Excerpt from ‘Borrowed Time’, the book I wrote about my arduous recovery of the HIV induced inflammation of the brain I had in 2002.
I don’t go to the theater anymore. I visit the Aphasia Society waiting room four times a week, and no performance can beat that. It’s a feast for the eyes and it doesn’t cost me a thing.
Yesterday I was there for an hour, between my lesson to learn to read again and my lesson to learn how to vent my feelings. The wife of a fellow aphasiacs said her husband had gone to speech lessons. Two months ago he had a stroke and now he can no longer talk. She said he gets angry when she doesn’t understand him. He starts shouting, clasps his arms around his body and moves his head wildly up and down. It shocks her and she doesn’t think it’s fair. She does everything to help her husband and all he does is get angry at her.
David cracked up his car thirteen years ago. Since then he hasn’t been able to do anything. After thirteen years of exercising three times a week he can walk a little and talk a little. But when he can’t find the right words he gets very, very angry.
The waiting room of the Aphasia Society is the only place on earth where the people are angrier than I am.
Jose Luis has been coming to the Society for five years. Five years ago he could neither walk nor talk. Now he can move around and make noises. A word to the wise (even a couple of noises) is sufficient. He makes a sound like a vacuum cleaner and we all know he means speech therapist.
Mr. Pereira can sing beautifully. He doesn’t have enough vocabulary to hold a conversation, but he knows the lyrics to all the songs he’s ever learned.
“What’s your granddaughter’s name, Mr. Pereira?”
“How big is she?”
He points to his waist. “Two months.”
“But it’s true.”
“Is she two years old, perhaps?”
Mr. Pereira nods enthusiastically and looks happy, with those big green eyes of his that always seem as if they were about to disappear into his face. He may not know his granddaughter’s name any more but that doesn’t mean he’s forgotten her.
I’m glad I know the difference between a month and a year. I know that time passes in a certain way, although I don’t feel the passing as strongly as I used to. It’s like some people who divide time into the period before and after the war; my life is divided into the period before and after December 8, 2001.
Mr. Pereira strips words of their value. A month, a year, a name − the things that mean so much in daily life don’t mean anything to him anymore. He doesn’t like to talk. When he does say something, the non-aphasiacs immediately start asking about what it means and whether it’s correct or not. They never ask about what he’s really saying: that he’s crazy about his granddaughter.
We often dislike the things that we could do before the war. You’re never thrilled by the things that require a lot of effort and that you can’t do very well.
Mr. Pereira, José Luis, David, the man who gets so angry at his long-suffering wife, me − we all have our place in the waiting room of the Aphasia Society. I belong here. It’s home.