I was kneeling at the altar rail waiting for ashes, contemplating the dead. I was thinking about my mother, who died on Ash Wednesday 5 years ago, when suddenly another ghost muscled in -- the ghost of a fellow I'd known over a period of many long months in 1973 and who (I'd learned earlier that day) had died last August at the age of 72.
I could not imagine two more disparate life influences -- one life-giving the other death-dealing, one nurturing, the other exsanguinating. I had also learned in the obituary that his calculating, pig-eyed brother -- whom I'd met once briefly, nauseatingly, infuriatingly -- was also dead.
I have no photo of HNF. Mostly, I can't summon a visual memory of him. There is one image, an extraordinarily partial one, that I will never forget no matter how hard I try. I have other less anatomical and more narrative images that are easier to review: A man on the wrong side of a bridge rail. A coffee mug into which 5 teaspoons of sugar are being stirred. A midnight rooming house with a loud elevator. A wet puppy in the shower. A baseball bat in my bed. A lost glove in a gutter at 5 am. The terror occulted in the word "co-extensive." A black briefcase full of cans of macaroni and cheese.
These two reading lists of his, tucked into one of my journals from that awful year, my first year in med school, offer a remarkably accurate portrait of the man.
My own journal account of that time, spanning 5 volumes of speckled lab notebooks, is obsessively thorough, written in a crabbed, shrinking and increasingly deranged hand. I was in therapy with a psychoanalyst whom I called "The Alienist," and my account of my time with HNF is interspersed with accounts of dreams, dream analysis, therapy sessions. I can barely bring myself to read it. I have no stomach for it. I have few words for what it documents: folie a deux, stupidity, naivety, helplessness, paralysis. There are also words that describe what I have felt through the years, looking back: shame, rage, fury, embarrassment. Sorrow.
I have often reflected on how the whole thing might have played out differently, if only I had -- had what ? Chosen what ? What I would, today, counsel anyone to do ? What my shrink could have but didn't counsel me to do ? Forensically, legally, it was cut and dried. Interpersonally, humanly, not so much. Did I apply the wrong hermeneutic ? Could I have changed everything for both of us by uttering, aloud, on that very first day, one simple anglo-saxon four letter word ? Should I have uttered it ?
Now, almost forty years later, I was kneeling at an altar rail waiting for ashes, waiting for the reminder that I come from and will return to dust. HNF, dust. Alienist, dust. My mother, dust. Three ghosts surrounded me, my own personal cloud of witnesses, as I felt the gritty cross being traced on my forehead. A small shower of ash sifted down onto my nose as I listened to the familiar words.
Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.
Sorrow. It lives in the chest, rises into the throat, into the eyes, overspills, floods the world. HNF was a man of sorrows, fucked by nature, fucked by nurture, fucked by the world, fucked by his brain. What was that he once said about Eisenhower and the snow falling through the light of a streetlamp on Belmont Hill in Worcester ? Or how dogs, barking in the worst hour of the longest night, meant someone had entered the area. Intending, of course, nothing but harm.
It's funny, how one type of brokenness attracts its complement. What shall I call what bound us together for those long months ? What shall I call the fact that I did not utter that one, simple word that could have summoned -- what ? Help ? Harm ? Justice ? That could have named what happened for all time, and defined our roles -- perpetrator, victim -- in an agreeably clear manner ? What shall I call my silence ? Fear, love, forgiveness, compassion, self-loathing, shame, cowardice, complicity, exploitation ? All of the above ? None of the above ?
And now HNF is dead. The obituary, as one might imagine for such a marginal personage, was brief. Our lives had intersected for some months decades ago. It's a story whose details I have told no one except the Alienist -- who took so many ghosts of me into the underworld with him. May they and he rest in peace.
I wonder how HNF would have written about this episode. I would imagine our accounts would be nearly irreconcilable. And I wonder whether the Alienist kept process notes from our sessions ? I would imagine they would contain a great deal about the Mother-sized hole in his young, acting-out, medical student's psyche, and about how she strove to fill it by projection, identification and displacement.
"What," asked Pilate, "is truth ?"
Sorrow. And then, maybe, repentance and forgiveness. And then, dust.