It's also not about the fact that I responded with remarkable calm, handling a disconcerting outburst in a way that makes me proud. Instead, it's about the reason why I was able to keep my cool in this unsettling situation. And about some fragmented observations and developing thoughts on human nature and our seemingly mild interactions with those we encounter throughout our lives. I'm going to tell you some stories and eventually I'll work my way back around to what happened this morning. Trust me.
The only man who ever comes to my seniors beading class is *Robert. Robert used to make beaded gifts for his mother, with whom he lives. Sometimes he couldn't find the holes in the beads he chose, and he called out without a twinge of irritation but in a voice that let everyone know he was ready for somebody to come fix this problem, never mind how, "These beads don't work!" and "I can't do it. I can't find a hole!" If I was busy with somebody else, *Nora, who is tiny, has white curls and can't see or hear very well, but who loves these classes and has been making a set of beaded pieces to send as a gift to her penpal of many years," helped Robert find the holes. She also showed him how to do it himself with a gentle patience that led me to believe, when I first saw them, but not for very long, that they were there as a couple. I learned today that one of Nora's best friends is Robert's mom and Nora's willingness to "keep an eye" on Robert is why he is able to come to this center, instead of participating in activities at a place that assists people with special needs.
Two weeks ago Robert declared, "I'm done with beading." Now he sits on the sofa at the side of the room like he did in the beginning, and talks to the ladies as they work on their necklaces and earrings and bracelets. Sometimes he takes a little nap. But when he's awake and paying attention, he is rarely quiet for very long.
Robert reminds me of my uncle whose given middle name was "Junior," and whose first name was "Charles." That there was no "Charles Senior" eventually brought me not a small amount of embarrassment, once I'd realized it's not usual and customary for someone to actually be named "Junior." From a more rural community in a small Appalachian town, the grandparents who named my uncle "Junior" sparked more than one of the memories from my past that I tried to downplay over the years when I spoke of my family. In the way of someone who is finding her voice and learning that who she is is not defined by the details of her life, I sometimes felt ashamed of that part of my life's details.
Nowadays I'm enthralled by people's stories and I'm exploring my own life's stories in a new and more accepting light. When did I start to realize that invariably the most interesting stories originate with imperfect elements? Regardless of when I learned this, today's incident triggered nearly-forgotten memories of the varied ways my mentally retarded uncle explored his own place in the world. And the ways he taught me to communicate with people whose lives are different from my own.
Every week that I see Robert, I think of Junior. Until today, nobody ever referred to Robert, aloud, as "M.R." I never before saw anything other than his familiar, gentle side. Robert was sitting on the sofa again and the ladies were just settling down to some good bead stringing. Something triggered Robert's interest and he said, "I like to talk!" Probably someone had actually noticed how talkative he was today and casually asserted, "Robert sure likes to talk." It would have been an ordinary sort of occurrence. Then he said it again. And again. My friend who sometimes volunteers with my class gently pointed out to him that his talking is welcome, but that some people were concentrating and they might not be able to respond to him as immediately as he'd prefer. I talked to him in a similar fashion, and thought to change the subject and lead his mind in a different direction. On occasion changing the subject to a compelling enough alternative topic can successfully curtail the perseveration of an "overdone" subject matter. Not today, though.
What happened next is a bit blurry. It's possible someone made an offhand remark, not realizing he could hear them speaking. Perhaps he misunderstood someone's body language or misinterpreted something he heard someone saying. Relative context of a remark is often missed by this one man in my beading class, as it sometimes was with my uncle.
Robert jumped to his feet, clenched his fists, and started shouting, "No! Don't!" (And some other things I wasn't clear about.) His face was red, his eyes were strained wide. The sheer volume of his voice alone was shocking, but Robert probably also weighs about 200 pounds. Nora, whose driver had gotten her directions wrong, had not yet arrived. Perhaps if he'd felt secure with her calming presence, he wouldn't have gotten so upset. But we didn't see Nora for at least another half hour today.
What I've been pondering is how completely natural it felt to me when I rose from my seat, walked over to Robert who either had already sat back down or whom I guided back to his seat - I really can't recall now - and started speaking to him as if I knew this man well enough to act so boldly. My friend looked shocked at my confidence. I put my hand on his shoulder, rubbing it in a soothing stroke, and calmly, but firmly, started talking to him. I told him that everything was okay and that he needed to calm down. "Robert, you're very welcome in this room and we're glad to have you. But everyone who is here has something they'd like to do. Some people will be happy to talk to you and others need to work quietly. There's no need for you to get upset when you're here. Everyone here is kind to each other and there's nobody who means to upset you. We're all friends here and nobody wants to hurt you Everything is all right. Can you hear me? It's going to be just fine." That was a variation on the words I used as I continued to stroke his shoulder and look intently at him, though his eyes were sharply averted from me. I had participated in this very scene before. The way he looked away from me, defiance in the set of his jaw, the stiffened muscles of his shoulders, the way he moved his hands...all of this took me back to similar outbursts that seemed to erupt unbidden from my usually-gentle uncle's mouth when something had set him off.
Robert moved his hand toward me. I patted it with the hand that wasn't on his shoulder. He hadn't spoken a word the entire time I sat there talking to him. Then he looked at me...sudden. "Okay." One strong, calm word. His normal demeanor was back without a lingering trace of anger. And then, just as if from a memory, I heard: "I'm sorry. Okay, I'm sorry." "Everything's all right?" "Yes. I'm sorry." "Okay, then. I'm glad you're feeling okay again. We're all glad you're feeling better." From around the room I heard the voices of agreement: "Robert, we're your friends." "We love you, Robert." "Everything's okay. You're going to be okay."
I stood up and returned to the beads. Robert remained on the sofa. People returned to their work. Not another word was spoken of it from any of the other ladies who made their pretty jewelry and departed with reminders they hoped to see us next week.
And I've been thinking of Robert off and on ever since. But more than that, I've been thinking of Junior. And how in spite of the fact that I haven't spent very many of my adult hours in the presence of people with special needs, all those years of "training," on how my uncle experienced the world...how that experience of the world was sometimes drastically and other times subtly very different from my own...prepared me for this morning's outburst. While I couldn't ever have known it was happening.
Some people may suggest that my choice to get so close to Robert, a relative stranger... to speak so boldly to him, was stupid. Perhaps it wasn't the brightest move. It occurs to me now, however, that nothing about this incident was logical. It was over in less than two minutes. It wasn't about a conscious decision. My whole reaction was instinctual. As if shaking someone's hand and saying goodbye, or hugging a crying child. Pondering the wisdom of my choice, now, feels pointless and ludicrous. Afterwards and for a long stretch of time my hands trembled. But during those moments, I'd felt no fear.
It was exactly as I remembered it. Even though the last time anything like that happened must have been more than 10 years ago. The human mind is a fascinating, remarkable creature. My mind is boggled by our memory triggers, by recollections that guide our current actions, by the way all of life's imperfect elements prepare us for later ones.
And this evening, I'm missing my uncle. A lot.
*Not their real names.