crazy man is crazy. That’s because they didn’t know Mr. Willard. They hadn’t really listened to him, nor held his hand while he told that story and looked into his eyes to see….nothing but grace, no more fear. So often, we presume things about people based on what we think we know, without bothering to be still and quiet…to just listen. Mr. Willard taught me that important lesson and I’m not sure that I would have even gotten it…except that I was mesmerized by that cross, jumping up and down, up and down on his chest.
After several weeks, they were able to discharge Mr. Willard, not to our care, but to a skilled nursing facility in his home town, about an hour and half from where we were. He was alive, but now needed care beyond the level we were able to provide. His family, who had been contacted about this latest threat to his health…finally must have taken it as serious because they had visited him in the hospital and requested that he be placed in a skilled nursing facility near them. They visited him regularly there, until the end.
They were the ones who let us know when Mr. Willard passed and about his funeral arrangements. We were the ones who had to break the bad news to his friends here. We decided to take two vans and bring those who wanted to attend his wake and funeral, despite the distance. Too many people needed a chance to tell Mr. Willard a real good-bye, and I am proud to say that I was one of them.
When we got to the wake and approached Mr. Willard’s coffin, there he was…our friend. As always, he looked like some jazzman of yesteryear, resting on a bench between performances, laid out in his tuxedo, with his hat resting in his hands. The cool blue note had finally…gone home. At the very end of his life, perhaps without even knowing it, he taught me something important, something I’d like to share with you. Maybe you already know it, maybe you’ll believe it, maybe you haven’t seen what I saw yet. Every one of us has to find it for ourselves, all I can do is tell you my own story, just like Mr. Willard told me his.
“Morning star lights the way,
Restless dream of dawn.
Shadows gone, break of day,
Real life’s just begun.
There’s no break, there’s no end, just a leering on.
Wide awake and with a smile, going on and on.
It’s not far, just close by, through an open door. “
Last edited by katie on August 22, 2012, 8:31 am