I am therefore, to speak precisely, only a thinking being, that is to say, a mind, an understanding.
-- René Descartes, “Second Meditation” (trans. Laurence J. Lafleur)
“It’s hard,” she says. What’s hard? “It’s hard to speak.” She lies flat in her bed. Her face does not move, except for the slightest inflection of her lips, one or two words at a time. I have pulled my chair close, and I incline over the bedrail to catch the wisp of her thought. Her eyes travel the lines and angles of the room, this bedroom of her apartment, where she wants, above all things, to rest. But she is not at rest. If she could, she would be pacing.
“I hate it.” What do you hate? “People think -- ” I wait for her to gather. What do they think?
“They think – I’m stupid.”
When words come slowly, you want to respond in some corporeal way. You want to participate somehow in the sick one’s world, to sing her tune, dance her steps. You want this so much that your empathy can lead you astray. You might find yourself shouting, as if her difficulty of speaking were hardness of hearing, an obstacle that you can overcome by virtuous effort. You might find yourself completing her sentences, as if to say “You don’t have to say it. I am so perceptive that I understand!” You might catch yourself in baby-talk, as if her struggle to pronounce the words were a struggle to think of words, and you can supply their lack with intonation. These behaviors might make you feel that you are doing something. But they do not honor her.
That sounds awful. “Yes. It is.”
She was a teacher of small children. To be condescended to as she would never have condescended – its sounds like one of the Mikado’s punishments, only it fits no crime but her calling.
I know you’re not stupid, I say then. Or did I say this first? Did I defend myself from the accusation before responding to her pain? (Presenting your case, and especially when preparing the meretriciously named “verbatim,” you’re never quite sure what you may have already edited in your own honor. Memory is not a record but a writing, and when you recall the thing for others it’s already a version of the event.) Which was more important in my statement, the “I” or the “you”? Was I affirming her value or my innocence?
I’m sorry, I say. People make assumptions. That must be hard to bear.
“I’m not stupid.”
I know that.
There’s not much left of her now but cognition. The embarrassing appendage to which Descartes found himself attached betrays her now. Her body’s vigor drains like water from a punctured pipe. Today I can barely hear her. Tomorrow perhaps I won’t hear her at all. She’ll be reduced to moving her eyes, or blinking. Then, maybe, nothing. She will exist, and she will not exist.
I am an introvert. I live on the inside, where my thoughts and passions form each other. My life is a series of surprises, as I learn new ways to sally forth and break new trails, exploring unknown paths, amongst unfamiliar terrain, in exotic climates and for longer seasons; but I must always come home within the gates, where in secret chambers my plundered data can sort themselves out. There I learn where I have been, and where I might go. I leave, I return. Gone away, back again. Lost, found. Fort/da, the child’s game observed by Freud. An introvert knows how to close the others out. But what if the gate closed me in? The stuff of a very bad dream.
I’m in the midst of a counter-transference. She reminds me of someone. The person she reminds me of is me. I am afraid for her.
Of what use is my fear?
Is it any of our people who treat you this way? I ask. (Lord, is it I?) “No.” I am relieved. She has declared us innocent. There are others whose attentions she must accept: the friend of many years, the distant relative, and the caregiver – from an agency -- who spends more time with her than any of us.
I know there’s a person there, I say. You are a person. I won’t forget.
“Pray for me.”
Of course. Of course I will.