Sunday, June 3, 2012

Of Mice and Men - A (Spoilery) Response

You think you know sadness. Every time something jumps up from the shadows and stabs you in the guts with grief and woe, you can't help thinking it. "Oh god! This is pain! It can't get worse than this, surely! There is no feeling as bad as this!" And you do whatever you can to shake it out. You scream and weep and pull at your hair and gnash your teeth, thinking that maybe if you try them all, you'll stumble across the right anesthetic to cure this feeling cutting through your chest.

But sometimes the sadness just leaves you in silent stillness. All you can do is sit and let it resonate through your limbs like a sound only you can hear. You can't share it, so it just sits in your head like a soft hum.

If you have any kind of soul, Of Mice and Men will leave you with a sound sadness, and if you have ever lost a friend, it will make your heart ache like a phantom limb.

All the way through the book, I knew it couldn't end well. It was almost painful waiting for the inevitable wrong to occur. It was like waiting to rip a band-aid off, only it was more like tearing set tar off a deep wound. It hurts because you know somebody else is going to hurt as well, and you want to do everything you can to avoid them feeling that pain, but if it's coming, then it's coming and there's nothing you can do about it.

Gradually losing a friend almost always results in a sound sadness, because even though you've always known it was coming, the final blow is always going to wind you. When George loses Lennie, even though you know that it's been coming all along, it is intensely painful to read. Bracing for the blow might have protected your insides, but it hurts more to punch a tensed muscle.

Lennie reminds me of so many people from my childhood, but one in particular. His name was Tim*, and when I was in pre-school, he was my best friend.

I'm not sure what it was Tim had, exactly. I think it was cerebral palsy, but I was too young to know, and anyway, I didn't care. He had a bit of trouble walking, often went off on strange tangents when we talked (oh, now you can see why we were friends!), and was often quite loud. I was one of the few kids who would talk to him, and the times I spent with him I remember with incredible fondness. He was always excited to see me, and we were great friends. I still have a photo somewhere of the two of us in my cubby house having a tea party. (I should probably look for it next time I'm home.)

But there was a point when I realised our friendship was incredibly fragile.

I think I was in Year 1. I do remember that we had started school by that point, and Tim had been put into the Special Education class, so I only got to see him occasionally at lunchtime. His mum invited me over one day for a play date, and so over I went. Tim and I played together for a while, but soon ended up having a small tiff that ended up with each of us playing on our own in separate rooms. That happened sometimes. It didn't matter though. We were still friends.

After a while, his mum offered me a drink. I was very polite and said, "Yes please." I didn't think to ask what it was. There wasn't much that one could eat or drink that I didn't like. Unfortunately, the red cordial that she brought me was one of those things. But I was full of my best manners, so I took it and sat it next to me as I played. I told myself I would drink it later.

As the afternoon went on, Tim came back to play with me. He asked his mum for some red cordial as well, but she told him he couldn't have any - it would make him too hyper when combined with his medicine (or something of the like). She said maybe later. Tim wasn't happy about that.

I can't remember where I had gone, but at some point, I had gotten up from where I was and left the cordial behind. And Tim had found it.

The rest of the memory is blurry, but I remember him yelling at his mum and crying and him being sent to his room. I remember being scared, not knowing what was going on, and why was Tim being so mean to his mum? I can remember after it was over, and he was away in his room, I talked to his mum who told me he drank the cordial. I felt horrible, but she said it wasn't my fault. She was such a nice lady...

I'll be the first to confess that this happened a long time ago, and my memory is a bit hazy, but it can't be denied that after that, I wasn't as close to Tim as I had been. I guess I was a little bit scared, but I think it was his condition rather than his behaviour that frightened me. I could see then that he was different, and that maybe he wouldn't get better and enjoy all the things my other friends and I got to do. He might even get sicker, and more scary. I didn't want to have to see that.

A few months later, we moved away to Dubbo, and I didn't see Tim again for a long time after. I remember one time his mum called mine to tell me he was staying at respite care near my school. I went to see him one day. He was exactly the same, despite the five or so years that had passed, except for one thing.

He had forgotten who I was. When I told him who I was, he said, "Noni? Noni from Play School?" It didn't matter though. I had time to play with him and make him remember. We were friends again.

I didn't see him again until I was well into my high school years. I think it must have been Year 11 or 12, and we had gone to Mudgee for a debating competition. I had quietly wondered to myself if I'd see him, but I wasn't holding my breath.

After the debate, we were walking through the maze of classrooms back to the front gate and then, in the most wonderful stroke of luck, there he was! "Tim!" I called out to him. "How are you, buddy? Do you remember me?"

He was with one of his aides, who I didn't know. She asked if I knew him, and I told her we were friends when we were kids. I asked him if he remembered me, if he knew who I was.

The look on his face was blank and confused.

I knew he might have forgotten, but maybe he had something hidden in his memories that might just click. "I'm Noni. Remember how you used to come over to my house when we were little?"

His response broke my heart.

"Noni? You're not Noni. Noni is on Play School."

I didn't have time to tell him who I was, or to let him remember how we had sat in my cubby house having tea parties or played together at pre-school or how he had come to my birthday party... It was all gone. My friend was gone.

The bullet had flown from the gun and we were never going to get the chance to "live off the fatta the lan'." There would be no rabbits to pet, and no more happy days. It had all turned to dust and ashes.

Of Mice and Men has opened an old sore, it seems. The feeling that fueled Tim's and my friendship, that childish naivety that maybe one day there's a special kind of joyous life waiting over the horizon, was the same feeling that kept George and Lennie going. Their relationship not only demonstrates the power of friendship and hope, but also just how incredibly delicate it can be, no matter how tightly we try to cling to it. And sadly, that is a feeling many of us will get to know only too well in our lifetimes. I was no exception.

That silent sound is still ringing in my ears.

*Name has been changed.