… it is a serious thing
just to be alive
on this fresh morning
in the broken world.
- Mary Oliver, 'Invitation,' A Thousand Mornings
Photo by Maddy Baker on Unsplash
It was not a birthday or holiday or even a Thursday morning of note. Not the last or first of the month or the year. One of the thousands that come and go.
Eight forty-seven and breakfast was over at an eating disorder treatment center. In the last seventeen minutes, dishes had been cleared and cleaned, tables wiped. By the main door, one very sick, very frail girl stood fidgeting. Thirteen minutes. She breathed. They dragged on for days; in fact, for the length of the last three.
For the first three days of admission, a patient must be kept indoors and monitored around the clock for signs of cardiac arrest, respiratory failure, attempts to harm her or himself or others, or to escape the facility. Physical activity is banned and privacy is restricted; bathroom trips are escorted and sleep is supervised overnight.
Eight fifty-nine. One minute to nine. At nine the main door opened. Seventy-two hours; the threshold had been crossed. She crossed too, onto the porch.
Down the steps and out of the shade. The day was already turning hot. Still, she stepped onto the grass and turned her face and arms up to face the sun.
The heat rained on her skin like silk, or like music. She closed her eyes. On her eyelids, the imprint of that one solitary cloud in the whole blue sky stood out. There were noises around her: little paws rustling in bushes, sporadic cars driving by, other people’s chatter, but in her head, it was quiet.
Heat tingles. She had forgotten. Sunshine tickles and taunts noses to sneeze. The grass smells of green when it is freshly cut. Green is an actual scent. The slightest breeze puts cotton in contact with the vulnerable patch of skin that connects her abdomen to her back. Her ribs lean into it as she breathes. And just over the tag of her white t-shirt that had already begun to scratch, her nape felt deliciously naked exposed under her messy dancer’s bun.
Breath. Her chest felt wider somehow than it had felt for three days. Walls do close in on people, like corsets. No need to move or touch to do it. The inhale took so long it surprised her that she could even hold so much air. The exhale came out with irreverent freedom. Freedom. This was how it felt.
One tentative step forward on the grass. Nothing happened. One more. And another. Her hands were tempted to reach out and feel for invisible boundaries. There were none. She kept walking, reached the sidewalk, looks left and right. Stopped. She could go either way.
She could go either way. She could go. With that thought, she let go. She cried.
On that Thursday morning, a patient at a psychiatric treatment centre received permission to leave the premises and go for a walk with the others. Those thirty minutes were the most vivid that she had ever lived, and that short distance – that one-mile loop around the placid suburban neighbourhood - was an ocean, a savannah, a vertiginous dive into the clouds from a mountaintop.
It is a serious thing,
just to be alive
to open a window and lean out. To walk on a sidewalk and stop. Just stop. Cross the street to the other side, or not.
To be caught in the rain. To look up and allow it to soak every bit of skin and every thought. To feel like falling into the sky. To feel a summer storm coming on.
That morning passed a long time ago and was not a birthday or holiday. It came and went in the flow of other mornings that simply come and go. The girl herself went on too, with her life and to other places and other things. She forgot about it,
until one recent morning. Also, randomly, a Thursday.
She had just stepped outside and was going to turn left and walk straight up the street, cross at the traffic signal and keep walking. Instead, for no reason, she stopped.
The sun, the heat, her breath, the smell of grass, the air on the nape of her neck. It was a rare and happy and serious thing to be alive on that morning.