When I was in graduate school at the University of Minnesota, I had the good fortune of meeting Dr. Jerry Siegel. Jerry, it turns out, grew up in Brooklyn, not far from the paint store that belonged to my cousins’ family. Thus, we were related. Feeling far from my Jewish roots that first semester, he invited me to his home for Rosh Hashonah dinner, and I met his wife Eileen, and the children. Eileen, it turns out, gave me my first lesson in listening.
Jerry liked to play guitar, and one night, I went to the community center where he was entertaining some older Jewish families. Eileen sat next to me at a table of people. One by one, she engaged them in conversation. They spoke, and she listened. At an appropriate time, she would ask a question – the one question which clearly indicated that she had heard everything they had said, and was responding with a thoughtful inquiry. Each person’s face would soften and smile as they answered. They knew they had found someone who had bypassed the polite head nod, and had actually cared enough to hear what they were saying.
I felt like a gong had gone off in my head.
Jerry had many lessons to teach me, each very instrumental in helping me formulate ideas about communication. But Eileen taught me how to listen.
Sitting with someone who has aphasia, or who loves someone with aphasia, is a listening challenge. I focus on trying to get the core element of that moment, the central thing someone is trying to tell me, and to let go of any and all responses that pop into my head like unwelcome gnats on a summer night. I do not say anything for at least one eternity. That is often enough time for someone to get to the place they need to be. And then, I, like Eileen, try to find the one simple thing to say that will let them know I have heard them, and will encourage them to say more. And more again.
The ability to subjugate one’s own internal dialogue at times like these is very difficult. It is kind of a meditation on the words of other.