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Felted Hammers and Bully Clubs

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The comprehension of spoken language depends on the utterance of words of evident meaning their assembly into a logically recognizable form and a reasonable clarity of enunciation.  To this general framework must be added the nuance of dialect inflection intonation gesture pace volume and likely a dozen less obvious but equally contributing factors. 

“Yes,” spoken sharply accompanied by a firm handshake, implies one connotation.  “Yes,” spoken with an inflection of indecision and a shrug of uncertainty means something else.  “Yes,” spoken slowly and suggestively, paired with the coy flutter of bedroom eyes communicates yet another, entirely different conviction.   Understanding depends on an accurate reading of both what is explicit, this being the aural perception of the word, and what is implied, this being the innately human gestural context within which the word is presented.

The blind do not see the language of gesture.  The deaf do not hear suggestions of inflection and intonation.  Both exigencies cripple Sarah in her desperate need to communicate with the outside world.  Naturally, this bugs the crap out of her.

Sarah had been admitted a residential rehabilitation facility in April.  There is much for her to do.  She must learn how to live her life without sight or hearing.  She must learn how to communicate with the rest of the world.  She must learn how to sign her thoughts by hand.

Within a week or two, Sarah pretty much masters the rudiments of handed sign language.    In the beginning, it is the snail’s pace of signing that infuriates Sarah as much as anything.  When presenting signs to her coach, she is always thinking ten or twenty words ahead of her hand.  She will lose her train of thought, miss-form a sign, fluster and then abruptly withdraw from him in frustration.  Once she regains her self-control, she returns to his hand, extending her middle finger erectly in a gesture that requires no special expertise to translate.  In return, her coach tickles her palm, his equally recognizable sign for embarrassed laughter.   He is a very funny guy.  He is also a caring and gifted therapist.  His name is Eric.  There would be days Sarah might have given it all up were it not for his steady, calming presence.

Receiving signs is no less irritating.   Sarah can rarely keep pace with the onslaught of sign upon sign placed into her palm.  At first, she continues to translate sign to word, constructing meaning from the few bits and pieces of the communication she has manages to feel and comprehend.  It is as if she were taking down the dots and dashes of Morse Code, transcribing each into letters and then words and finally sentences and only afterward, reading the message back to herself to understand what she’d been told.  Except, she cannot review at her notes to recount what she has written.  She can't even write any of it down.   She must carry it all within her head.  It is tiresome and disheartening.    By necessity, it requires an entirely different way of thinking.

Eric is patient with Sarah, but also stern and demanding.  He knows there are few ways an impaired patient can reconnect with the world except through hard work.  They begin each morning at 8:00.  By 11:00, he will have put her through a dozen or more exhausting drills.  They will break for lunch and then resume for another three hours in the afternoon.  If it’s Saturday, they work only the morning, but Eric makes it clear he expects Sarah to continue her exercises throughout the remainder of the weekend.  On Monday, it will all begin anew. 

In time, the drudgery of rote translation subsides.  Words and their corresponding signs becomecommutable.   Just as a sighted person observing the amber glow of a traffic signal will become immediately wary, without consciously envisioning the word “caution,” Sarah begins to feel the meaning of the messages in her hand without reinterpretation.  Words, signs, feelings and soon, meanings begin to fuse into a new kind of consciousness.  A student of foreign language recognizes this same cognitive threshold the moment he or she begins to dream in another tongue.  It is the same with signing.  Sarah has begun to dream to the narration of her fingertips.

Sarah’s sign vocabulary nevertheless is still far too immature to permit her to communicate as a thoughtful adult.  She can interpret simple messages and convey uncomplicated ideas: “What is for dinner?”  “It is raining today?”  “I need to pee.”   But despite all of her weeks of hard work, Sarah’s dexterity with signing remains woefully inadequate to her need for dialogue and companionship.  At best, signing remains a crude instrument capable of only featureless, inexpressive communication.

Imagine the spoken word.  Imagine a hand sign performed by a novice.   The first is the felted hammer of a Steinway piano.  The second, little more than a crudely hewn bully club.

There is one redeeming virtue in this.  It reinforces something Sarah has long understood but never before fully articulated for herself.  It is this.  Words are important.  Using words with care and precision is more important still.  In this respect, conventional speech can be far too self-indulgent.  When someone blathers on endlessly without forethought or deliberation, for example: as in any sentence ever uttered by Rick the Blowhard, their every word is correspondingly devalued.  Words are much too important for such carelessness.

The act of signing makes this realization all the more evident.  As a medium of communication, signing is cumbersome.  Choosing words with precision assumes an imperative it never would possess for someone employing spoken language.  Signing demands a far greater discipline of thought.  This too would be another change in the way Sarah now thinks.

There are many other aspects of signing that are difficult.  Tense can be puzzling. Possessives hard to communicate and comprehend.  Contractions simply do not exist.  The entire syntax of language so routinely taken for granted by the hearing requires an intensity of focus the unimpaired could never begin to fathom.  This too changes the construction of Sarah’s consciousness.

In time, it all does become easier for Sarah.  In time, she learns to sign with a finesse that approximates normalcy.  It is of course, only a relative normalcy.

When paired with an experienced signer, Sarah comes to appreciate the subtleties of her new language.  In time, she begins to feel the subtext of a handed message: a hesitancy in the fingertips, the certainty of a grip, the sweat of apprehension, the swagger of confidence, anxiety, aloofness, pleasure, joy, satisfaction and most blessedly, real tenderness.  In time, she reads the implied language of a thoughtful hand as well as a sighted person will read another’s body language, as well as the hearing will interpret the meaning of a telling inflection.  Sarah has not deliberately sought to recognize these nuances.  It is simply a faculty that has become a part of her tactile sensibility.  It is yet another evolution of her consciousness.

Once Sarah gains reasonable proficiency with handed signs, Eric begins teaching her the Braille alphabet.  This too is tedious, but not terribly so.  Sarah has already turned a corner.  She has already begun to grapple with her disability.  The despair of her first weeks in rehab: the loneliness, the deafening silence, the smothering darkness, has been replaced by a new and unfamiliar willfulness.

Where she would once lie in bed, dreading the onset of another fatiguing day of therapy, Sarah now wakens, bristling to take on whatever challenge Eric may throw her way in the coming morning.  Where she would once sit alone in the dayroom, wishing to avoid every human contact, she now greedily hunts out any fellow patient who might test her agility with handed communication.  Where once, Sarah felt no urgency to reach the end of one day or begin the next, she now feverishly anticipates every moment of the future as though it could never come quickly enough. 

This sense of determination surprises Sarah.  It is something she had not expected of herself.  She recognizes that somehow, without conscious plan, she has once again become hopeful.  She is hopeful in a way she has not known since the morning of her injury; hopeful in a way she has not been for any moment of all the previous seven years of her life with Morgan O’Conner MacBride.

“ Morgan,” Sarah silently sighs to herself.  “Morgan.”

Morgan had not spared Sarah a day’s rest since the first week of her hospitalization.  He would be at her side when she woke up in the morning.  He would linger by her bed for hours at a stretch, tending to whatever he imagined to be her every whim.  He would leave her room at night unwillingly and then, only when goaded by the firm suggestion of the ward’s bulldog head nurse.

Since the accident, something about Morgan had surely changed.   For each of his previous thirty-one years, Morgan had sequestered himself in the perversely satisfying indulgence of unremitting self-absorption. 

No more. 

Suddenly, Morgan had finally discovered his purpose in life.  He had at last determined what he was meant to do with his otherwise unremarkable existence.  He would not become a storied teacher of impressionable, young collegians.  He would not become a learned scholar of the English Canon.  He would not write the great American novel. 

Instead, Morgan O’Conner MacBride would become an ever faithful, obediently selfless, tragically suffering and eternally loving caregiver to Sarah Rae Collins.  He could not have penned a better part were he even half the writer he thought himself.    In this newly forged incarnation, Morgan would no longer create works of irrelevantly abstract, literary art.  Instead, his life itself would become a work of art.   It would be a life singularly dedicated to the well-being of this one stricken woman.

Naturally, Morgan is quite pleased to have finally found himself after all these years.  Sarah is less sure.  In fact, Morgan’s doting, ceaseless attentions are actually annoying the crap out of her.

For seven years, Morgan O’Conner MacBride had not given Sarah Collins the slightest indication she meant much more to him than a spent wad of chewing gum.  He had always been far too infatuated by the misfortune of his own inadequacies to ever notice anything of her need.  It never occurred to him that he bore personal responsibility for any matter involving their relationship.  He never once recognized her loneliness.  He never once understood her need for tenderness.

And then, after seven years of inattention, suddenly Morgan had become the perfect companion.  Naturally, Sarah thinks his stunning transfiguration suspect and more than a bit disingenuous.  She believes it a phase he will soon abandon, like any one of his hopelessly stillborn novels.  And yet, even were this transformation genuine, by Sarah’s accounting it would still take the new Morgan several lifetimes of servitude before he could ever possibly balance the emotional ledger of their relationship.  Sarah really can’t afford to wait that long.

Morgan continues to visit her each day.  Each day, Sarah suppresses the growing impulse to tell the jerk to shove off.  Eric sees all this happening in his presence but says nothing, believing it better to remain uninvolved.            

There is little Sarah can do to communicate her growing irritation at Morgan.  He had not yet learned to sign anything more complicated than a few, simple expressions of polite inquiry and greeting.   And even if they could speak to one another aloud, Sarah is uncertain what she would say.  She doesn’t yet fully understand her own feelings.

She is sure of one thing.  She no longer loves Morgan.  Sarah has been convinced of this for nearly three years.  She tolerated his continued presence only because of his insatiable need for her to do so.  She obliged his clinging desperation only because there seemed little else she could do.  Her own existence had become so rudderless.  She had felt herself hopelessly adrift.   It was all too easy to be swamped by the foundering vessel that was Morgan’s ineffectual life.

Hope has changed all of this for Sarah.  Her expectations of the future have been inalterably redirected.   She now knows she will never become a celebrated Southern writer.  She now understands her life will not be the great adventure she once anticipated for herself.   She now recognizes, still with some lingering regret, that Morgan is not her one true companion. 

But none of these realizations seem terribly important anymore.   For Sarah, hope has become something, though smaller in magnitude in no way any less significant.   For Sarah, the future is no longer formless.  It is now concrete and tangible.  It has become something she can envision if not actually see; perceive if not actually hear, believe in without ever having to speak aloud.   It is something she alone may take hold of to master for her own happiness.  She no longer needs Morgan to be any part of this future.  She no longer needs Morgan to need her.  She no longer needs Morgan for anything whatsoever. 

This is a great revelation to Sarah.  It is another lesson her disability has taught her. 

“Christ, “ Sarah thinks to herself, her nostrils flaring once more.  “Morgan will never get any of this.  Not in a hundred lifetimes.” 

“Are you all right?”  Eric signs to Sarah, concerned by her seeming distraction this morning.

“I am all right,” Sarah responds.  “We should begin.”

Eric and Dema work for nearly an hour before Sarah senses the presence of someone else in the dayroom.

“Who is here?” she signs.

“Morgan.  He came in a few minutes ago,” returns Eric.

“Please ask him to wait outside until we are through.”

“Hey, Morgan.” Eric speaks as he turns from Sarah without leaving the embrace of her clasp.

“Hey Eric.  How’s she doing this morning?  You all making progress?”

She’s doin’ real well today, Morgan.  Really well.”

Eric pauses before resuming.

“ Look Morgan.  If you don’t mind, maybe you could wait out in the lobby until we get done here?  It won’t be much longer, maybe thirty or forty minutes.  Ya know, it’d help us concentrate.”

“Oh?  Well, you know,” Morgan says as he slumps into a recliner facing Sarah, just beyond Eric,  “ I just thought I’d sit here and watch if you don’t mind.  I won’t be a distraction, really.”

“No Morgan.  We’ve got a lot to accomplish here.  It’d really be a lot better if you just waited outside.”

“Eric, I really don’t see what difference it makes.  I’m not going to bug you guys.  I just want to watch…”

“Morgan, I really don’t think it’s such a good idea right now…”

“What is happening?”  Sarah gestures into Eric’s left hand.

“Why not?”   Morgan immediately becomes annoyed.  Sarah can sense this too.  “I mean, why not?  I said I’d be quiet, not bother you.  What difference does it make?  It’s not like she can even tell I’m here.” 

“Nothing,” Eric responds to Sarah while continuing to speak to Morgan.

“I know you’re here, Morgan.  I will know and it makes a difference to me.”

Eric has handled situations like this before.  A patient’s mother or sister or spouse or good friend just cannot separate their own despair from that of their loved one.  They are intimidated by their own numbing impotency.  They are stilted by an unwarranted, but completely incapacitating sense of guilt.  They have no idea how to act or what to do.  They hover.  They fidget.  They get in the way, their well-intended attentions disrupting a patient’s concentration, upsetting the pace of therapy.

Eric is in no way unsympathetic.  He is well aware of the importance of friends and family to a patient’s rehabilitation.   He does what he can to help reconstruct their connections to the people they love.  But, he also knows there is a place for such reconciliation and a proper time in the course of a patient’s recovery.  A therapy session is rarely the proper time or place.

Morgan is a special case.  Eric has noted the unnatural urgency of Morgan’s attachment to Sarah.  It is a behavior he more regularly encounters in someone much younger; for example, in a patient’s adolescent son or daughter. 

Eric can deal with the anxieties of a youngster.  He is reassuring and playful in a way that calms the child, allowing them to discover how they might best help their impaired parent.  Eric knows how to gently reason with a child in his or her own terms.  It is another of his great gifts as a healer.

In this, Morgan would be completely different.  Morgan expects to be treated as an adult right up to the very moment something doesn’t go his way.  He then immediately reverts to his adolescence, perched somewhere between the emotional age of six and eight.  Eric finds it incredibly frustrating.

“Aw, com’on, Eric.  I mean, how’s my being here going to make any difference to you?’

Sarah’s own frustration with Morgan is just as obvious to Eric.  He can feel discomfort in the touch of her hand whenever she and Morgan occupy the same room.  Eric senses her every irritation.   And although he knows nothing their history together, he can see Morgan is no longer anyone Sarah wishes to be around, regardless of Morgan’s compulsive attachment to her.

“What is happening?  What is he up to?” Sarah faintly signs, as if her fingertips could whisper.

“Nothing,” Eric again replies.  Sarah feels the tension in Eric’s clutch.  Morgan continues, his voice becoming thin and shrill.

“Ya’ know, just what difference does it make?  Really.  Huh?”  Morgan rises from his chair and moves towards Eric and Sarah.  Eric leaves Sarah’s hand and stands between her and Morgan.  The two men face one another within arm’s reach.  Eric speaks to Morgan sternly but with absolute calm.

“I said it would make a difference to me.  And that should be enough, all right.  I really don’t need to explain this to you.  You need to just figure it out and move on, OK?”

“No.  I’m not going anywhere," Morgan sputters.  “You really can’t make me leave if I don’t want to.”

“Jesus, you’re a jerk…”

“You’re a prick…”

“Eric…”  Sarah has retrieved Eric’s hand and draws him back into his chair.

“Let me talk to him.  Where is he?”

“Standing to your left.”

“Morgan,” Sarah signs to Eric, addressing her hapless boyfriend.

“Morgan,” Eric says, “Sarah wants to talk to you.”

“She knows I’m here?”

“Of course she knows you’re here.”

“Oh…”

 Sarah again signs into Eric’s hand.

 “She says she wants you to sit down and listen to her...”

 Morgan obediently sits.

 “…for once,”  Sarah through Eric continues.

 “Tell him he should leave.”

 “She asks that you leave.”

 “She wants me to leave?  She didn’t say that.  You’re making that up.  She wouldn’t want that!  No way!”

 “Yes, that’s what she wants.”  Eric responds for Sarah without awaiting her reply.  He is already certain of her answer.

 “Now just wait here one second,” Morgan retorts.  “You let me talk to her…”

 “You are talking to her…”

 “No.  Not like that.  Let me really talk to her.”

 Eric turns from Morgan and faces Sarah.  He grips both her hands reassuringly.

 “He says he wants to speak to you directly.”

 Sarah nods her understanding of Eric’s message.

 “Tell him you will say only what I ask you to say.”

 “Morgan…”

 “Yes?’”

 “I will say to you precisely whatever it is Sarah signs into my hand.”

 “Well all right.  That’s better,” Morgan says as he leans forward in his chair, his shaken self-confidence sustained.  He clears his throat and speaks:

 “Ask her if she really wants me to leave.”

 “Do you really want him to leave?”

 Sarah signs her answer.

 “Yes,” Eric speaks, no longer with his own words, but with Sarah’s.

 “Really?”

 “Really.”

 “OK.  O.K.  I’ll wait outside, but the minute this is over, I’ll be right back in here, O.K.?”

 “No, that is not O.K.  I want you to leave and not come back.”

 “What do you mean?”

 “I mean I want you to leave for good.”

 Morgan has no idea what to make of this.  Until only a few moments ago, he felt himself on such firm ground, so sure of everything; certain of himself in a way he had not been in a dozen or more years.  He had worked this all out in his head; what would happen, how it would play out.  He would bring Sarah to his home.  He would take care of her selflessly for the rest of their natural lives.  He would become her one and only true companion.  He would be tender.  He would be understanding.  He would become something no one would have ever before believed of him, the perfect mate.  This idea of the future seemed so obvious-so inevitable-he could in no way comprehend what Sarah was now asking of him.

 Not stay?  The idea's ridiculous.

 “Tomorrow then.  I’ll come back tomorrow.  I understand this.   I understand you might sometimes need some space, you know, without me around.  I can understand that…really I can.  Tomorrow, O.K.? 

 Morgan fumbles, rubs his forehead and then, with growing uncertainty, resumes.

 “Tomorrow you’ll be better and I’ll come by and everything will be fine, right?   It’s all going to be fine, you know, better than fine…I mean it will all be good again, really good.  Great really.  You’ll see.”

 Eric cannot transcribe each word of Morgan’s by now blathering contrition, but he doesn’t really need to communicate every word.  Sarah already understands enough.  She sighs deeply like the tide departing Chesapeake Bay.

 After all their years together, Morgan should recognize the meaning of this gesture.

 There is a long, darkly uncomfortable stillness.  It is uncomfortable for Morgan because he has no idea where he stands anymore.  It is uncomfortable for Eric because he is now hopelessly entangled in the middle of something that should have never been any of his business in the first place.  It's uncomfortable for Sarah because she has no earthly idea how to make Morgan comprehend what she is asking.

 Gradually, grudgingly, Morgan does begin to understand the meaning of Sarah’s sigh, but does not yet wish to believe the disturbing truth it bears.  He thinks about it all.  He thinks about it all once again very hard.

 Sarah grids herself.  She prepares to present Eric with her message to Morgan.  She understands what needs to be said.  She now knows what Morgan must be told. 

 She will tell him of her hopes for her life.  She will tell him about the future she has envisioned for herself.  She will tell him in terms she dearly hopes he will accept that this future just cannot include him in any way anymore.  She will tell him that the future it is now something that is her’s alone. 

 And then, with as much compassion as she can summon using only her fingertips, she will tell him that she does not now nor will she ever love him again.  

 She begins to sign these words to Eric.

 “Save it,” Eric replies.  “He is gone.”

 In three weeks time, Morgan will have miraculously recuperated from his heartbreak over Sarah.  It was painful for him, but not all that much so.  He has other things to look forward to now.  Besides, he has already reasonably concluded that Sarah was an incredible bitch anyway. 

 Morgan will be aided in this rehabilitation by one of his former graduate assistants, a woman he dialed up the very day of Sarah’s unspoken rejection.  This woman is a youngish, pert, noxiously empathetic co-ed named Sherrill Holquist,.  Sherrill believes she understands Morgan in a way Sarah never possibly could.  Morgan, she calculates, loves nothing better in this world than to get really well laid.  Of course, this suits Sherrill perfectly.  Scoring a plum college professor would be something of a coup as far as she is concerned.

 Sarah ponders the end of her relationship with Morgan for a week or more.  She does feel some regret about the way things had turned out and more than a little guilt, but neither emotion outweighs her resolve to begin her life anew.

 But right now, Sarah really can’t focus on any of this.  Something unexpected has come up in her life.  It is something with the potential to derail each of her carefully scripted plans for the future.  It is something that is upsetting her greatly.

 Her insurance coverage has been canceled.  She’ll be tossed out of rehab in a week’s time.

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