As a speech therapist my major objective with each client is to increase his or her ability to communicate at a functional level. That means I need to untangle the hidden messages behind the signs, gestures and even the eye movements of these speech-challenged people. Since I’m not proficient in cryptology, hieroglyphics or Martian-speak, I’d like to say I am fairly effective, and at times maybe even as good as Kreskin when it comes to reading minds and deciphering alternative communication. Sometimes it means picking through a sentence that’s syntactically stitched together with nonsense words, and then left dangling with only a glimmer of meaning. Other times we revert to writing, or pointing at pictures in order to carry on a meaningful conversation.
But I’ve come to realize, that in all honesty, most times my success may have been luck, especially when I think about Ruth. In her case, a deaf or blind therapist might have understood her better.
After her brain surgery, Ruth moved into her daughter’s modest house to recuperate. Three times a week I make the drive to this older home, surrounded on all sides by newer, infectious suburban sprawl. Wide open land, once freckled with post WWII homes, old barns and clotheslines, now boiled up aluminum-sided homes with Tuff Sheds and white-vinyl fences.
Ruth and I have discussed the new houses across the street many times. Instead of staring out of the picture window at coma-inducing dried sage fields, she now studies the two-story intruders. They are too big, too flashy.
On this day though, Ruth seems extra irritated with the new homes. Her reddish-dyed hair was uncombed, an inch of gray at the roots. As always, we work at the dining room table, just off the living room, and Ruth faces toward the street. Our activity today is the task of sentence completion; I read a sentence and she fills it in with an appropriate word.
She’s getting about forty percent of the sentences correct, but after fifteen minutes of practice, the eyesores across the street provoke her again.
I say, “The family likes to ride in a ____?”
“It’s bright.” She levels a hard squint toward the window.
“Too much siding, Ruth. We’ve agreed on that. Okay, help me finish the sentence. The family rides in a____?”
I’m feeling like that’s not too bad of an answer for a woman who had virtually no speech six weeks ago, but I know she’s not talking about a car. “The houses aren’t going away, Ruth. I’m sorry they bother you. Try this sentence. Mom feeds the baby some____?”
“Hot, what?” I give her the pulling taffy motion, indicating I need a longer answer.
“Hot barbeque.” A Kleenex mysteriously appears from the sleeve of her turquoise housedress and she dabs away the drool from the uncooperative side of her mouth.
I smile and pat her boney hand. Her tendons are strung tight enough to pluck out a southern tune if things get too quiet. Though her eyes are fixated beyond my left ear toward the window, it now seems she’s half focused on our therapy again. Gently I offer, “Probably not barbeque for the baby. Think a second. What did you feed your children when they were little?”
“Shiny bright everywhere.” She flutters the Kleenex around in front of her face, trying to wipe away the view.
I decide there’s only one way to battle this obsession. I slide my workbooks and her file across the table. “Let’s try changing places today. It’ll make you feel better.” I help her get out of her seat. She hobbles around the table, and then I ease her into what had been my chair. I scoot her closer.
Inside I’m holding down a medley of annoyance and exasperation because we’re not making much progress today due to all of the distractions. And because of this impatience, when I sit in the seat that she’s just vacated, it takes me a few seconds to recognize that the house across the street is fully engulfed in flames!
‘Bright, hot barbeque, shiny bright everywhere.’
Ruth patiently waits for me as I tear into the kitchen, rip the phone from the wall mount and smash in 9-1-1.
Once I return to her side, she smiles and says, “House on fire.”
“It sure is.” I release a long sigh. “Exactly what you were telling me.”
We drift into the living room and sink into orange velour chairs positioned in front of the picture window and watch the fireman pour from their trucks in order to save the shiny, bright house.
There’s always the lesson to be learned from clients like Ruth. Over the years as I’d leave my patient’s homes, with their humiliation and hope hanging quietly behind the front door, I’d think, they will be happier when they can talk more clearly. But now I know the truth. They’ll be happier when they meet someone who is clearly listening.