Sunday, January 6, 2013
“The story of Mister Walter Lee is a strange one indeed. In my case book, perhaps the only incident of true insanity, although we should learn to hate that word, which was brought on by trauma followed by isolation. Incidents of this type are quite rare. It was undoubtedly the long-term isolation that did it. Lots of victims of the recent tsunami on the southern and eastern coasts of Thailand and other nations survived loss, shock, trauma, heartache; the loss of everything that people hold dear. But they still had other survivors around them, and once the initial cycle of wave action was over, the rescue and relief efforts began.”
The students paid rapt attention.
“Walter’s story is different. Walter Lee was swept out to sea by the first big wave, and he is extremely fortunate to have survived the tsunami. It seems he held on to a tree, and only let go, completely exhausted, when the surge was receding rapidly off the shore again. He fell into the water, and was sucked out to sea. How he survived amongst the maelstrom of debris, broken tree-trunks, shattered building materials, dead bodies and smashed boats, is beyond speculation. Survive he did. He found himself clinging onto a large log, which had a bit of other detritus, flotsam and jetsam, tangled up in some wire caught in the roots. Mister Lee was on vacation, and lost his wife and young family, three small children, in the flood and tidal wave that day.”
There were gasps of sympathy and dismay.
“Understandably, he was traumatized by all of this, as he was conscious, although dazed and disoriented. He did not actually see what happened to them. He didn’t know they were dead, or it seems unlikely that he would have survived. He seems to have hallucinated quite freely. Their images were the only thing that sustained him…for over six months,” explained the doctor. “He believed that they must have survived, in spite of all evidence to the contrary. He still believes, in some ways…this is what we call, delusional.”
A small buzz of mutterings and whispers, half-heard and half articulated, went through the small group.
“What is extremely unusual about Mister Lee’s case is that he somehow managed to survive something like thirty-one days, floating on a log at sea. His recollection is hazy. The man collected dew on a plastic tarp, drank rain water collected in a cutaway plastic bleach bottle. Ultimately, he drank his own urine, and ate flying fish snagged in the net-like contraption that he built, or even just batted them out of the air in sheer reflex. Unbelievable; a real triumph of human fortitude and dogged stubbornness, in that he wasn’t even rescued by a ship or a plane, as a number of extremely fortunate individuals somehow managed. At last count, quite a number of them have been accounted for in this way. They were mostly picked up in the first few days of the aftermath.”
There was nothing to be said about all this on the part of the assorted students. They peered in through the hallway window, de rigeur on every ward of this award-winning mental institution.
“Walter is about thirty-four years old. He was born an American, but had become a naturalized Canadian citizen, and was a successful sales manager in Hamilton at a well-known steel supplier. The family went to Southeast Asia on a two-week holiday vacation.”
Doctor Malcolm studied the semi-circle of faces around him. Although he never would have admitted it, his students were objects of study to him. It was a habit he couldn’t shake.
The group of students had absorbed all this without comment.
“Mister Lee is the only known survivor to have drifted to an uninhabited island in the Nicobar chain. And then he managed to live off the land for over five months. He apparently ate crabs, coconuts, seaweed and all the mosquitoes and biting flies he could get. I admire him in many ways, to be honest with you. How many of us would have survived a similar ordeal? Mister Lee just sits there staring at the window, not even really seeing out through it. He’s quite lucky to be here, but then he purchased health insurance coverage for himself and his family prior to going away.”
He thought for a moment.
“It seems to me that if he had been reunited with his family upon his return, he probably would have made a full recovery, and he would have gone on with his life,” said the doctor. “But Mister Lee simply doesn’t want to recover. He would in fact, prefer to die. But it’s just not that easy, is it?”
There was a stark silence in the room while they all digested this.
“That’s not exactly my job, is it? To choose for Mister Lee, who is temporarily incompetent to choose for himself. He’s simply too healthy. After five months on the island, his physical condition was quite extraordinary. The diet, fresh air, and exercise seemed to quite agree with him, although he’s softening up here in the hospital.”
“So he’s depressed and delusional?” This was a fellow on the left end of the group.
This individual seemed to think they already knew everything, and merely had to put in a stipulated amount of time in order to get his degree automatically.
“Something like that.” Doctor Malcolm nodded thoughtfully.
The doctor paused for a minute with his hand on the doorknob.
“Now ladies and gentlemen, if you promise to be quiet, and observe objectively, you can take some notes and study this case further, a little later on.”
The teaching doctor looked at the students and saw a lot of bright, chipper, blank looks. Some of them looked a little hung over or very tired. Rumour had it there had been a big party at Ursula Mason’s place last night. That was their problem. Mister Lee was his.
He opened the door and led them in, going to the far end and taking a moment to fully pull the curtains wide. The students clustered round as he dragged a smooth, fake-leather covered chair around and sat beside Mister Lee, who was sitting in a chair at bedside. An unopened book lay on the table by the bed, along with a glass of water, and a pair of reading glasses.
“Hello, Mister Lee. How are you today?”
“How do I look?” The question was not asked in hostility, or menace.
Walter just didn’t seem to care anymore.
Clearly this wasn’t going too far.
“Can you tell us about the island?” The doctor was aware of the intent concentration of most of those students in the room.
“It’s just that it sounds like an interesting place.” The doctor projected calm, placid friendliness. “These are my students. I’ve told them all about your amazing story. But they would just like to hear more from you.”
“You don’t believe me.”
“Well, but that doesn’t really matter, does it? It’s amazing that you survived your ordeal.”
Walter looked up at all the gleaming eyes, and lowered his head. His chin began to come out, and he looked like he was going to be stubborn.
“Tell us about them, Walter. We want to hear about the ghosts, Walter!”
The doctor suddenly slapped Walter on the shoulder and giggled insanely, which acted instantly with its intended effect.
Walter’s almost catatonic calm was broken.
“You don’t believe the ghosts.” He hissed at the doctor, only fully seeming to see the students for the first time. “He doesn’t believe about the ghosts. But I saw them, I talked to them. I heard them. I watched them, and I followed them. They’re real.”
Walter sat there, glowering at the ring of faces, all with their mouths slightly open in some breathless state of suspended animation. Suddenly there was a little giggle, and Walter clammed up again; glaring fixedly at an suddenly embarrassed young woman, taller than most, with a florid complexion and long dark hair, standing at the back.
“I don’t want to talk about it.” His eyes fell back to the floor.
“What about the others, Walter? Believe me, we’re very interested in what happened to you. We’d like to help you if we could. If we may? Please, Walter?”
“Who were the others, Mister Lee?” A patient voice came from one of the students in the front row, a small, buck-toothed blonde girl, about five feet tall and wearing thick glasses.
The doctor was about to shush her when Walter spoke up.
“I don’t know. Sailors, soldiers, people like that, native boys, old people, dead people; women in long skirts.” Walter spoke in a sudden rush. “No one believes me, and so they won’t let me go home.”
“Where do you want to go, Walter?”
“I want to go home."
“No, Walter, you want to go back to the island, don’t you?”
“My wife…my little girls…they’re there.” Suddenly Walter was weeping inconsolably. “They saved me. They were with me every minute, every second. I could see them…they were there with me…all the time…Oh, God.”
Walter wept, as the doctor looked at the ashen faces of the students, eyeing them one by one.
Some would crack. Some would transfer, perhaps to other fields or to other branches of medicine. Some would become quacks, pill-pushing charlatans. Some…one or two might succeed.
“What about the others?” Someone asked, but Walter was in no shape to continue. “Sailors, and soldiers? What’s that about?” the voice continued peevishly.
“The man’s obviously delusional.” Malcolm's remark brought gasps and muttering in the back of the group.
The beginnings of some kind of revolutionary movement, back there, he thought. Someone pushed forward and the group parted.
“I believe about the ghosts, Walter.” A slender young man of medium height stood there, with dark sideburns and longish hair hanging over the wide, pointed collar of his paisley shirt.
The young man glared at the doctor. He stood there blinking back a moist sheen of tears in his eyes, then he pushed his way forward, and standing close at Mister Lee’s side, awkwardly patted him on the shoulder.
Yes, that one. Victor. The revolutionary. That one might succeed.