August 22nd, 2017
Jim was on the phone. He was having a heated argument with somebody. Jim was sitting in a wheelchair in the lobby of the VA hospital. His walker was next to him. The telephone was a landline on the wall. I might not have noticed him at all, except that he glanced up at me as I was walking by, and he said loudly,
“Frank, wait! Don’t go! Tell Sister to come over here!”
Jim was still on the phone, obviously agitated. He told the person on other end of the line to wait, because he wanted to speak with me and Sister Ann. Apparently, the person conversing with Jim wanted to know who we were, and Jim shouted,
“They’re religious people!”
I had just arrived at the hospital. It was a Tuesday evening, and most every Tuesday evening I join up with a small group of people from the American Legion to visit the vets in the psychiatric ward on the third floor of the building. The other folks were already there, including Sister Ann Catherine. Sister A. C. had served as a nurse in a refugee camp in Cambodia back in the 1970’s, when the Khmer Rouge was still in business. She had been there during “Killing Fields” timeframe. Sister A. C. had a long history of being actively concerned with veterans, especially Vietnam vets.
Sister Ann Catherine walked over to where I was. Jim tried to speak to us, and simultaneously listen to the person on the line. That didn’t work out very well. He became upset, and he finally told the individual on the phone that he couldn’t carry on two conversations at once. He promptly hung up.
I’ve known Jim for several months. He’s been in and out of the psych. ward repeatedly. He and I have had a number of long conversations. We’ve talked about his time on Vietnam. We’ve talked about Hans’ experiences in Iraq. We’ve talked about his days of smuggling drugs into the U.S., back in the 1980’s. Jim is thin and frail. He has longish hair that is going grey. He has a Sam Elliott style moustache. His voice is a bit high-pitched, especially when he is excited.
Jim was excited, and not in a good way. Something was obviously very wrong. Since Sister A.C. and I were standing next to him, he was going to tell us all about it. He began his story:
“You wouldn’t believe what all happened to me today! I was at the airport and I got mugged! I had a thousand dollars in my pocket and it got stolen. I was on my way to Costa Rica. I have friends there. Now I’m not going anywhere!”
Sister Ann Catherine asked him, “When you got mugged, did they take your passport too?”
Jim nodded. Then he went on, “I have friends in Costa Rica. The president of Costa Rica is a friend of mine. They could send me money, but I don’t want to bother them with that. And it’s hard to send money to a different country. You know?”
Sister A.C. answered, “Oh yes, that is difficult.”
Jim kept going, “I went back to my hotel, where I was staying. Guess what? I found my wallet in my room, but it was empty! I had five hundred dollars in that wallet!”
Sister A.C. said, “Oh my.”
The rant continued. Jim said, “Now I don’t have any money, and I don’t have a place to stay any more. The VA won’t help me. A lady here offered to get me a cab to take me to a shelter, but they are all full now. There is another place where I can get a cot for the night, but the police have to take me there.”
“Oh my, that’s awful”, said Sister Ann.
“I don’t even have money to eat!” yelled Jim. He looked at the nun, and asked, “Can you at least give me some money so I can get something to eat?”
Sister Ann was suddenly less sympathetic. “Jim, look at me. I don’t have any money on me. I don’t even have any pockets. I don’t have anything to give you.”
At that point, I expected Jim to hit on me for some cash. He didn’t. He had forgotten all about the money.
Instead, he said, “I got nothing to live for…well, except for my children. I might as well just kill myself. I don’t like to swear, except to make a point. But this bullshit!”
Sister Ann Catherine looked around and saw that the rest of the group had left for the psych. ward. She said, “Jim, I have to go upstairs now.” She turned and walked away.
It was just Jim and me. He slowly got up from the wheelchair.
“This is bullshit. The VA isn’t helping me. I got a sharp knife. Maybe I’ll use it. Then they’ll notice.”
He grabbed his walker, turned away from me, and left me standing next to the phone. He was completely unaware that I was there.
I took the elevator to the third floor. I went into the break room, where Sister Ann and the other people were putting out snacks for the patients.
I found one of the people working on the floor. This guy is always there when we come to visit, and he often handles patients that get unruly.
I said to him, “Hey, I need to ask you something.”
“Sure, what do you want?’
I told him, “When I was in the lobby, I was listening to Jim. He’s been up here a few times. You probably remember him. He seemed really upset, and he was talking about hurting himself.”
“So, do we need to do something?”
The guy shook his head and told me, “I wouldn’t worry about it if I were you.”
“Okay, well, I thought that I should tell somebody.”
“You did. Like I said, I wouldn’t worry about it.”
I do worry about it. Jim probably was just being dramatic, but who knows? The guy in the ward knows Jim. He’s worked with him, so he has a better idea of how seriously to take the man. It’s very possible that Jim was saying those things to me just so he could get sent back to the third floor. I don’t know. When I left the hospital later on, I didn’t see Jim anywhere.
I have been thinking a lot about all that Jim told us. It makes my head hurt. It all sounded illogical and disjointed. I don’t think he was trying to hustle us, because if he was, he would have asked me for some cash. I never spoke while he talked. I was trying to figure out what he actually wanted, but I couldn’t get a handle on it.
Maybe he just wanted somebody to listen to him. I don’t know.
I don’t think that Jim was lying to Sister Ann Catherine and myself. I think that he really and truly believed everything that he told us. That terrifies me. I can deal with a hustler. I can deal with a bullshitter. A liar may be twisted, but he is still shares my version of reality. A man like Jim is sometimes living in his own separate universe, and that freaks me out. I wrestle with trying to understand what is fact and what is fantasy in Jim’s world. I can’t figure it out, because for Jim all of it is real. All of it.
How does a person get to that place? How does he come back? Does he come back?