I walked through a special rose garden I know of today.
As I did, I remembered. I remembered three years ago, when this journey I am on started. I remembered all the people who are gone. All the people who have given up on me, for there is no other way to say it.
Given up on me, concluding I’m broken, and can never be well, and can never be who I once was, and can never be normal again.
To which I say thank God. For I know what really happened three years ago. I know the truth of what I did, the actions I took, and the path I started down in those days. I know the loss I endured, the agony of watching everyone I knew, everyone I called friend, outside my family, turn and walk away.
I say thank God, for what happened. Because what happened is I woke up. It’s that simple. I woke up. I came back to life, doing everything I had to do, taking every action I had to take, enduring the agony of change, to change the direction of my life.
I watched myself die. I watched myself be reborn.
Three years ago, I was normal. I had a career. A reasonably well-paying job. The respect of everyone that knew me, and my technical abilities in the job I held. I worked in a safe, secure, unchanging environment. Where every day was predictable. Where every day was the same. Where I followed the rules laid out by others. Management. Corporate boards. The directors of the US Navy. The protectors of national security.
And I lived in a world without color. A world where everyone was the same. Everyone believed the same things. Made the same decisions. Had the same definitions of success. Of normal. Of appropriate and inappropriate. A world where differences equated to which model of what brand of car you drove. How big your house was. Where you shopped for groceries. Where your children went to college. What church you attended on Sundays. How much of a pay raise you got every year. The color of your skin. How well you dressed. If you were male, or female. If you were US Navy, Civil Service, or Contractor. Where you ranked in the chain of command.
A world of order.
A cold, dead, heartless world, where how I felt, what I believed, what I wanted, what I dreamed, what I hoped, didn’t matter. Where all that mattered was staying in my place, and behaving appropriately.
A world where nothing ever changed. Where, after 13 years, I was still no body. Expendable. Contractor slime. Untrustable. A world where my opinion was sought, then ignored. Because it was “appropriate” to ask for it, in an effort to make me believe I was part of the team. Part of the organization.
A world where everything was check boxes, and lists. Where you read the list, and examined the check boxes, and said, “We’re diverse. So say the statistics.” A world where the rules said, “No discrimination,” and hence, there was no discrimination in the workplace.
Unless you listened to the whispers in the halls. The gossip between office cubes. The stories shared at lunch, and during the mandatory celebrations of birthdays, contract awards, and other noteworthy occasions.
“I’ll never set foot in that bathroom again. It’s been in there.”
“Stay away from me. You’re trouble. And I’m not going down with you.”
“That prima-donna will get what he deserves someday.”
“Who pissed on his feet this morning?”
“He’s out to celebrate some stupid religious holiday.”
“Did you know he voted for the Democratic Party?”
“Her daughter came out. Yeah. Declared she’s gay.”
“He’s a little odd, isn’t he.”
“There’s something not quite right about her.”
Always, it was the same. You are just like us, or your are not. Because we are not diverse, even though the statistics say we are.
It was when someone confided in me, letting me know she had breast cancer. We spoke of her terror of what was to come, and what she and her family would have to endure in the months ahead, when I’d had enough.
I stopped playing by the rules. I could not place the job, the workplace, the career, or anything associated with it, ahead of the well-being of a friend. I took down the façade I’d hidden behind for decades, and declared I cared what happened to my friend. I let myself feel. I cried. I had nights I couldn’t sleep. I wrote every day. For her. As I’d promised I would. And my work suffered.
And I didn’t care at all. I met every deadline. I answered every technical question. I provided help every time someone asked for help. But, I’d stopped playing. I stopped writing that weekly report that said the same thing, week after week after week. I stopped going to birthday celebrations. I stopped attending meetings I didn’t have to attend. I stopped going to lunch when someone left for another job, or to welcome someone to the job.
I stopped blending in.
Of course, this terrified people. It scared them. It made them uncomfortable. And inevitably, they got rid of me. Isn’t that how things are in this world? If someone makes you uncomfortable, scares you, is someone you don’t agree with, don’t understand, don’t approve of, comes along, you block them out, and send them away? Right?
That’s what happened. And in the three years since I woke up, none of the people I worked with has spoken to me. One day, they declared I could not talk to them any more. And I have not heard from them since.
But, in that same three years, I’ve been on an amazing journey. Taking one step at a time. Sometimes, stopping, and sitting on the ground, to catch my breath, to let myself breathe, to let myself come to grips with everything that’s happening in my life.
Of course, I couldn’t be allowed to return. For countless reasons. Would you let someone you cared about return to the place they were injured? Especially if their injuries were non-physical, and resulted in them being sent out on medical leave for 13 weeks? Would you let someone who declared you, and the people you worked with, were all the same, return to work? Would you let someone who declared you and the people you worked with, cared more about the work than they did for each other, return to work?
And why would I want to return to that place anyway? Why would I return to the land of gray. Where every day was the same, and nothing ever changed, and everyone feigned happiness, because to admit you weren’t happy meant you were miserable. Why would I return to a land where I had no hope. Where I was expendable. Where what I wanted, what I felt, what I believed, and what I knew, didn’t matter.
Now, three years later, I find I sometimes wonder about the people trapped within that world. Sometimes, as I walk through the roses of a garden I know of, my heart aches, and my soul sheds tears of sorrow, for the people I once knew.
For I know not one of them has ever walked through that rose garden. Not one of them has ever sat on the ground, and watched the butterflies as they flit from one flower to the next, flying haphazard patterns through the air. Not one of them has sought the colors of the Camellias in full bloom in the dead of winter.
I’ve seen them walk along the sand, on the beach that runs right past the building they work in. They walk there when its appropriate. During lunch. In the spring, or fall. When it’s not too hot. And not too cold. And they only spend a little time on their walks, because they are on their lunch breaks after all. And they can’t be late getting back to work.
And I wonder if even a single one of them has sat on the sand of that beach, and watched the sand crabs peaking out of their holes, and skittering across the sand. I wonder if they’ve watched the dolphins swimming past. The way they form such perfect arches, nose to tail, as they move along, just beneath the surface of the waves. If they’ve ever watch the osprey, diving from the sky into the ocean, rising once again, carrying aloft their prey.
Of if they only see postcards. Glimpses of a world they don’t have time to explore.
And as I walk among the roses, in that garden I know of, three years after I woke up, I find myself fighting off real tears as my heart breaks, knowing not one of them knows the truths of life I have learned in the past three years. Knowing it will be a miracle if even one of them wakes up.
I cry for the lost.
And then I breathe, feeling my lungs fill with air, feeling the sun shine down on me, feeling the breeze flow through my fingers, across the palms and backs of my hands. And I know I can never go back.
I woke up.
There is no place for me in the land of those who sleep.