It is written.
-- Matthew 4:4
Human action can be narrated . . . because it is always already symbolically mediated.
-- Paul Ricoeur, Time and Narrative
There was a scream as I stepped out of the elevator. Somebody died, I thought. Wouldn't it be strange if it's Mr. Rodriguez?
I turned to the right, then to the left, had the ward in sight, and by now there were multiple shrieks, new entries of a fugal subject, piling on. Mi padre, mi padre! Por que? Por que?
Yes, it was Mr. Rodriguez. His three daughters, a sister, a granddaughter, nieces and nephews, in-laws, each in turn closing on the bed, touching the dead man's face, clutching his hands, turning away, extending their arms to the sky, then turning back toward the bed. By the time I entered the room there were people jumping up and down and stamping the floor with both feet, like toddlers in a tantrum. There were people going rigid and keeling over backward, requiring others to catch them before they hit the floor. Some of them believed they had a deal with God -- that if they prayed and kept the faith he would rise from this bed and walk. They felt personally betrayed.
Every word I just wrote is accurate, but in telling the story I show that I was a foreigner here. I'm an Anglo-Saxon from New England, poor but genteelly so, with manners if not the appurtenances of old wealth. The script of my people is the stiff upper lip. We keep going, and our tears are for later, in a private place. There would be decorous quiet, with Bach's cello suites in the background, and discrete expressions of sympathy in intimate tones. I had stepped into a different script and I didn't like it.
"Por que, por que?" Well, why not? Did you hope that his ravaged organs would toss off their tumors? Did you think he would live forever? Did you want him to be immortal and watch all his children die? Come now! This is sad and sorrowful, but it's not a personal insult to you!
This was the voice of a counter-transference, an emotion from my own life taking root in a foreign place and time. It's my business to spot such invasions, to name, disarm and chart them, so that I can walk around them. This writing is part of my naming. Not my will but thine.
A counter-transference may be the engine of compassion, or it may be a warning bell. Perhaps I see a brother or sister, a parent or child, a friend or (in an alternate universe) lover. Perhaps I see my old enemy, the bully on the playground, the girl who cut me, the friend who threw me to the wolves, the teacher who held me in scorn. Good can't be done in the abstract, but the flesh is blemished, and we read emotional topography through instruments of our particular historia, informed and deformed. I understand you only by metaphor, but I must contain the metaphor. My love is, after all, not exactly like a red red rose.
As I offered to speak prayers of commendation in the wrong language, the priest arrived and I gladly gave stage to him, to his ecclesiastical authority and his sacraments. They quieted for him -- calma te -- but as he left the fugue was starting up again. And now Alice the social worker, as hopelessly Anglo-Saxon as I, appeared at the door. We locked eyes across the room, dos gringos stranded in a ceremony of grief from a strange land, this cantata risen from the soil of a Dominican village.
So here, professionally speaking, was our problem. In the old country this score could be played out with all its repeats, to the fullest length of hours and days, till grief's first shock was spent. But this family, whether they liked it or not -- whether we liked it or not -- had to encounter the mores of the hospital, and the hospital's script of grief was more like mine than like that of the grieving family. This was not a Dominican village, or the family's home, or even a private room. Something had to be done for the other patient. As each new cousin entered the fugue -- por que, por que? -- the other man's peace was violated. He couldn't share this grief; he had his own problems. And it wasn't just the roommate -- the whole unit was in turmoil. The chorus of their hallelujahs resounded down the hallway. A dozen families were at the nurse's desk, asking for respect, and quiet.
The floor staff rolled the roommate's bed into the corridor. And this is what Alice and I did. We spoke, inadequately, of our sorrow at their loss. We confided in Luz, one of the daughters, who had leadership quality and a little more English than we had Spanish. Luz alternated between her tears and her guidance of the family, and one by one and two by two, we escorted them to the lounge, where they could commiserate at greater distance from other families. There they told us they were waiting for Mama, the wife now widow, who lived only a short distance away, was walking here and would say her good-byes in person before the body could be moved. Who could say no?
Mama came to the bedside, and her grief was a great one, and they all came back in the room to comfort her, and the fugue started over -- por que, por que -- and then, one by one and two by two and three by three, Alice Luz and I brought them back again to the lounge. And we sat with them. I met the granddaughter appointed to be health care agent, but who had been overwhelmed by her elders and their powerful scripts of grief. And I met the grandson, just arrived from Cambridge where he was studying law at Harvard. And something began to turn. Conversations in two languages began to flow. Telephone calls were made to yet more family members, in other boroughs, other states, in the home island. The funeral director was called. The body would be moved, and the family would meet at home. They were moving on. Mama asked me to pray for her, and with Luz's help and with Mama's hand in mine I said words of blessing and hope, that even now something wonderful can happen. As Samuel Beckett has written, something was taking its course.
I wasn't the ideal person for the situation. My empathy was far from perfect. This was difficult.