They also serve who only stand and wait.
-- Milton, “On His Blindness”
Ramon once told me his life story in the way he could, digging out a hill of photographs and documents from his bedroom drawer: work papers, family photographs, post cards from his long missing son. He lies in bed now when I come to see him, arms and legs shaking even at rest. He can’t speak or write intelligibly. He doesn’t have enough motor control to use a computer keyboard. He can’t manipulate a boom box without breaking it.
This last fact is important because he is a musician. Ramon used to play in an island band, in a folk genre that announces to the diaspora of his native Caribbean island their longing for home. His instrument sounds a bit like a mandolin. It rests cracked and unstrung against the wall of his bedroom, long unused.
I never knew Ramon when he could still play his music. In my first visits he would come from the bedroom to meet me, supporting himself on his walker. Sometimes I could understand his speech and gesture; sometimes even his wife and long-time attendant could not understand them. When he could not get through to me, he would take up a pad and write; sometimes I could not read his writing. Now it’s much worse. And worse again, because he has much to say: his mind is unaffected.
I consulted with an expert who knows the culture of Ramon’s island. She taught me about the artists, the content of songs, the idiom of his instrument and its function in the band. With this knowledge I could talk with him about the music. He gave me homework, lending me discs of defining artists in this music of his country’s interior mountains. Sometimes we sat and listened to his favorite songs. He would noodle with the fingers of his right hand on his left forearm, as if he were picking out the notes. There! That’s my part, do you hear it?
Now I visit in collaboration with the Music Therapist. She brings a bag of hand-held percussion. One of these instruments is black, the size and shape of an egg, and when you shake it the seeds inside strike the shell and slide around; it’s like a maraca. We play the music on the boom box, and put the little eggs in his hand: he finds the complicated counter-rhythms of each song.
As I write this, it looks to me as if we’re doing rather well, but this is for me the hardest kind of case to sit with. There’s so much I cannot do. I heard his story long ago. I can less and less understand what he tries to say. I feel like a fool.
There was a time when I tried to drop the case. I said to myself, you’ve done what you can; you’ve tried all your tricks, and he’s tried his repertoire with you. You can’t understand him any better than when you first came. Let someone else have a try. I referred him to a colleague, and explained to Ramon that I would not be coming to visit any more.
I left Ramon’s apartment feeling like a traitor. I took home with me the grief in his eyes. Through the following vacation I thought of him. When I came back I found that my colleague had not visited yet. I called him off, spoke to Ramon’s wife and said never mind, it was all a mistake, I’ll be visiting again this week.
So now the Music Therapist and I support each other, unsure how much more of this we could bear on our own. What makes this so hard is that he has so much he wants to do and so much he wants to say. I too have much to say. What if I could not say it? What if kind and intelligent people stood around me, waiting for the message I could not send them?
I doubt that Ramon knows Milton, but he must feel, like blind Milton, that his “one talent which is death to hide” is “lodged with me useless.” He cannot stand, so he must lie and wait. But I also am blind – and deaf. I can neither hear nor see his song, and so am useless too. I stand and wait. What are we waiting for? A way out of our dead end.
What do you do when your skill runs out? You stand naked in the wind, your mortality exposed. The client’s exposure, though different from yours, is also mortal.
When I threatened to leave, there was something he grieved for. Perhaps it is my exposure that comforts him.
There’s so little we can do for each other. But that little, if we can locate it, is not nothing. It is something. It is, perhaps, sometimes, almost enough.