This I Believe

Linda - Iowa City, Iowa
Entered on August 24, 2007

I believe if we listen to the rhythm of others we will hear the beat of our own heart. This realization was as serendipitous as the random selection of a fabric softener. I was delicately balancing the roles of a young wife, mother and therapist, when a patient jolted me into turbulence. He was a middle-aged school teacher who’d had a basilar region stroke that left him somewhat ataxic (dis-coordinated). His hic-coughs were unrelenting. “Lateral Medullary Syndrome” my memory whispered. When I met him his eyes were closed. I quietly asked him how he was doing, and he said he was feeling kind of blue. His voice was hoarse and breathy, due to a paralyzed vocal fold, or so I surmised. I was struck by his level of introspection, as he sat in his wheelchair in his blue flannel shirt and jeans. His will to hang on to each thread of dignity permeated everything he did. He was an individualist, who avoided unnecessary frivolity. He didn’t trust hospitals, doctors, or therapists, but I felt confident we would connect. He insisted that I reminded him of a former girlfriend and I could easily be her daughter. All the while I worked with him I had this uneasy feeling that something about this man was somehow familiar if not slightly obtuse.

A slower tempo punctuated my home life. My toddler daughter reached a new level of independence with her language skills. Her tantrums were less frequent and her penchant for adventure increased. I knew we’d have too few summer days feeling warm breeze, reading Beatrix Potter stories, and having picnics.

Gradually, the rhythm of life as speech therapist and as a mother became syncopated. The particular patient load was so interactive and satisfying to work with that I began thinking about them even at home. I knew better than to get so attached, yet each person had such intriguing life stories to tell. Our sessions were so rich and productive I was drawn in. I almost began anticipating each person’s discharge date so that I could break the ties I found myself making.

One evening I felt an unexplainable sense of nostalgia mixed with melancholia. A familiar but ubiquitous scent began to bombard me with memories. It was in my clothes and bed sheets. I was 20 again, desperately in love and aching. He was just as young and naïve. We were best friends, but our lives were heading in different directions and we parted. The image of his blue flannel shirt was almost tangible, and the smell of the fabric softener he used on his laundry filled my nostrils. I could feel the moisture of my own tears as my cheek brushed against his sleeve when we said good-bye that last time. This brief encounter with the memory of a relationship that never ripened magnified the loss I was experiencing in the present. I realized how quickly and easily I could become that middle-aged person insisting that a therapist reminded ME of a former boyfriend. So much so, that he could even be his son.