When they laughed at Tom

By Sheila Orysiek

SAN DIEGO–When I first began to frequent the coffee shop I slowly realized that there were about twenty people who gathered regularly.  Not all at one time, of course, but in various numbers, usually in the morning or on a pleasant evening.  The group was made up of individuals from all walks of life, differing levels of education and many different ages. Childhood stories were recalled and shared; memories of growing up on a mid-western farm or the life of a child in a large city.  One told of a trip to a far off place and another told of plans to go on a special trip.  Coffee shops have become America’s front porch with a constantly changing constituency.  And, if one sits back and observes there is a common thread, the basic human need for contact and communication.

A rabbi once told me that Mitzvah doesn’t happen when we are alone, but through our interaction with others.  Watching people interact in a coffee shop setting is a lesson in how correct he was.  How we treat other people across the divides of gender, color, religion, politics and ethnicity is a test of our respect for one another.  A table at a coffee shop is a microcosm of both our assets and our human frailties.

There is Joe, sitting at the far end of the table, he worked in the north of Alaska, and he tells of how he survived winters and storms as he inspected oil wells on the north slope.  Young Bob talks of his plans for college and beyond. Vera is obsessed with the pursuit of her college degree and of the young men in pursuit of her.  And next to her sits Adele.  She talks of the college professors in the department where she works and their idiosyncrasies and behavior which often belie their advanced educations.  Pert little Maggie describes how she is going to spend her free time during her hard won retirement.  Harry the handsome, is out of work again, and struggling to re-make his life after a divisive divorce.  He misses his children and spends his days lamenting his dilemma.

As time passes not only are memories shared but eventually the problems also.  Everyone has a story to tell of some hardship or obstacle overcome, and some still to be endured.  Janet has diabetes and shares her fears and the restrictions this imposes on her life.  Everyone in the group is concerned about Vincent who has been diagnosed with prostate cancer and is undergoing surgery and chemotherapy.  And, so on pleasant evenings and sunny mornings the group gathers and then disperses, a constant fluid interchange of hopes, fears and dreams.  Cheer and sorrow is intermixed.  Information is exchanged and each helps another when possible, even if only by listening.  There are always a few about, sitting on chairs, with coffee cups ready to greet and chat.

For a short time I became a part of this group quite by accident.  As I sat there one day with my notebook, staring off, waiting for inspiration to write, Stuart, a friendly soul, engaged my attention and rattled along in a cheerful manner.  He spoke of the weather and then added his humor into the mix.  Others of the group soon joined and I found myself an eagerly sought member of this informal collection.  I enjoyed their conversation, easy camaraderie and was impressed with the concern they had for one another’s problems as well as applause for individual accomplishment and obstacles that had been overcome.

Robert, has a nervous disorder and his hands shake and though he has a fine mind, but his mouth no longer readily obeys him.  The group observes his dilemma and commiserates both in their hearts and in their words to him.  It is as if his trembling is a sign of a weathered leaf threatening to fall.  He has everyone’s sympathy.

Another of the group, Tom, is afflicted with mental illness.  He has both schizophrenia and manic depressive disorder and is on powerful anti hallucinatory medication.  The side effects slow his speech a bit and make his hands shake uncontrollably from tremors.  He is an honest man and had served in the military until his disability.  One of the indicators of schizophrenia is the sufferer denies the illness and the need for medication.  And, physically the patient is much more comfortable without the medications and feels less befuddled, though of course in reality the opposite is true.  So, the patient is always tempted to reject the medication both because of the illness itself and a physical feeling of well being when not on the drugs.

On one particularly pleasant evening we gathered together in our customary group, exchanging pleasantries and the events of our day.  Vincent appeared and announced his chemotherapy was at an end and to everyone’s pleasure that his cancer was now gone.  He was welcomed with smiles and words of joy. Then Robert joined us and a chair was brought for him.  Someone helped him grasp a cup of juice in his trembling hands and we patiently waited for each sentence as his lips formed his words slowly.  We let him know he was surrounded by loving friends.

Then Tom came over.  For the past several days he had neglected to take his medication for schizophrenia and the results were most apparent.  There was no physical fear of him, he offered no threat, but his thoughts were mired in his warped view of reality.  People listened, a smile or two was hidden behind a hand, or averted eyes tried to hide their secret mirth. Then Tom suddenly stood up and left and the general laughter began in earnest.  Tom’s every move and word was re-examined and ridiculed.

I was horrified. I refused to believe this was so.  Surely this could not be, laughing at mental illness?  Carefully, I asked why the laughter and I was given back with renewed hilarity the inconsistencies in Tom’s words and thought.  I tried to explain that there is no difference between the tragedy of Vincent’s cancer and Tom’s mental disorder.  I thought perhaps if I explained that mental illness is just another disease of the body but expressed through the mind, understanding would follow. But, even so, these otherwise educated, sympathetic people closed their hearts, shut off their intellect and laughed at Tom, refusing to see the tragedy of his life.

In dismay I watched still disbelieving and since I could not change their souls, I refused to be a witness to their vulgarity.  And, so I left because to sit there would be an act of assent. But the laughter rang in my ears. They are echoes from what I thought were the superstitions and ignorance of bygone centuries.

To sit and listen quietly to cruelty is to be part of the crime.

Orysiek is a freelance writer based in San Diego.  She may be contacted at [email protected]

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