You have to have a special access code to get into the dementia ward. The doors must remain locked at all times. Safety, etc. I never remember what the code is so I have to wait for the attendant to let me in. She doesn’t look very happy with me.
The room is smaller than I remember it, and the visit more haphazard. He remembers very little any more, and is not always coherent. Nevertheless, we do our best to corral all the stray words and half-remembered fragmentary thoughts, trying to assemble them into something like a conversation. It feels like we’re chasing shadows or ghosts. He stops in the middle of his sentences a lot. He stares out the window. He smiles. What else can you do?
I ask him about the art on his wall. There’s a painting of a prairie landscape and another of a young native woman and child. There’s also one of Jesus, precious Jesus, eyes pleading toward heaven in Gethsemane. His late wife painted them all. This last hangs above his bed, right where his head hits the pillow. Maybe he sleeps better with Jesus’ anguish for company. Father, if you are willing take this cup from me…
“I’m glad you came to see me today,” he says. “I think you’re a very good doctor.”
“Do you mean a “pastor?” I ask.
“Yes, that’s what I meant. You’re a very good doctor.”
I smile and say thank you. He smiles in return.
There’s a book on the coffee table. God’s Maniacs, it’s called. The back cover says it is about people throughout history who did crazy and terrible things because they believed they were doing them for God. It seems like the kind of book that would irritate me—another eminently rational somebody diagnosing the diseased minds of the religious lunatic fringe. As if it were rational to be so eminently rational in such a screwed up world where minds so easily betray…
“Are you reading this book?” I ask.
He smiles at me. I know he has struggled mightily with God over the years, that he is a doubter, a skeptic, that he is drawn to Jesus but that he stumbles along the way. We used to have fascinating conversations about this, before the ghosts and the shadows. Now I have little access to what’s going on behind that smile.
“Yes, well I’m trying… I’m not getting very far… I was wondering what you would think about it, though… The author doesn’t seem very… nice.”
There’s a lady screaming in the other room… Let me out of here, let me out of here! It sounds like she’s kicking the wall or shaking her bedframe. She sounds angry, confused, desperate. It’s hard to have a conversation about God’s maniacs when you’re surrounded by… Ah, never mind.
“She’s very nice,” he says, pointing toward the screaming voice. “I eat with her sometimes. But she seems sad about something…
I look at grief-stricken Jesus of Gethesemane, Jesus with his crazy anguished face searching the heavens. Jesus who keeps company with the betrayers and the betrayed in the dementia ward. I look back at the book. Just for the moment, I figure I’d rather take my place alongside the maniacs, whether their brains have been addled by God or religion or eminently rational bad chemistry.
At the wall on the other end of his bed is another piece of art. It’s a rooster, created on a piece of wood via an arrangement of nails. I think about Peter and his three betrayals before the rooster crowed. Poor Peter, always tripping over his devotion, swinging his sword in righteous anger, jostling for space in the kingdom, shouting his commitment from the proverbial rooftops. Another maniac for God.
You know I love you… I can imagine Peter barely whispering these words to the risen Christ by the side of the lake, in the aftermath of faithless failure and the shocking, stubborn irruption of a life for which faithlessness and failure are no match. Despite all the ways in which your cup is too much for me, too much for all of us… you know that I love you, right?
I look over at the bed. My friend is still sitting there, staring and smiling, surrounded by screaming and kicking and the shaking of beds, his faltering mind bookended by a betrayal and the garden where God’s maniac whispers, Thy will be done.