Monday, April 10, 2017
I would not have known him without the heads-up from James and Hiram. He looked every bit the emaciated ghost from a concentration camp: sunken eyes, stick-like arms, ashen skin, purple lips. This was not the man I knew.
The Gilbert I knew was a strapping fifty-something of a man three years ago. His was a world of letters, intellect, and his sensibility produced some of the best writing to come out of the workshops. He holds advanced degrees, is a close observer, has thrown himself into his writing in ways that open him, make him visible and vulnerable. He touches real truth.
But that sensitivity comes at a high price when a hope for release meets a denial that sends you back to prison for life. His case was up for review. I wrote a letter of support. The hearing might have set him free. The victim's family, though, blocked his plea and the judge agreed. The key went back onto the ring and Gilbert was sent back to hell.
He fell into a darkness so deep that he could not get out of bed, much less come to the workshops. For years, he wasted away, eyes staring at what no one could say.
I sent him poems and books and invitations to join us in the workshops.
The years passed, and all I heard was that he began to sit outside, that sometimes he would play chess with the younger guys. Months. Years.
Now, here he is, standing in front of me. I say his name, even though it doesn't quite fit with the walking corpse who stands there, a feeble smile forming on his dark lips. His eyes have gone flat, but flicker there, a recognition. I shake his hand, then embrace him. He feels like a skeleton.
"Good to see you," I say. I hide my shock, bite my tongue. Don't say anything about how he looks, how he has imploded.
He smiles faintly. He takes a seat at the table. We begin the workshop with a reading about the merits of, and human response to, failure. I think about a line from one of Gilbert's poems: "life is about losing things."
When it's time to read, one of the younger guys has written about how he has found solace and camaraderie the workshop. He says the workshop is "like being with the knights of the round table." He wants feedback on the work.
I ask Gilbert what he thinks.
He takes a moment and I think he will say nothing, but then he finds his voice, and addresses not just the writer, but the circle of men. "The idea is strong, but some of the language is too familiar, too overused. I don't want to say hackneyed, but it is not as fresh as it might be if you spoke something particular to your experience."
The writer takes notes. Other men at the table nod. The discussion begins and does not slow for twenty minutes. In it the men offer suggestions, ask questions, provide examples. Possibility sits at the head of the table and smiles. Yes, she thinks, this is where I want to be.