Thursday, February 28, 2008

The funeral

It’s not as if funerals are supposed to be great occasions.  But I went to R’s funeral this morning (which, I swear, lasted all of fifteen minutes) and I stood out in the extreme cold with his family and the staff who knew him, and it was...gosh, how to describe it?  Well, it felt completely heartless.  The minister didn’t know him, and he sounded downright triumphant while he talked about R being with God and how we weren’t there to honor R but to honor God. 

Now, I consider myself to be a pretty spiritual person (it’s kind of hard to do this work and not have some kind of spiritual belief, I think), but after about ten seconds of listening to this man, I wanted to loudly yell, “Hey, man!  WHO ARE YOU?  You just sit there quietly, and let us tell you who R was!  You just stop your blather about your fairy tale version of God and how happy we are to send R to him, and you let those of us who spent time with R in his life, who loved him, who cared about him, who walked with him, who got kicked by him and hit by him and still loved him, who are mad as hell that he’s dead...let US do the talking, Mr. Minister!”

When the hearse pulled up, I almost burst into tears.  R was in a gray coffin.  One of my co-workers helped carry him out.  I went to stand nearby, and I noticed his plot overlooked a little stream and a lot of trees.  I know how much he liked being outside, so I was happy to know his body would be lying in a pretty place (even though the highway noise was nearby- but he liked watching the cars on the highway when we sat outside and played music too, so maybe that was okay).  

Even though his family was there we didn’t get to talk to them.  It was good to see so many of his staff people there.  I don’t know how they felt about the service.  I was glad we’ll be doing our own memorial service soon.  To me, our services have a lot more meaning.  We play music, we share our memories, and we gather together at the end, and we chat with each other over snacks.  Some of the guys he lived with will also be there.  Hopefully his family will come to that service too.  Maybe then I can tell his mother that I had such a soft spot in my heart for him. 

I can tell her about the time that he smacked me repeatedly and I cried and told him that he had hurt me.  I wanted him to get that his actions had a consequence.  I told him we’d try again, but that it was going to take some doing for me to trust him or feel safe with him.  The next time I was in his cottage (I had a session with someone else the next day), I walked through his group area, and he got up and followed me to the other area.  He took my wrist and he guided my hand to smack at his face (I resisted, because I didn’t want to hurt him), and he stopped and waited, watching my face expectantly.  My immediate thought was that he was trying to ask for my forgiveness.  He understood he hurt me, felt badly about it, offered me the opportunity to “get him back” and wanted to know “are we okay now, Roia?”

I was so touched.  I smiled and said, “Thanks, R.  Yes, we’re okay, and I’ll be there on Friday for your session.”  Sigh.  Tomorrow is Friday...the day of R’s sessions.  I still have to go over to his cottage, because I get someone else from his group as well.  What a big hole he has left.

When I walked through his group area yesterday afternoon I noticed they’d taken his old leather lounge chair out and put it one of the state issue wood and hard plastic ones instead.  Obviously, the staff couldn’t stand to see it empty either.  

Tonight when I got out of my car at my mailbox I noticed the night was very clear, and the stars and constellations were shining away.  I thought about him by himself in a gray box in a cemetery in New Jersey.  I hoped his soul had moved along so he wouldn’t feel scared lying there by himself. 

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

"Leaving on a jet plane"

Last week R came up to me when I walked through his group on my way to sign someone else out for his session.  I knew before I walked through that I risked his approaching me and wanting to go out for a walk when I didn’t have time to take him out.  Sure enough, he saw me, got himself up out of his lounge chair and came over, caught my arm and loudly proclaimed “BEE!”  (yes, as in the ones that buzz, fly. sting, and are disappearing from the earth).  He leaned his ear in toward my mouth so I could respond with my own rousing “BEE!”  

I guess it wasn’t rousing enough, because he repeated himself, this time adding a gesture, pointing toward the high ceiling, in order (I presume) to make sure I understood what we were talking about.  

“BEE!” he repeated, looking rather triumphant I’d say, and I smiled, because, even though sometimes I have feared for my life when I’ve worked with this man (he hits hard and kicks very unexpectedly), I am very fond of him.  

Some of the old staff (most of whom have retired in the past five to ten years) told me that, when he was younger, bees used to come and sit on his fingertip.  Apparently, this yelling, kicking, biting, and slapping guy managed to be very gentle with these little buzzing creatures.  By the time I’d met him he’d apparently developed a fear of them.  I’m not sure why.  But “BEE” remained one of his favorite words.  “BAH” (which I’m pretty sure was meant as “BYE”) and “GO BACK”(an exclamation he usually made when he was done with me for the day) also figured prominently in his small verbal repertoire. 

Another of his favorite words was “AIRPLANE!” (R would never be described as a quiet man).  He often loudly pronounced this word, while, again, gesturing toward the sky, pulling my arm to look with him out the window.

As it turned out, last Wednesday, he did want to go for a walk, but I had to get to my other session.  I explained that I’d see him on Friday, and his staff person convinced him to wait until then.

It turned out that it was icy and snowy on Friday, so I didn’t even go in to work.  I checked in with him on Saturday to see if he’d like to walk then.  His staff said he wasn’t feeling well.  

I went over to him and he looked up at me from his curled up position on his lounge chair.  He looked rather glum.  I wished him well, and I told him I’d see him the following Friday.  “Hopefully, the weather will be good, and we can take our walk.”

On Monday I heard R had died that Saturday evening.

Last night I woke up after a somewhat disturbing dream, and I thought a lot about R and how he had spent much of his life with physical discomfort of one sort or another.  I was sad thinking that he probably died in pain.

As I was lying there, not sleeping, the following song floated through my tired head.  It felt like something R might have said to me about his death:

All my bags are packed

I’m ready to go

I’m standing here outside your door

I hate to wake you up to say “goodbye”

But the dawn is breaking

It’s early morn

The taxi’s waiting

He’s blowing his horn

Already I’m so lonesome

I could die

So kiss me and smile for me

Tell me that you’ll wait for me

Hold me like you’ll never let me go

‘Cause I’m leaving on a jet plane

I don’t know when I’ll be back again

Oh, babe, I hate to go.

There’s so many times I’ve let you down

So many times I’ve played around

I tell you now

They don’t mean a thing...

So kiss me and smile for me

Tell me that you’ll wait for me

Hold me like you’ll never let me go

‘Cause I’m leaving on a jet plane

I don’t know when I’ll be back again

Oh, babe, I hate to go.

Now the time has come to leave you

One more time, let me kiss you

Then close your eyes

I’ll be on my way

Dream about the days to come

When I won’t have to leave alone

About the time I won’t have to say

Kiss me and smile for me

Tell me that you’ll wait for me

Hold me like you’ll never let me go

‘Cause I’m leaving on a jet plane

I don’t know when I’ll be back again

Oh, babe, I hate to go.

©1967 John Denver

The song made me cry...which I kind of needed to do.

Sunday, February 24, 2008

More thoughts on silence

“Maybe the problem is that I’ve been speaking the wrong language.”  That was what started to dawn on me yesterday as I sat with B, feeling as if I just hadn’t been getting it right these last couple of months.  “Maybe I’m expecting you [he doesn’t use speech to communicate] to use my language- words and music- and not realizing we need to start with yours- which is largely silence.”

It’s not exactly as if I completely missed this crucial element.  I’ve been listening to B for years, to be sure, but I’ve largely chosen to attend to his sounds (few and far between) and movements (lots).  I’ve noticed his silences- even tried to include his silence in the sound scape (so to speak) by attempting to play the musical qualities I thought he could be expressing through his quiet.  Perhaps, though, I have not been giving it the level of importance or emphasis it may need to be given.  I realized, not for the first time, that I have to listen to the silence differently. 

It’s kind of cool that my work with B has gently reminded me to look at this again.  Again, it’s not news.  I’m certainly aware of it- just can’t seem to keep it consistently in my mind (no wonder my students feel overwhelmed).  

In order to think about and experience silence in a different way (and out of curiosity) I decided to try being silent for a long time in a musical improvisation with my peer supervision group.  I even chose a drum with a rather limited range of sound.  In one sense, I liked just listening.  I also felt the frustrating limitations of the drum I’d chosen.  On the other hand, I also felt a pressure to “do something”- to play.   

I’ve always marveled (in conversations with my clinical supervisor) how the experience of silence is so different with each of my clients.  With one person there’s an anxiety of “what do we now?” while I sense a simple quietness with another.  Sometimes there’s an anger to the silence- anger in a defiant sense, and sometimes there’s a waiting quality.

I can’t quite get a sense of B’s silence yet.  Is it something he needs?  Or is it something he chooses?  Either way, why?  And how is his silence important to him?  What are the qualities of his silence?

Now that I know to focus more fully on that aspect of our work, I can prepare myself to listen to the sounds of B’s silence.