Wednesday, February 19, 2014



She wasn’t my first choice, and I most emphatically wasn’t hers. She had never wanted to be here, taking this peculiar adult learning  course, housed in this dreary simulation of a college dormitory. Had not chosen it. Had not deserved it. Had not elected either these circumstances or her temporary companions in this, the First Circle of a bureaucratically pre-destined Inferno.

In his novel In the First Circle, Solzhenitsyn reinvented a sort of enclosed Elysian Field, not so much for the great and the good, whose karma it was to be born pre-Christian, secluded therefore in a walled garden: perennially green, banished from Heaven’s Gate – but for those 20th century unbelievers: the tech and academic heroes of Stalin’s intelligentsia gulag.

And we, the roommates, were in our own First Circle of care. Out of the ER, the ICU, out of the hospital, we were recovering amidst the greenish wallpaper and brownish upholstery of a skilled nursing home. More at liberty here than we had been as hospital patients, we were dual citizens of the world of rehabilitation, with its rigorous therapeutic regimens and its soft underbelly of drifted time.

College roommates, holders of our adolescent projections, had always been tricky to deal with. Paired (by administrators with the best of intentions) with alter egos from different communities, clans, we most of us made tentative alliances with peers we couldn’t ultimately understand: the farm girl from Fond du Lac (pronounced 'fawn-djeh-lack'), the girl who subscribed to Bride magazine, the Orthodox Jewish kid who threw up after eating a cheeseburger, the girl who spent years cultivating the straight silky hair that fell all the way down her back, only to cut it off on a dare, the girl with the Marge Piercy Bonsai Poem Poster, the scholarship kid with the bad clothes. Living in peace or besieged, we accepted these hasty pairings in order to best get on with our lives.

Roommates at the Skilled Nursing Center – frail, gaunt, disabled, deranged – were of a different order. If disabled physically, they could puncture fleshly aspiration like vampires at purity's throat, or haunt one’s dreams like war-torn zombies. If demented, they would whiz by in manic wheelchairs, decrying the coming Apocalypse, perseverating with whatever word or phrase had most recently caught their fancy, be it, “Are you my leader?” or, “DNA! DNA!”

                                   EVORA, EVORA

“Immobile, comme à ton habitude, mais es-tu devenue muette?” 
          Motionless  as  usual,  but did  you  become  mute ?      

But if they were mad then so was I, for I was one of them. They had their obsessions, and I had mine; though I was convinced that my obsession, with singer-songwriter Stromae, and specifically with Stromae’s song Ave Cesaria! brought sanity. Because the hip-hop artist’s tribute to the great Cape Verdean singer, Evora Cesaria, was a tale of forgotten success and late redemption: a grand comeback story that made a Roman conqueror of the African diva.

Over and over I listened to the song, always returning to the lines:

Tout le monde te croyait disparue mais
                           tu es revenue
tu es revenue
Her brilliance eclipsed for a decade, Cesaria re-emerged late in life, stellar once more. Who, then, might represent Cesaria in this dull sub-lunary world? Who deserved the diva’s salute? Merited the Pop musician’s tribute? Was it my disallowed self? Was it the non-English speaking patient in the next room, determined to claw his way back to normalcy? Or was it Gail Gaudeamus, the silent but eloquent roommate, her drab immobility reminiscent of the stark grandeur of a deposed Egyptian queen?

For if I was injured, my roommate was injured more badly by far. Indeed, as I had been told by the Case Manager, hers was a severe case: a fall, a TBI (Traumatic Brain Injury): “And with a TBI, the whole brain – everything it regulates – takes the hit.”

And yet, for all that, ‘Miss Gail’ was not without the hopeful support of a devoted child.

A Loving Son

“I’m her son, her only son.” Coming out of the tent that enclosed his mother’s wasted frame, a young man introduced himself to me as Richard. Already, this man with as much love for his mother as ten children, this man who spoke straight from the heart, had borne witness to the extraordinary person his mother was, and is.

Without trying to listen to his words, I had heard them, as he kept going in and out of the tent, seeming to leave, then returning to speak to her one last time:

“I love you, Mama. I know how hard this is, what’s happening to you. I know because what’s happening to you, it’s happening to me too.

 "You’re all I’ve got, Mama.  I love you with all my heart.

"It’s Valentine’s Day. I got you a card and a bouquet, Mama.  

"You’ve got to be strong. You’re the strongest person I’ve ever known.

"Open your eyes. Look at me, Mama. 

"Eyes closed, but you’re lookin’ good. Lookin’ good, girl.

"I pray for you, Mama, pray for you night and day.”

                                             Silence, Silence

Gail’s silence, albeit pathological, is highly valued by staff. When first introduced, I was told: “She nice lady. She don’t talk.” Such silence stands, after all, in stark contrast with the idiosyncratic behavior and infantile acting out of some patients, and the sheer obstreperous lunacy of others.

Today as a patient left the nursing home for dialysis, a resident named Lou impeded his progress by refusing to let go of the gurney on which he was to be transported. Vituperations ensued as the EMT workers tried to pry her loose. Her malevolence barely concealed beneath an affectation of naïveté, she chanted “I want to go!” “Leave me alone!” and “I need this!” as she clamped onto the gurney.

Lou is a crafty, grey-haired Baby Doll in a wheelchair that can be seen careening up and down the corridors when not intrusively poking its way into other patients’ rooms. Lou may suffer from dementia, but that doesn’t prevent her from being a successful manipulator: to the contrary. With her childlike curiosity and impulsive behavior that often lands her in scrapes, Lou manages to keep center stage, taking up the lion’s share of the staff’s attention. There may be only one Lou, but she is backed by a chorus of minor characters whose behavior continually challenges the staff.

The diurnal cycle has certain difficult and transitional times for the handling of the inmates of a skilled nursing facility. Before meals, anxious acutely ill patients and long-term care patients, many with variously manifesting forms of dementia, become more and more restless as anticipation builds to a climax. Then the meal is served, and silence descends. In the interim one hears cries of, “Nurse! Nurse!” as well as “Help! “I can’t hold it!” and “I need that!”

If it's twilight, it must be time for Joseph Jones. It is Joseph's anxious time of day. "Nurse? Nurse?" he begins, (never seeming to know the name of the nurse), his booming voice reverberating up and down the hallway, "This is Joseph Jones in Room 67. Would somebody please come to my room? Nurse?" But apparently Joseph hasn't gotten through to the nursing station, and it starts up all over again. "Nurse? This is Joseph Jones.. ."

To manage these cycles, the nurses must have their hierarchies, their routines. Not wanting to interrupt Celwyn, an assistant nurse who was feeding Gail, I told her from behind a billowy curtain that I was going to turn on the nurses’ light and ask for medication. But Celwyn arose  and went to fetch the nurse despite my protestations, remarking that the Nurse Colum would just call her to answer the light anyway. In the event, there was little point in messaging Colum, as his routine for handing out pills consisted in going from one end of the corridor to the other.

             Une  de  perdue,  c’est  ça? 
                         A   lost   one,  eh?

Corazón and two of the Ethiopian CNAs come in at 5:00 a.m. to take care of Gail. It’s time to test her blood sugar. I hear the quick-pulsing, musical voices of the Ethiopians, followed by the Philippina’s reprimand: “Speak English!” Half asleep, I thought I overheard: “Does she move arms and legs?” “No.”

           Tout  le  monde  te  croyait  disparue
                   The world thought you disappeared

 I got up and went to the nurses’ cart, where the three were conferring.

         mais tu es revenue
         but you came back

I told them that, not only could she move her arms and legs, but in the past week, she had been working out. Corazón asked: “What do you mean, ‘working out’? “I’ll show you,” I said.

I got down on the floor and demonstrated: “She sits in her chair leaning to one side.” Slumped to the right, I curled four fingers around the left bent knee touching my right knee, and pulled the left leg away from the right by pulling on the left knee, until the left leg reached almost a forty-five degree angle to the stationary leg. I explained that I had seen her do this several times, “very deliberately”. Corazón thanked me and appeared to make a note of it.


In the early morning a few days later, a CNA and a nurse came in to take care of the patient: “Is 33B a feeder?”  “Yeah,” said the CNA. “What’s her name?”


I asked if they had noticed the beautiful bouquet and card (now on the bedside table) that Gail had received from her son. There was now some conversation about what a nice card it was, and what a pretty bouquet. For a moment the nurses went beyond the script and wanted to know, when had her son come? And had she been awake? For a moment 33B became, not a feeder but a person: Gail, a mother beloved, a parent honored by her son.

                     Dr. G. and the Miracle Worker

“You’re talking, aren’t you?” asked Nurse Im We as she bathed her inert patient. But when Gail’s doctor, Dr. G., came by, nothing of this kind was discussed. In fact, Gail had had a shivering fit the night before, and concern about her blood sugar levels was the focus.  

Like laughter, adolescence, and our big brains, speech is one of the things that makes us human. Was Gail starting to speak? Certainly, she was vocalizing, but what did that mean?  I knew nothing about her condition, and understood even less. What were the criteria for receiving speech therapy? What was the threshold?

This speech therapy business, what was its reality? Its myth of origin was of course almost a story of the creation of speech, rather than of its repair; that story, with all its political implications: the story of Anne Sullivan teaching a blind, deaf child to speak and to read; that story has been further mythologized in the drama, The Miracle Worker. No doubt speech therapists clearly recall the arguments about Anne Sullivan’s treatment methods, her mistakes. Yet whatever her faults may have been, she had the signal honor of being Helen Keller’s teacher. As for the rest of us, born in or after the era of the play, and the movie starring Anne Bancroft and Patty Duke –what we remember is the scene at the pump.

Was there not a world of difference, though, between a child lacking two of her senses: who grew up virtually without language, and a grown woman, a “Mama” who had possessed speech before her brain injury? This was the difference between primary speech building as word-formation, and speech therapy as language repair.

Yet one could not but hope for a Miracle Worker for this more mundane kind of speechlessness too.

Comes now Gail Gaudeamus. 

Who will take her by the hand? Who will lead her to the pump in the yard, pour cold water on her hands, and form the emerging “Waaa….” into a word on her lips?  Dr. G., sweeping past, billowing in her earthy, textured fabrics, her black mane streaming, was in too great a hurry to stop to hear the end of a sentence, let alone help a non-speaker learn to form one. Not for Dr. G. the descent, the terrible encounter with those shadowy archetypes, the Mothers, muttering Faustian non-sense as wisdom; not for Dr. G the arduous return to the source: vast aquifer of sense and sound, Ur-speech whose tributaries branch upwards to earth’s surface, feeding hundreds of  languages. To Dr. G., the words that spilled sing-song from her tongue, so many microdots somersaulting out into the world in a lilting sense-cum-nonsense, these were words of convenience, pleasant rivulets on which to float the day’s exigencies: little rafts of efficiency, expediency, economy. But for all that, the good doctor’s love and concern were no less real a thing; she might yet write an order for speech therapy, depending on the state of the art.

1 comment:

Darin L. Hammond said...

Hi, Linda,

An awesome blog here that uses the tools of of creative writing to provoke thought and meaning. I enjoy your vivid and concise crafting of the language.

I love the way you take complex topics and gently guide your reader through the semantics, leaving thoughts, feelings, and changes.

Your last paragraph was my favorite, Linda:
"Comes now Gail Gaudeamus.

Who will take her by the hand? Who will lead her to the pump in the yard, pour cold water on her hands, and form the emerging “Waaa….” into a word on her lips? Dr. G., sweeping past, billowing in her earthy, textured fabrics, her black mane streaming, was in too great a hurry to stop to hear the end of a sentence, let alone help a non-speaker learn to form one. Not for Dr. G. the descent, the terrible encounter with those shadowy archetypes, the Mothers, muttering Faustian non-sense as wisdom; not for Dr. G the arduous return to the source: vast aquifer of sense and sound, Ur-speech whose tributaries branch upwards to earth’s surface, feeding hundreds of languages." Poetry in the guise of prose. You are a dissenter at heart and belong with us. Welcome.

Sorry if I'm incoherent. Haven't slept for a few days :-)

A warm welcome to you from the Community, Linda. Believe in your success, ask for help, Help others here, blog your passion ... Do this, and you fulfill our goals in that community: