By Robert Henhaffer
Although my room was on the third floor where we hoped heat from the old furnace would rise, the cruel winter would give any exposed skin in the converted monastery an electric shock. In the frozen morning silence it seemed the entire world was still dark. I remember lying awake gently focusing the events that led me to occupy that bed. After two weeks of these mornings my roommate, Sal, and I were comfortably adapted to the 5 a.m. wake-up call delivered by the commanding orderly. The loud exchange between the staff and patients that resonated down the hall was enough to wake us; so before the orderly could eagerly burst through the door to startle another pair of peacefully slumbering men, we would already be taking turns with the mirror to brush our teeth.
The day would begin with a desperate scramble to the shower room. If we both could manage the torture of being awakened half an hour early, Sal and I would request the orderly to come to our rooms first because the hot water for the whole facility only lasted for twenty minutes. In the high altitude of North Jersey, in the middle of a blizzard, a hot shower was something we worshiped. In a disheveled assortment of thick winter jackets, we arranged ourselves in the long hallway full of large, thin greenhouse windows. From the hallway we could see the statue of an unknown saint next to a stone fountain in the middle of the snowy court yard. We were all hungry and unresponsive until we could enter the cafeteria at 6:30. Once I got a glimpse of breakfast and chose my favorite storyteller or comedian to sit near, I found the energy to join the conversation and the leisurely debates of the day. Sal and I would sit at our preferred table which faced the entrance. The meal bell was placed on another table so we had to wait and stew in our hunger for a little while. We sometimes asked each other some questions to try and get the other one talking, and occasionally one of us would attempt a funny monolog for the whole table to enjoy. Finally, the bell would be passed to us. We had to wait for everyone who was sitting at the last table to sit down with their food before we could proceed to shake the bell and storm the breakfast line ourselves. At first this was frustrating and unnecessary, but later the conclusion was made that the orderlies were trying to teach us patience.
When breakfast was over I would put my tray away and head with the rest of the group back through the hallway, down the main stairwell, to the basement. I could feel my senses fading from lack of stimulation. We faced the same blackboards for ten crawling hours every day. I was in the habit of picking the chair with no one in front, so I could lean forward and sleep if I had to. The bulk of our lectures would be completed later, in the afternoon, but I knew after we ate lunch they would let us outside for a forty-five minute break. I would eagerly wait and take my stroll slowly down the hallways savoring the freedom to walk outside with no repercussions. Now outside, a delicious rush to my senses would overthrow any memory of the unpleasant morning. I met the equally happy patients by the community gazebo to smoke cigarettes and fire jokes off back and forth. Sitting in the gazebo with everyone on our afternoon break was my favorite time of day. I would notice everyone beginning to thaw from the cold morning rituals and finally starting to smile at each other. In those moments, time seemed to pass like golden film in front of my eyes. We felt like normal men for those forty-five minutes underneath the changing colors of the sky. As our thoughts escaped the walls of the monastery and reminded us of our lives far away, another orderly screeched the demanded to come back inside.