BY CHRISTI BURKETT
The first question asked when a new person arrived was, “What brings you here?” To an outsider that might seem strange and invasive. After all this was a mental hospital; typically talking about one’s mental health is taboo. Some were guarded and did not wish to talk about what experiences led them to a such a place. After all, who would reveal their lowest moments of life to a complete stranger? We were ashamed. We were broken.
We learned how to co-exist in a sterile place. A singular, cold tiled hospital hallway with only one phone line to the outside world. No cell phones were allowed, no social media; we had limited access to the ones we loved or wished to be with. The truth was many of us did not wish to have contact with the people in our lives outside the hospital. We did not want to worry our families. Many of us, myself included, were dealing with issues within our support system outside of this hallway.
This lack of access to our friends and family forced us together in a way I imagine people felt in the past before telephones, before the internet. We were truly in communion with each other. As we stood in line for breakfast, we half-smiled at each other and softly asked, “How are you doing today?” The responses were genuine, to the core of what the individual was feeling. Typically, when asked how one is feeling, the response is a generic: “I’m doing well, how about yourself?” But this was a place where we could share and trust in sharing our true selves.
It was on such a morning when I asked one of my “family” members how he was doing while in line for breakfast. He looked at me and said, “I’m alive.” This response has stuck with me to this day. He explained to me that every day he woke up was a good day, a gift. He knew he could face whatever the day had to bring him.
Whenever I feel like I cannot handle what a day brings me, I think back to this man and his philosophy of life summed up in the phrase, “I am alive.” This brings me a sliver of hope, knowing I woke up in the morning and that I am alive.
I had many roommates throughout my experiences of being hospitalized, each with their own beautiful story. One particular morning I awoke to my roommate sitting in a hard, plastic chair, staring out the window. We did not have much of a view, concrete walls and pipes. The sun had yet to rise. I had not spoken very much to this roommate, largely due to a language barrier. She spoke mostly Arabic and I only spoke English.
As I woke up, we both said “good morning” to each other and smiled. I asked her what she was looking at and she said she was waiting for the sun to rise. I pulled over a plastic chair and sat beside her.
She began telling me how each morning she waited for the sun to rise and would exclaim, “Thank you God, thank you God!” As I looked out the window, I noticed it was a very cloudy day outside.
I told her, “I’m not too sure we will see the sun rise today, too many clouds.” She asked me what that word meant. I wasn’t sure which word she meant, so I repeated what I had said, and she asked, “What does cloud mean?”
I pointed outside to the large, wispy clouds covering the sky and said the word again, “cloud.” She repeated it and we sat there for a few minutes saying the word in English. I then asked her, “how does one say cloud in Arabic?” She told me it was “ghym.” I practiced saying it a few times and she corrected my pronunciation.
I asked if she would write it down, in Arabic, so that I would remember it forever. She wrote it in the margins of one of my chapbooks next to the word “cloud.” I often look at her handwriting, remembering this moment we shared.
My roommate was learning English and was getting quite adept it. She then began to tell me her story, why each morning she waited for the sun to rise. She had spent 12 years as a refugee in the Middle East. She said each day as a refugee she would wait for the sun to rise and thank God for each day she was alive. This was so beautiful to me.
As we were saying “cloud” back and forth, she in English and I in Arabic, we began to laugh so hard we cried.
She said, “People would think we are crazy, wouldn’t they? Sitting here just saying cloud back and forth in different languages while waiting for the sun to rise.”
I told her, “I guess that’s why we’re here, isn’t it?” We laughed even harder and understood each other in a way seemingly impossible with such a language barrier. We hugged for a long time, crying and laughing, happy to have found another beautiful, broken soul in a seemingly sterile, dark place.