Certain days in our lives leave a permanent imprint, like a hot poker brand on cattle, a tattoo, charged with total recall, like it happened just yesterday.
United We Stand
9/11 I’m visiting clinical sites in Vallejo. My psych tech students are completing their internships at an out patient treatment center for folks with dual diagnosis. Autism, bi-polar, schizophrenia, developmental delays, head injuries: the students get to experience a patch work mental health quilt of many varied sizes, shapes and colors.
Ziggy cries out, “Why did they do this?” as we all watch the horror play out on the big screen TV in the day hall that morning. He has Down Syndrome. He is sensitive. He is a caring, loving human being laid to waste by tears as the story of the epic destruction of those twin towers unfolds.
Several of the participants begin to pace the perimeter of the room, their anxiety building, their coping strategies pushed to the brink. A staff person ushers Artie into a side conference room.
“Breathe Artie. Your breath like the ocean, remember? Breathe in the relaxation, breathe out the tension. You can handle this,” she implores. He’s hyperventilating, sweating, eyes open wide, piercing, pupils dilated, biting his hand, rocking back and forth at an increasing rate. She pages the off-site nurse for a PRN medication.
“I knew those Commie Pinko Fags were coming to get us. I heard them scheming last night. Their time has come. Our time is up…we’re next,” exclaims Josh.
Josh has paranoid schizophrenia. He’s hiding under a chair in the far corner of the room. Silently screaming in his mind’s eye, rubbing his head along the underside lip of the chair.
Mitch, the director, enters the room with authority. Turns off the TV. “Break up into groups of five. Today’s discussion: addressing our greatest fears. What is it that scares us? How do we cope with what we can’t control? How have we overcome obstacles in our past? How do we muster the courage and conviction to face our fears head-on? Meet back here at 10:30 before break.”
Divided We Fall
July, 1966 Hot, muggy, Mid-western summer day. No breeze off the Lake. Mom rounds up us four kids from the yard into the house early before lunch. Me and my best friend Vinnie had planned on riding our Schwinn bikes down Rumble Hill to visit the old man with his roost of homing pigeons. Not today.
“The blacks are marching past Portage Park to Norwood Park. They say 800 people will pass by our neighborhood and walk right past St. Monica’s church down the block from us. We’re all staying inside. People been throwing rocks at the marchers. I won’t let any of you kids get hurt. We’re not causing any trouble.” Not today. She looks worried, scared, pale. We obey without a fuss.
There are no black folks living in our neighborhood. This is the summer of the Chicago Freedom Movement. Martin Luther King is marching for equal housing rights. I’ve never even met a black person. Dad says when they move in, we move out ‘cuz, “They cause the property values to crash.”
“But isn’t your favorite baseball player Ernie Banks, a black guy?” I ask him.
While Mom shakes Jiffy Pop with one hand and stirs the cherry Kool-Aid with the other, my curiosity runs rampant. I sneak downstairs and climb out thru the basement window. I hear hundreds of voices singing in the distance. This Little Light of Mine, We Shall Overcome, the voices gather strength, rising louder and more boisterous as the throng approaches the corner of Nottingham and Carmen Avenues and the steps leading to the entrance of St. Monica’s Church. Nobody out in the streets but them. Vinnie’s mom, Mrs. Funsch, peers out between the drapes of her front room window. I’m hiding in the bushes across the street from the Rectory. MLK, the man himself, approaches the church entrance. He silences the crowd by raising his right hand, palm open to the sky, as he surveys his followers with steely determination. Gesturing with both arms raised to the heavens, he gets down on one knee and says, “Let us pray.”
“Almighty Lord,” he cries out. “Hear our prayer,” respond the marchers, all genuflected on one knee. “Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be Thy name, thy kingdom come thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven…”
Heads bowed to the earth, prostrated on one knee, the congregation recites the Our Father…the same prayer I recite every night before bed. I find myself praying along, flushed out of the hiding brush, bent on one knee, “. . . forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us, and lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil, Amen.”
They pray, they feel, they sing, they kneel—just like us. My cup runneth over with faith in humanity.
Smile a Little Smile
Fall 1969 Summer of love passes. The annual 8th grade fall dance held in the basement of St. Monica’s rectory. I’m a nerd. One of three classmates wearing horn-rimmed glasses. Teacher’s pet. Too smart for my own good. But I made the basketball team. Tom Kowalski felt sorry for me and gave a fellow Polack a chance. In class, I sit behind Joanne Arcaro, 8th grade cheerleader. I whisper her a few answers during the math exams. Sister Felice proctors the tests. She is deaf.
Joanne believes in me somehow. When it’s time for the last slow dance, she comes up to me and grabs my arm without a word, pulls me across the room to the middle of the dance floor. The 45 drops onto the Magnavox turntable playing Smile a Little Smile for Me. This isn’t one of those tightly held slow dances. Sister Jeanette wouldn’t allow such behavior. For the first time, I feel like a man—a woman asked me to be her dance partner. I find a cure for my case of nerd fever.
For the first verse, we alone take center stage. She looks straight into my eyes, smiles, as we rock back and forth in unison to the song’s chorus, breathing as one, the class nerd making waves with the babe of his dreams. Loving kindness endlessly travels through time captured by a memory.
Birds, by the thousands, drop dead from the orange.
Ravens chant Nevermore.
A robin picks at a toasted worm, upended
from the parched terrain.
Bees labor back to the hive with ash-laden pollen.
Sunflowers strain to lift their heads to the sky.
There is no sun.
My mask blocks the virus, filters the smoke,
hides the shame we face:
Profit over Planet.
“They muddy the waters to make it seem deep.”
What legacy will we leave our children?
“You guys just stood around while
watching the West Coast burn?”
Who will unite ranchers, developers,
Who is prepared to build a coalition,
a consensus among polarities, concerning issues of
Black Lives Matter,
Immigration and Customs Enforcement,
“We are the first generation
to feel the impact of climate change
and the last generation
that can do something about it.”
United We Stand, Divided We Fall
Save the Earth,
Value its worth,
Before we dread
The sky bleeding red.
September 9th, 2020 The Day the Sky Bled Orange
Cliff Zyskowski is a retired psychiatric technician and a Chicago native now living the good life in wine country. When not hashing out a long-winded memoir, he plays the piano for inspiration. His work has appeared in The Bohemian and The Sonoma Sun.