Therapist (interprets his patient’s sign language): “T. E. X. A. S.”
I lowered my book to try to steal a glance at the therapist and his patient in the wheelchair. I wanted to see how the therapist taught him how to communicate through sign language.
I have always felt uncomfortable around disabled people. This is rather strange because my father is disabled. My father has been in a wheelchair for 17 years, so one would think I wouldn’t be as awkward. But I am. I do not like to stare. My mother taught me not to stare at others who were “different” because it was rude.
The man in the wheel chair was young. Maybe 24 years old. Maybe 28 years old. His therapist was also a young man, too, and they were about the same age. It was hard to tell because his back was towards me. I could see his smooth white skin on the side of his face and neck. But I didn’t stare. I didn’t want him to notice me watching the therapist wipe drool from his mouth after feeding him through a tube. I didn’t want him to think I was pitying him. Nobody likes to be pitied.
I tried to get back to work. Read my book. I also noticed that my roommate who sat next to me hadn’t flipped her page for a while. She couldn’t focus either. The Starbuck’s was quiet. Everyone was either studying or eating. The man in the wheelchair disturbed the silence every time his food clogged in the tube, every time he slurred loudly, every time he snorted in an effort to laugh.
I was uncomfortable and I hated myself for this.
A man who was reading next to me walked up to the therapist and the patient and asked to shake the patient’s hand. At this point, I realized that he could understand everything. He was fully conscious. He processed everything. Commands, jokes, conversations. He just couldn’t control his bodily reactions. At the very moment when the men shook hands, the adhan on my computer went off loudly. I quickly turned it off because I didn’t want to disturb others.
Man: How are you?
Therapist (interprets his patient’s sign language): I. A. M. F. I. N. E.
Man: Where are you from?
Therapist (interprets his patient’s sign language): T. E. X. A. S.
Man: Texas, huh?
Therapist (interprets his patient’s sign language): S. A. N. A. N. T. O. N. I. O.
Man: How is Texas? Never been there…
Therapist (interprets his patient’s sign language): T. E. X. A. N. S. L. O. V. E. T. H. E. I. R. B. A. S. K. E. T. B. A. L. L. A. N. D. T. H. E. I. R. S. U. M. M. E. R.
Man: (laughs) What is your favorite sport?
Therapist (interprets his patient’s sign language): B. A. S. K. E. T. B. A. L. L.–I. L. O. V E. T. H. E. S. P. U. R. S.–I. L. I. K. E. T. H. E. B. U. C. K. E. Y. E. S. T. O. O.— B. U. T. M. Y. F. I. R. S. T. L. O. V. E. I. S. T. E. X. A. S.
MAN: Nice–I haven’t watched basketball in a while…
Therapist (interprets his patient’s sign language): I. L. O. V. E. T. H. E. S. P. U. R.S.
(The therapist’s phone rings and the man says goodbye)
I listened closely behind my book. Watching how his limp left hand struggled to open and close. How his fingers struggled to form symbols that I couldn’t understand. I watched. I wrote their conversation down in detail. As I went to grab my coffee, I watched the therapist flip the magazine pages for his patient. At that moment, I began to panic silently. It had been so easy to grab and sip my coffee. It had been so easy to flip through my book as I watched the man in front of me depend on tubes and machines and strangers. It had been so easy to idly watch another human being put every effort in his soul into moving his fingers and in keeping his neck stiff to prevent his head from propping down like a heavy sack–
Maghrib was over. I didn’t make it. I am like this sometimes–Lazy. Slow. Unmotivated. The shame took hold of me and I wanted to run. It was a paralyzing kind of panic that took over as I thought about all the things I have ever taken for granted. At that moment, I regretted missing prayer–I lazily passed a chance to command my healthy limbs to praise the God who shaped them. And this has been the worst of all my sins–
After some time, the therapist said it was time to head back. The therapist gathered the food bottles, the feeding tubes, and the towels. The Texan turned his chair with a button. I could see from the corner of my eyes that he was heading towards us. He stopped next to our table and extended his fingers to gesture a handshake. The therapist said that he wanted to shake our hands.
Therapist (interprets his patient’s sign language): N. A. M. E.–He wants to know your names, ladies…
Using his neck, he moved his uncooperative head towards me. I looked up and shook his hand. His face was young and attractive. His body was large, muscular and lean. He had probably been in perfect health before his accident. Maybe even been an athlete. Through his blonde hair, I could see the pink tissue of a scar running along the circumference of his head. He drew his large blue eyes effortlessly towards me. He looked at me for a long time. Silently. He was not afraid to stare. He nodded his head gesturing “nice to meet you”.
As he moved away from us, he signaled to his therapist:
Therapist (interprets his patient’s sign language): B. O. T. H. A. R. E. P. R. E. T. T. Y.—-P. I. C. K.
(When the therapist, my roommate and I realized what he meant, we all laughed loudly)