In September, 2016 I started a year-long personal challenge of doing something each week that I’d never done before then writing about it. This is week 33.
Outside the Oregon State Hospital is a small brick building filled with shelves of old copper canisters. They once contained the cremains of the hospital patients who were never collected. Some have labels. Some have splashes of bright green patina. All held ashy bits of bone.
Next to the canisters is a courtyard framed by a low concrete wall that contains the names and dates of these unremembered people on small circular plaques. Some of the circles are blank where someone has collected the cremains, someone who remembers or remembers someone else who remembered the person.
In the hospital museum is a straightjacket some of the unremembered people wore. And one of the electric shock devices that some of the unremembered people had pulled against their temples. And one of the lobotomy tables where some of the unremembered people forgot themselves.
In the hospital museum is an old TV showing a movie that was filmed there, a movie I’d mostly forgotten. Jack Nicholson, sure, but I’d forgotten Danny Devito and Christopher Lloyd. From the neighboring room I hear the volunteer tell some other visitors that Nurse Ratched showed up for the opening day of the museum. “She’s a lovely woman,” he said as if surprised, as if he’d forgotten that she is not Nurse Ratched but Louise Fletcher.
Beneath the museum are tunnels where remembered and unremembered people pushed laundry, food and other goods down a set of narrow tracks. The tunnels are still there but no longer accessible. Dave, who has driven me here and was born down the street, remembers playing in the tunnels as a young boy.
In the park next to the museum is a shallow ditch that Dave remembers as a big hole which he was pushed into. Beyond the park is the house he remembers as the place where his mother washed his mouth out with soap.
A few blocks from the house is the forest Dave remembers that is actually just a park filled with old trees. It sits next to an elementary school where Dave remembers his teacher always wearing the exact same blue dress.
I don’t know what I’ll remember of this day. Maybe it’ll be the high curved fence around the imposing new hospital’s playing field made of tight wire mesh too small to fit a toe. Or the fact that beyond the Cukoo’s Nest display is a vocational training room dotted with patients learning how to cut hair or use a jigsaw or shelve library books. Maybe I will remember the cracked open lids on some of the brass canisters. Maybe someone else with the right power will remember to pay attention, literally pay, so that we can have something more and something better than a display of canisters and plaques.
Or maybe I’ll remember something else entirely: The perfect, long-awaited warmth of the day and the joy of driving with the windows down. The perfect fit of Dave’s hand around my knee as we crawled through traffic. The giant cup of sweet, cold coffee. The easy conversation. The joy.
Someday we’ll all be bits of ashy bone. If some of us are lucky to live long enough, there will be no one left to collect us. No one to remember. But that doesn’t mean our skin never grew brown in the sun. And that doesn’t mean that we never stretched out in the cool, dappled grass. That doesn’t mean we never mattered.