In the fall of his 41st year and five pages from the end of the book he is writing, a man walks into the emergency room at Kaiser-Permanente hospital on Geary Boulevard in San Francisco and tells the woman sitting behind the bulletproof glass that he can’t stop thinking about killing himself.
In that moment he’s less concerned with whatever pain he’d been enduring than with the woman’s reaction. He blushes when her eyes widen at his words, but she recovers quickly, consults his insurance card, and tells him to take a seat.
He assumes it’s bulletproof glass. Emergency rooms probably attract a high percentage of the insane. He takes a seat beside his husband. If the definition of insane means the absence of sanity, then he, too, was a member of the club.
Certainly the song in his head is driving him crazy. Every waking moment of every day for the last year he’s had a song stuck in his head. Different songs on different days. A radio station he can’t switch off. Today it’s Lionel Ritchie.
Oh what a feeling, when we’re dancing on the ceiling!
Not a whole song. Five seconds of a song repeating on an endless loop:
Oh what a feeling…
He pictures everyone in the emergency waiting room dancing on the ceiling, a multicultural conga line of the wounded..oh what a…the image, like everything else these days, exhausts him.
The doctor who examines him gives him two options. One, the man could voluntarily commit himself to the mental ward of San Francisco General. The doctor assures him that this would not be a pleasant destination. Two, the man could wait for the next available appointment with a staff psychiatrist, three weeks from today.
…dancing on the ceiling!
Three weeks in his condition feels like three years. But what choice does he have?
He’s been writing the book, a memoir about his childhood and family, for eight and a half years. For eight and a half years he’s been climbing this mountain. With each page the trail ahead grew steeper.
Twenty pages from the end, wiped out, he rested for a week. Fifteen pages, he rested a month. Ten pages, three months. He gripped onto small stones jutting from the face of the mountain, his face pressed flat against the crumbling dirt, holding tight against the howling wind. Songs played in his head.
There goes my hero, watch him as he goes…
The songs interfere with the writing. They crowd out the voice in the back of his head that loves nothing more than to wrestle a good sentence onto the page.
There goes my hero, he’s ordinary…
Five pages from the end, his strength depleted, he comes to a wide gap in the trail, a deep crevice plunging a mile down the middle of the mountain. There goes…
Vertigo grips him, pulls him an inch or two over the edge. He can’t see the bottom. He pushes back and puts his head down in the dirt. He must go on. He can’t go on.
Watch him as he goes…
It’s only now, clutching at the edge of the crevice, that the man recognizes the weight he’s been hefting up the side of this mountain. He’s been carrying, on his back, his own father.
There goes my hero…
He can see now at the edge of the gap that only one of them can make it across. If he sets his father down the man will make it. If he stops protecting his father. If he tells the whole truth, he alone will make it.
Watch him as he…
But how can he leave his own father behind? How can he abandon him to the wind and the rocks and the plunging abyss? He fears the truth will kill his father. But if he stays here, the son will die. This is the choice he must make.
And it’s only now – there goes my – 32 years since his father molested him, eight and a half years since he started his book, crouched at the edge of a deep crevice that pulls at him, the wide blank void that wants to swallow him, it’s only here, with his own life at stake, that he makes the choice.
He sets his father down, and he jumps.