I have had to speak on several occasions over the past two days. I am calling these “technical glitches.” One time was to tell a friend that I had never heard anyone, ever, say anything bad about her. Another time was to tell the sales guy at Best Buy why I was returning a laptop computer. Another time was to talk to the woman on tech support to get a program loaded on my new laptop. No, these were not necessary words. I was not hurt. I was not using them to settle an argument. And yes, I could’ve written a lot of it down on paper or text. It was just…so much easier to use the damn words.
I feel now I must dig even deeper down into the rabbit hole to make up for it. It feels almost like I’ve let a secret escape that I swore on my life I would always keep. I have discovered that this would be so much easier if I were also deaf, but this is not about easy. This is about…well, I still don’t know what the hell this is about. Overall it has been more confusing than enlightening. It has been more painful than peaceful. It has been more frustrating than encouraging. It has not gotten me out of anything or excused my participation or made me disappear the way I hoped it would. Life continues to happen around me the way it always has, with an added challenge that I communicate with people, and they with me, using untried and awkward techniques of expression.
I can say that so far the most fascinating aspect about the experiment has been watching how people respond to the challenge. If you watch them closely enough you can see their minds working it out. They ask me a question and realize I can’t answer it. They pause. They reword the question so that it requires a nod or shake. If it requires more, they back up, reword, tap their lip, circle, get paper, make a joke, start over. They’ll ask whoever I’m with. I’ll text an answer to their phone. Sometimes they’ll say something that will dare me to speak, but it is usually done in jest. Most people I’ve interacted with have enjoyed the dance and liked learning the steps. Whenever I saw my coach at the Y he would say “Hey!” or “Still not talking?” or walk up to me and ask, “One word? Just one?” Now when he sees me he puts his fingers to his lips and makes a locking motion and then gives me a thumbs up.
There have been times when I felt I was going to choke on silence. Despite the various ways I can express my thoughts—the daily writing, texting, Facebook—the voice itself demands to be heard. It doesn’t seem to matter if the word is hatred or pen, it becomes a small child that has fallen to the bottom of a well and is awaiting the assistance of the entire community to rescue it. The desperation is exaggerated, of course. It’s just a word sitting there at the back of my throat, at the tip of my tongue—my brain is squeezing all the neurons and dendrites together to force my mouth to spit it out. There is no real danger if I don’t…I just say nothing. But that word…it will be spoken, it will be heard, it will be recognized. I fight this battle about a thousand times a day.
Because of this silence, I have noticed silence everywhere. And my friends and family have noticed silence and pointed it out to me. I received this quote twenty-two times last week on Facebook, in messenger and email: “So, if you are too tired to speak, Sit next to me, Because I, too, am fluent in silence.” I find great validation in this. No, I cannot tell you why I’m doing this. I can’t tell you why it’s important. I can only trust that it is. The surprising thing is, my family and friends haven’t asked for explanations. My people, they are good to the bone. They are deep thinkers and freewheeling, crazed and dangerous, wild and calculating, broken and awkward, strugglers and fighters, spirited and brilliant beyond measure. I see them. I see the Goddess and the Warrior and the Fierce Feminist and the Wandering Wolf.
Of course, I was taught a hard lesson in how to see in my early days of nursing. In fact, most important, life-changing things I’ve learned over the years have taken place on the floor of the ward, and the lessons were executed with punch and grace by patients.
I worked at a small rehab center in Fairfax county in Virginia many years ago. Most detox units are run by the counties in which they reside, on very little money and threadbare resources, and this one was no different. The back side of the dayroom had a huge window unadorned by blinds or curtains and unashamedly displayed the view of the back-parking lot, which had been roped off for months by bright yellow crime scene tape, and housed two blue industrial sized garbage bins and a literal menagerie of feral animals fighting to the death over whatever edible scraps could be salvaged there. The staff had long since stopped throwing leftovers out the back window, because of the in-fighting that resulted, and because it seemed to attract even more feral animals. After a while the county stopped emptying the bins and the entire place became overwrought with stinking trash and wild cats. Someone had once tried to get a curtain for the window, to at least block the view of such a pathetic spectacle, but like a psych ward, curtains and blinds were considered potential safety hazards.
One day I found one of my patients standing in front of the window, taking a break between groups, and I approached him with his meds. He took the meds and the water without a word and we stood together and looked at the filth before us. The concrete on the lot had been fractured in several places. I had always wondered how and could only imagine that a large space claw had broken it when punching through the layer of our earth’s fragile exterior. There were cats of every conceivable type and color slithering around, mating and fighting and crying and feeding. The hull of an orange Volkswagen occupied the far-left corner of the lot, where it had been set on fire a few months back, and was now a make-shift brothel with a stained twin mattress inside half draped with a neon pink blanket. Everywhere you looked were red and blue crushed beer and soda cans, condom wrappers, Styrofoam fast-food containers, brown pizza boxes, empty two-liter coke bottles, newspapers, spray paint canisters, dirty diapers, discarded clothing, body fluids and waste (both animal and human), broken furniture, smashed pallets, bird shit and graffiti. Across the back of the fence someone had painted in large purple letters, “LONG LIVE ANARCHY!”
My patient was one of the thousands of traveling railroad drunks making his way towards warmer climates who stopped en route at a detox here and there for “three hots and a cot” to build up his strength. His main concern was getting some sleep and bulking up with fluids and protein. My main concern was keeping him from full-blown DTs with copious doses of Librium. He was no different from the hundreds of wanderers who had come before him: emaciated, eyes sunk into his skull, overgrown beard and brows, swallowed by clothes burned through with cigarette holes, reeking of stale booze and vomit and mouthwash. He stared out the window through light blue eyes clouded with cataracts and then one single tear rolled down his face. I wanted to say something. I wanted to apologize for the filth. I was going to take full responsibility for it. We should’ve had it cleaned up a long time ago. It was our lot. We could’ve petitioned the county, had the lot declared condemned and then had it bulldozed until it was nothing but space. Just as I was about to speak he looked at me, smiled and said, “God’s world is a multi-colored wonderland.”
This would be one of the first times, but not the last, when I would be forced to look at the world through the eyes of a spirit traveler. I was not one then, nor am I now, the type of nurse to automatically get sucked into my patients’ delusions, but when I heard the whisper as if from God’s own mouth that said, “Look closer” or “Pay attention,” I looked closer.
I walked up to the window until my breath fogged the glass. It wasn’t an immediate recognition. I had to squint. I had to rub my eyes. I had to fight my initial, natural cynicism, but I made myself look harder. Were the colors brighter? Was the landscape vibrant? A gust of wind blew through and swept up a small twister of trash from the center of the lot, lifted it, twirled it and then it blew across the expanse of the lot like an origami ballerina, effortless and airy. The colors became a collage, an absolute kaleidoscope, of hues and textures bleeding one into another, coalescing mixtures into a caustic and startling patchwork. The animals became part of the art and everything else—the sun, the wind, the noise, the trees, were as much a part of the masterpiece as the paint itself.
And what of the lesson? Was it to look past ugliness to see beauty? Could it be that simple? How was it that this homeless, hungry, alcoholic bum riding the rails across the east coast of the United States could plainly see past filth and destruction with such ease and I had to have someone point it out for me? Was the lesson that I not underestimate anyone? Just because he was homeless and drunk, did that mean he had no wisdom? Did that mean rich people living in mansions were automatically good people? Did it mean they weren’t? Did it mean to never trust my first impressions? Did it mean never to trust the opinions of others when making my own? Did it mean that I could find the inherent good in every single human being I encountered, despite their baggage, their past, their demons, their stench? Could I love them not despite these things, but because of them?
A few years ago, I had gotten really sick. Most of the symptoms of my depression, and probably side-effects of all the medication I was taking, seemed to be exerting itself in my eyesight. I couldn’t see anything. I couldn’t read. I couldn’t see the computer screen. People had to read my mail to me. I had to take time off from work. I had appointments with optometrists and ophthalmologists, eye tests and scans. I had my pupils dilated and drops for dryness and dime-store reading glasses in every strength lying all over the house like lizards. I had prescription glasses and had a try with contacts and the cost for all this was astronomical. When I got well, the prescription glasses and contacts blurred my vision so badly, it was like seeing everything under water. I realized my vision had never changed at all.
The problem had been my outlook all along.