(1-3 weeks on…give or take…)
“Dr. Marvin…You can help me…for the first time in my life, I feel like there’s hope…”
—What About Bob?
—What About Bob?
What About Bob was on.
It had been on, solidly, for a week.
[On screen: We are in Dr. Leo Marvin’s fancy Midtown-Manhattan office. There are awards on the wall, sleek metallic lamps, a large window overlooking the city behind the small, and a bronze bust of Dr. Sigmund Freud that surrounds an arrogant psychiatrist wearing a navy jacket and red tie. After listening to Bob Wiley—his newest patient for only a matter of minutes—Dr. Marvin recommends the following…]
Dr. Marvin: Bob, there is a groundbreaking new book that has just come out— ah!
[Dr. Marvin selects one from dozens of copies of the same, completely visible, book…]
Now not everything in this book, of course applies to you, but I’m sure that you can see, when you see the title, exactly how it could… help.
Bob: [reading the title] “Baby Steps?”
Dr. Marvin: —It means setting small, reasonable goals for yourself, one day at a time. One tiny step at a time.
Bob: [wonderstruck] …B a b y S t e p s…
Dr. Marvin: For instance, when you leave this office, don’t think about everything you have to do in order to get out of the building, just think of what you must do to get out of this room, and when you get to the hall, deal with that hall, and so forth. You see?
Bob: Baby Steps!
Dr. Marvin: Baby Steps.
Bob: Oh boy…
And agonizingly accurate.
Grey had moved the television from the master bedroom into the upstairs office across the landing. The master bedroom having a kind of force field around it at this juncture—invisible and undiscussed. I think all of us were aware that we did not want to be those people, whoever they were. Those people—the ones that got all histrionic about the loss of a loved one. As if that were somehow not okay.
Mom and I spent a lot of time wondering if we were reacting “normally.” Grey, Lilly and Kent spent a lot of time wondering the same thing. What do you do when you are eighteen and nothing this devastating has really ever happened to you yet? You can’t say things are “okay” or “allowed” or “understandable” because you have no idea if they are or aren’t— you are eighteen. You are a fetus. The closest you have ever gotten to death is the class guinea pig dying in kindergarten. You do not yet realize what you do not yet know.
So, in that vein, we did not actively close off The Room of Death. No. We just operated under a silent agreement that all would be quiet. We’d keep it light. We could and would pretend that all comings-and-goings to and from The Room of Death were nobigthing. Look at me Death, our silent attitude would manically screech, check me! Check me as I casually use the Master Bathroom as a legitimate alternative to other household bathrooms! I am using it because there is a shower/bath, and because it is a valid option and therefore should be utilized as such. The ‘someone died here like 5 minutes ago’ thing? Yeah. It is nobigthing.
It was a big thing.
So despite the odd gesture to waltz in and out of the room like dingbats, it pretty much remained untouched.
Hey-You-Guy-Brenda and Kent had gotten to work on the master bathroom (or, The Bathroom of Death, if you will--and I hope you will)— sorting through every pill, tube, catheter, plug, prescription bottle, and machine and, without a great deal of ceremony, threw all of it away.
“We disposed of the disease” Kent said after returning from wherever these trinkets had been discarded, “and left the man.” Indeed—the gold watch, the spare loose coins he always counted as he thought and calmed himself, the scraps of paper covered in his signature all-caps scrawl, the distinctive cologne that smelled so much of him it pierced directly into my heart.
Those days were full of harrowing little tasks like that.
The death-sheets were cleaned and folded, the bed made anew, the room scrubbed down, the machines carted away—as if none of it had ever happened at all. Mom’s friends, along with mine, took on the duties that would eventually create The House of Death we came to know after the act itself was long past. All that could remind us of the horrors of terminal disease remained burned in our memories alone.
But the absence of objects is, too, a kind of silence.
No one could have prepared us for the pulsing soundlessness that perpetrated every waking moment, that the lack of Michael, along with the lack of his artifacts (both of the life and the lack-of-life variety) would in fact leave us with no touchstones to our anguish, no weapons with which to dig out emotions trapped so deep within our chest cavities only crude surgery could release them.
Dad’s office across the hall already had a small twin bed in the corner, and was now doubling as, what could only be described as “Mom’s Temporary Place of Sleeping.”
At the time we had one of those late-90s TVs with a built-in VHS player. It would swallow the already war-worn copy of Bob, and every time it reached the end of the tape it would automatically rewind, eject, and the VHS tape would sit in the open mouth of the TV, awaiting instruction—a blank face with its tongue sticking out.
Before a second of silence could go by I would panic, rushing to the machine to push the cassette back in. There are no words to describe how much I loved the way it swallowed the tape with such efficient, satisfying obedience, and adored the sound of the pre-digital cogs churning within, of each electronic stage it took to bring Bob’s infinite wisdom back to me again.
Dr. Marvin: Are you married?
Bob: I'm divorced.
Dr. Marvin: Would you like to talk about that?
Bob: There are two types of people in this world: Those who like Neil Diamond, and those who don't. My ex-wife loves him.
Bob— with his judicious ability to ask for exactly what he needs.
Bob: [to man on bus] Hi, I'm Bob. Would you knock me out, please? Just hit me in the face…
Bob— knowing there is soundness even in folly.
Dr. Marvin: I want some peace and quiet!
Bob: Yeah, I'll be quiet.
Siggy: I'll be peace!
[Bob and Siggy burst into giggles]
Bob— reaching through the screen and speaking the truth directly to me…
Dr. Marvin: Why are you always wearing black? What is it with you and this death fixation?
Siggy: Maybe I'm in mourning for my lost childhood…
It was in this period that I came to know Bob beyond reason or sanity. In that week I exceeded being comforted by the light, harmless comedy. Not surprisingly, in fact, I did not laugh at all. I watched because it comforted me. I watched it because the “this moment,” and every moment that clicked along, really sucked, and it reminded me of life, of everything, before it.
Bob— on endless loop.
Bob— more comforting than any therapy (be it “Baby Steps,” “Isolation,” or “Death” therapies) or friend or food or love.
I would jolt— Dad and Bill Murray always shared a kind of “cadence,” particularly when Bill Murray went into his “child-like comedy” mode. “HA!” Bob would burst out, and I would jolt upward, certain Dad was back before I remembered, and sank back into myself, and the bed, once more. If I kept it on, somehow Dad would come around the corner any second and join me.
After a few days a family friend came over and into the room. She stood over me and glanced over my particular state of wretchedness and attempted to conceal how much the sight of my despair turned her stomach. She caught herself mid-shudder and plastered a frighteningly cheerful smile on her face,
“I see we are doing a little too much sitting in this bed and not enough getting on with things?” My eyes moved toward her but my body remained motionless too dazed to be embarrassed, and, with the concern and temperament of a toad, my eyes peeled away form her and back toward the screen, not even daring to respond. She sighed and left the room slowly, unable to stir me.
She was trying to help.
Was she trying to tell me that my love of Bob was wrong? Because if Bob was wrong, then I didn’t want to know what right was.
I had been in the bed for a week. Pajamas filthy, hair matted, and Bob on a bender of inexhaustible re-runs. I did not know what time it was. I did not know the day. All I knew was that it was dark. In every sense. And that I was alone.
But Bob was there, and the blue flame from the small television flickered, more comforting than a fire.
I opened my eyes to discover Bob helping little Siggy to dive...
My beloved Bob approaches the dock to discover Siggy, dressed fully in black and all alone, sitting on an upright wooden post, red bicycle discarded beside him, despondently playing a hand-held video game. Siggy’s father Dr. Marvin has insisted Siggy learn to dive despite Siggy’s paralyzing fear, and earlier on, dropped Siggy in the water without warning. Bob is elated, having just returned from his first experience of sailing, and is still draped in his orange life-vest which he has left casually untied atop his bright blue shirt that reads “Don’t Hassle Me, I’m Local.”
Bob gazes upon Siggy and approaches slowly.
Bob: Notice anything different about me?I knew exactly what he meant.
Siggy: [he contemplates Bob for a moment] No.
Bob: Do you sail?
Bob: Well I just picked it up. Heh! [He chuckles] Wonder what I’m gonna pick up next?
Siggy: Try diving. [He retorts sarcastically, returning to his video game]
Bob: Alright, diiiiiving…
Siggy: I know a great teacher. [He sighs. Considers for a moment, before venting a confession to Bob] I mean, my dad just dropped me in the water. Without warning me first. I mean, I nearly drowned! My whole life passed before my eyes.
Bob: You're lucky you're only twelve.
Siggy: It was still grim.
Siggy [cont]: I mean what is it with him and diving? What’s the big deal?
Bob: Well…[Bob walks out further onto the dock and, seeing the depth of the water declares] WHOA… [tying his life-vest on tightly before continuing] ...He probably just wants to beat it, that’s all. You know, he probably just wants you to dive, because you’re afraid of diving.
Siggy rolls his eyes as only a twelve-year-old can, but knows Bob is right.
Bob [cont]: Did I tell you? I sailed on my first try! [Bob extends his arms like a proud child] …I just let the boat do the work that was my secret. But with diving, what’s the thing? What’s the trick? Siggy: I dunno… it’s supposed to be easy… Bob moves his feet around, revving them into the ground like a nervous foul.
Bob: well… can you give me a handle on it?
Siggy puts down his video game and comes over to Bob at the end of the dock.
...I don’t want to go into more detail.
I don’t want to get into the hows and the whats of the next few moments, because I want you to see the scene for yourself.
All I will say is this: Siggy dives.
And he dives because Bob helps him.
Does Bob realize he is helping? I don’t know. Every time I see this scene I change my mind again—no, I think, Bob is innocent, he doesn’t know he is the most profound man alive, an all-knowing guru of almost spiritual depth. The next time round I think yes, Bob knows what he is doing, he may not be able to help himself, but he can help this little boy…
I don’t know.
I like that I don’t know.
What I do know is this: Siggy faces his greatest fear. And he does because Bob helps him.
I burst into tears. Which was odd, because I had not yet cried. Not once. And there I was weeping into the strange un-used cushions of an unfamiliar bed in my father’s old office, across the hall from the room in which he had died what felt like both moments and ages ago, and all I wanted was for Bob to reach through the screen and help me.