The William Bradley Prize for the Essay is dedicated to the memory of essayist and scholar, William Bradley and intended to honor his legacy and his commitment to the essay form--its literary history, dynamic present, and promising future. In addition to being a nonfiction scholar, William wrote essays about academic life, pop culture, family, and illness; and with particular heart and grace about his own long-term battles with cancer. He was a passionate advocate for social justice, a caring friend to many writers, and supporter of disenfranchised populations. Deadline for submissions is March 15, 2018.
You know that Nabokov traced the development of his consciousness to one of his earliest memories, the recognition that he and his parents were distinct human beings. And you know that in Speak, Memory, Nabokov often writes of memory as if the recalled events happened to someone else (“. . . I see my diminutive self . . .”) or as if they are occurring on a movie screen, viewed from his “present ridge of remote, isolated, almost uninhabited time.” And though, let’s face it, you’re never going to be half the writer Nabokov was, you can appreciate this distinction between past and present, between the boy one was and the man one is.
You’re loathe to describe your own childhood in the same idyllic terms that Nabokov used to describe his—which is only fair, as he was born to an aristocratic family in the Czar’s Russia and you were born to a middle-class family in America’s Midwest the year before Nabokov himself died. Yet, like Nabokov, you do understand the way that memory has a way of turning the past—forever, tragically lost to all chronophobiacs— into something bright and hopeful, a place where optimism and faith remained unchallenged. If you try hard, you can even remember a time when the world—for you—was a simple place, where moral decisions lacked ambiguity. A world where you always knew—and strived to do— what was right and good and just, in fulfillment of a plan drafted by God and carried out by His servants on earth.
Of course, you’re glad for the intellect that allows you to recognize the complexities of the world; you wouldn’t really be a grown up if you still viewed the world as if the morality of superhero comic books or Davey and Goliath remained relevant. But you can sometimes miss the certainty that living in such a world used to provide, and you can remember it all—the confidence, the faith, the knowledge that God had a clear plan for you and for all—if you try. The past, as you well know, devours us slowly.
Here’s a recent memory, from just a couple years ago: You and your wife have been nominated to represent her church—your church now, really—at the Synod Assembly. Representatives from Lutheran churches all over the Midwest will be there, and the pastors at St. Andrew’s think that the two of you would be good ambassadors for the congregation—if you agree to join formally, which you’ve been telling your wife you’re interested in doing anyway. You were raised Catholic, but the pedophilia scandals and the new Pope’s scary, destructive conservatism have convinced you that you can no longer accept spiritual advice from the Vatican.
As happy as you are to be part of a larger spiritual community, though, you’re not sure that this Lutheran church is a perfect fit. This discomfort is only heightened when a member of the congregation—an old man who was there when they built the church in the sixties—calls one afternoon in order to “find out how you feel about the issues.” Representative to the Synod Assembly is an elected position, after all, voted on by every member of the church. They’re only sending four people, and they’ve got six people running.
“How do you feel about the gay issue?” he wants to know.
“What gay issue?” you ask, dreading the conversation that’s about to follow, wherein he will tell you that the gays are filthy and diseaseprone and target children in order to satisfy their twisted desires. And though you’re as sensitive and respectful as you can be as you disagree with him, you know that when you tell him, “Actually, we’re strongly in favor of legalizing gay marriage” that you’ve said all he needs to hear; he’s already decided that you don’t belong, that you’re not a child of his God.
Two weeks before that, you’re sitting in your doctor’s examining room, hoping to be pronounced cured. You had cancer before, when you were in college, and it’s now five years since your last relapse—assuming the tests come back clear.
When your doctor comes into the room, he’s irritatingly guarded (or, perhaps just nonchalant), keeping whatever he knows (if there’s anything to know) close to the vest. Most of you is sure that if something had shown up, he would tell you right away, but part of you fears that he’s trying to keep you calm, making small talk, waiting to deliver the horrible news. And as he palpates your neck and listens to your heart, all you can think is, “Please, God. I’ll never even look at another cigarette. Or another drink. Or a woman who’s not my wife. Just please, please, please.” And then the doctor removes the stethoscope from his ears, smiles at you, and extends his hand, congratulating you on your cancer-free status. And you think, “Oh, hell yeah. We’re getting wasted tonight.”
From five years ago, just after the incident: You’re sitting in the psychiatrist’s office. He’s talking to you about what happened, after the hospital, when you came to your senses in the field, wandering, helpless and thoughtless. The nervous breakdown that followed your appointment with the cancer specialists.
You’re wearing your black suit, red shirt with matching tie, and your glasses. You look mature, professional, completely together. And this is by design. You do not want to look like a crazy person, though your hands have been shaking all week and you’re fairly convinced that you might be losing your mind.
It started in the examining room, when the social worker assigned to your case a year before entered; you weren’t expecting to see her there, but she hadn’t wasted any time.
“We’re going to admit you tonight,” she said. “We’ll call your parents, and your sister.” You knew from all of the tests conducted in preparation for the worst-case scenario that your sister is the only member of your family who is an exact match for a bone marrow transplant.
“What?” you managed to get out. “Am I sick again?” This was supposed to be a routine follow-up appointment; you’d been in remission for nine months.
She paused for a second, then tilted her head. “Isn’t that why you’re here?”
It turned out there had been a misunderstanding—while you and one of the doctors knew that this was just a check-up, the others had been led to believe that you were returning because of a suspicious spot on a CT scan (a spot which, both you and one doctor knew, was scar tissue from previous surgeries). It was all a terrible misunderstanding, you learned less than a week later.
That night, however, you started drinking at dinner—two Coronas. Then, your friend Michelle bought you several small bottles of liquor to drink in the car while she drove and tried to talk to you. You had only finished the first little bottle of Absolut—in fact, you can still remember that the song playing on her CD player was Shania Twain’s “Don’t Be Stupid.” And then, your memory stopped. Your brain shut down.
It came up again slowly, like lights after a movie. You had fallen down, and you were covered in mud—the rain had turned the field muddy.
And then—“Why am I in a field?” And then—“How did I get here?” And then—“I was in the car with Michelle.” And then—“Oh yeah, I’m dying. Shit. Shit. Shit.” And then— “But still, how did I get here?” And then—“I was drinking.” And then—“I don’t think I’m drunk, though.” And then—“Jesus Christ, how did I get here?”
You heard the sounds of highway traffic, and way off in the distance, you saw the lights of a Shell station. There was nothing else to see or hear. It took . . . who knows how long it took? Maybe hours. But you eventually walked through the convenience store’s automatic doors, heard the mechanical “ping” announcing your arrival. And the few people in the store this late at night (one of whom was a highway patrol officer) all stared at you as—wet, muddy, trailing muck in your wake—you entered the store.
What happened to you, the psychiatrist says after you finish your story, is called dissociative occurrence. It’s similar to post-traumatic stress disorder. When you were misdiagnosed and told your cancer was back and that you were probably going to die soon, your consciousness switched off. Your body remained alert and active, but your mind and memory just disappeared. You lost your identity—your entire life—and became an empty vessel controlled by primitive instincts and, perhaps, subconscious desires. You wound up getting out of the car and running away, until, finally, enough time passed and you were ready to think about what you had learned. Of course, now that you know you are not actually sick, that the doctor made a horrible, horrible mistake, it probably won’t happen again. But there are ways to guard yourself, to make sure it doesn’t.
Never drink when you’re depressed. Alcohol attacks the frontal lobe first. This is significant.
Don’t repress your feelings. Be more expressive. Quit trying to be cool all the damn time, and talk to people when you’re upset. “You are entitled to own your feelings,” the doctor tells you. Blue Cross / Blue Shield pays for these profundities.
“We also find that people who have some type of religious faith can usually find strength through that,” he adds. “You might want to reconsider your thoughts on religion.”
He shrugs. I’m not really trying to tell you what to do, the shrug seems to say. It’s just some friendly advice. You’re not crazy. You never were crazy. The Lord provides.
At the hospital, a week before the appointment with the shrink and two hours prior to receiving the news that sets off the chain reaction causing you to seek an appointment with a shrink, you watch as a nurse attaches a needle to the chest catheter of a completely hairless two-year-old girl. The only reason you know she’s a girl is because of the earrings in both of her ears. Another nurse is searching your arm for a vein that hasn’t been totally demolished by chemotherapy.
“What a good girl,” the nurse tells the toddler. “And so pretty, too.” As you watch the blood getting sucked out of her tube, you flash back to a time when you had a chest catheter. You remember the fluttering in your chest as they withdrew blood, and, more than that, you remember the strange taste that came into your mouth when they applied the solution that kept the tube unblocked and clean. What was that taste? Something medicinal, unpleasant. They don’t write about that in any of the “Cancer and You” booklets. Maybe the doctors and researchers don’t even know about it. It’s such a slight thing, after all. Who complains of a funny taste, when there are so many more dramatic things to complain about? Maybe this is a secret that only you know. You and those like you. You and the pretty girl.
It’s sad to say, but she’s not pretty. She’s bald and suffering and, quite likely, dying. This is a Bone Marrow Transplant center. This place treats advanced cancers. She would not be here if the outlook was good. She needs a miracle, but the fact that she is here seems testimony against the very idea of a loving God who might provide such a miracle. Seeing this, seeing her, convinces you more than ever that God’s just not home.
Flashing back another year, then two, it seems like you must have been praying quite a bit while you were sick. But maybe not. Is there a difference between praying and just hoping for the best? It’s not like you’re going into any churches. You don’t accept Communion. You don’t confess your sins. If you have a relationship with God, it is a casual one. Just a nod and a “Hey, how’s it going? Cure me, please.”
No. That’s not entirely accurate. There are nights when you stay awake until the early morning, praying for survival, and for the strength to handle it all. Who could forget that? True, in the daylight, being brave is easy enough. But at night, alone, in the dark? It’s like being in a coffin, isn’t it? Was there ever a lonelier feeling? If you couldn’t talk to God, you’d have to admit that you are totally by yourself. And that is unacceptable.
You weren’t one for prayers before the cancer, though. You’d totally gotten over the lapsed Catholic guilt thing. Remember December of 1997? Shortly before you had to leave school? What was the deal with those two dance students who came to the party after the evening of readings? The night where you—dressed in black, of course—read your uninspired prose, then retired to the house to drink Molson Red Jack (do they even make that anymore?) and Cuervo tequila.
Those dancer girls followed you onto the porch when you went to smoke your cigarette, just to tell you what a great writer you are. And actor, too, for that matter. They’d seen you onstage less than a month before.
“How do you do so much?” the younger girl, the freshman, wanted to know. And you answered her, quoting Elvis Costello without any real sarcasm or irony, simply confi dence: “Superbly.”
Fifteen years ago, you go to Confession for the last time. This is at the West Virginia State Catholic Youth Retreat, the weekend that you begin to decide that you do not really want to be Catholic anymore. You’d heard enough of the nasty rhetoric—abortion was murder and those killers needed to be stopped, rock music was all about worshipping the devil, homosexuals like your Uncle Mike go to hell. The feelings of love and community that permeated the church when you were younger are dissipating. You realize that, for those in charge, it is Catholics versus heathens, saved versus hell-bound, us versus them.
You choose Father Dean to hear your confession, because he is young and seems hip. You confess your usual transgression—failure to honor your parents. You even mention the occasional (ha!) impure thought. The priest prays with you, instructs you to keep in mind your parents’ wisdom and good intentions at all times, and leaves you with some parting advice:
“It’s not hard to do the right thing.”
A year before, one day of Catechism class is given over to a young nun who is visiting your parish, The Holy Rosary Catholic Church of Buckhannon, West Virginia. She has come to talk to your class about receiving Holy Orders, about the call to become a priest or a nun. She talks about how she came to know that God had a special plan for her.
And afterward, your Catechism teacher, Dr. Oriyamah, stops you on your way out and tells you that he wants you to consider seriously what the woman has said. “These other guys aren’t really into it,” he confides. “But I can tell you take this seriously. I can imagine you as a good priest someday.” This is a moment of great pride for you. Someone else has confirmed what you have always suspected: Your faith in God is strong, and it shows. You have a seriousness and a devotion that your peers do not. This is, as far as you can see, a very good thing. You are in the eighth grade.
Five years before and three time zones away from that conversation, you’re standing in the reception area at St. Monica’s Catholic Church in Willows, California. You’re wearing the server’s uniform of a red cassock and white surplice. It is your first time serving as an Altar Boy.
You’re holding the large metal Crucifix that you will carry down the center aisle, in front of the priests and the other server. You will lead the way. In all of your nine years, you have never been so proud. You have the vaguest notion that you are now a part of something. Something large, mysterious, and historical. As the people come in, they smile at you, particularly the old ladies who attend every mass and realize that you are new. Their smiles tell you that you are doing a very good thing, but you already know this.
The Processional Hymn begins, and you take the first step, knowing that the others will be walking behind you. You hold the Cross high, arms in front of you. Your pace is solemn, but quick. From somewhere to the left, a flash goes off, and you know your father has just taken your picture. Eventually, this photo will appear in a family photo album. “Billy’s First Mass as an Altar Boy.” You are nervous, but you know this is a momentous day.
When you are five years old, Richard Barletta, the neighborhood bully, kicks your soccer ball out of the backyard, over the fence, into the parking lot of the church, which is located next door. Richard leaves soon after. You’re not allowed to leave the yard, so you go inside.
“Why aren’t you out playing soccer?” your dad asks.
“Richard kicked the ball over the fence,” says your brother.
Your father looks at you, angry that you didn’t tell him as soon as it happened. “Go get it.”
So you go, but the ball is gone. You look all over, but it’s nowhere to be found. Someone must have taken it.
You try the house next to the church, where Father McGoldrick lives. He tells you he hasn’t seen the ball, so you walk home. As you look at the large white church with the colorful stained glass windows, a thought enters your childish mind, and you climb the main steps. The large wooden doors are locked, so you knock. You wait. Knock again.
Defeated, you realize nobody’s home at God’s house, and you resign yourself to facing your father empty-handed.
So now you sit, mining the past and struggling to dredge up enough conflict to make yourself into an interesting narrator. You recognize the fact that, when you talk about your own experiences with religion, you sound like you are complaining. In reality, though, you realize there is very little to complain about in your life. You are a popular person. You get invited to the cool parties. You have the job of your dreams. You drive a nice car. You wear expensive clothes. Your cancer is gone. You’re in love with your wife. Aside from the occasional essay written in the second person, you no longer dissociate from yourself.
No doubt, there has been some suffering. But the truth is, you know the suffering was necessary. It has shaped who you are, caused you to redefine your locus, reprioritize your life. You realize you have an awareness of life’s frailty you did not possess before, and this awareness has motivated you to become a better person. You love your life, and you cannot imagine things differently. Taking the good with the bad, you are forced to acknowledge that everything worked out in the end. For the most part.
You come to understand that the difficulty does not come from remembering. The memories come easily enough. No, the difficulty is in the longing. Your problem is that you remember a time when you were one hundred percent certain of your convictions. You were unwavering. When you were an atheist, you felt like you understood the world and your place in it. And when you were a Catholic, everything made sense because anything could be explained as “mysterious ways” on the part of the Lord. Things seemed better, then. What you couldn’t understand could at least be accepted. But these days, you can’t be sure of anything at all.
A wistful Leonard Cohen lyric occurs to you: “I remember when I moved in you / And the Holy Dove was moving too / And every breath we drew was Hallelujah.” And you appreciate the sentiment, because you have a similar recollection. And you too feel a similar sense of loss.
This weekend, weather permitting, you’ll be sitting on the roof of your favorite bar. Sipping a Corona draft beer you hold in one hand, your fingers will lightly trace the back of your wife’s neck while you talk to your friends about the books you’re reading and ideas you’re having, and you will know that your life is pretty damned good; you have survived something many people do not, and the life you held onto is one of many privileges. And you’re going to think something like, “It just doesn’t get any better than this.” In reality, though, you will know the truth. For all of your blessings—and they are many—you realize your uncertainty clouds everything for you, and life could indeed be better, if you were only able to return to that place where you were confident and filled with a faith you could depend on.
William Bradley authored Fractals, a collection of personal essays published by Lavender Ink. His creative and scholarly work appeared in a variety of magazines and journals including Salon, The Mary Sue, Utne Reader, The Bellevue Literary Review, Inside Higher Ed, The Chronicle of Higher Education, Creative Nonfiction, Brevity, Fourth Genre, Passages North, College English, and The Missouri Review. In addition to being a nonfiction scholar, William wrote essays about academic life, pop culture, family, and illness; and with particular heart and grace about his own long-term battles with cancer. He was a passionate advocate for social justice, a caring friend to many writers, and supporter of disenfranchised populations.
"Dislocated" was originally published in The Normal School, Vol. 1, Issue One
Photo on Foter.com