Laughter, Fear, and the Rich Smell of Earth
Nothing would give up life: Even the dirt kept breathing a small breath.
-- Theodore Roethke, “Root Cellar”
A FEW CARDS AND LETTERS arrive for Martin at Mass General, but during our first week there, we forget that he has a mailbox back at Lowell House. After he moves to the ward, Tom asks if he remembers the combination.
“I do,” he answers.
“I’ll go get the mail for you,” Tom says. “Can you tell me the combination?”
“I can,” Martin says, “but then I’d have to kill you.”
It is his first joke since the accident. We think it a significant milestone in his recovery, a sign of his mental sharpness, but know we may be setting too great store by trivial events, hoping for hope.
The speech therapist comes by. She no longer has to weigh the dangers of feeding her patient by mouth and focuses instead on his thinking. She asks Martin simple questions—his name, where he goes to school, who the president is. He gets the answers right, but he does not know his age or what month it is. He can count backward from one hundred by sevens. Then she gives him more arithmetic problems.
“You go to an appointment that will last two hours. You park your car at a meter that gives you half an hour for each dime. How much money should you put into the meter?”
Martin asks her, “What does the meter max out at?”
Whenever we visited our friend, Josefina, at her café the week before the accident, Tom kept going out to feed the meter. It always maxed out at something less than the time we needed. When we lost track of time and fed it late, we found a ticket on our windshield. Tom grumbled how he hated parking around Harvard Square.
Martin has never liked arithmetic, and he has a terrible headache. By asking “What does the meter max out at?” he has both ducked doing arithmetic and gotten a laugh.
The next day Dr. Woo comes by the hospital. A friend of a friend, she was the neurological unit administrator at Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital several years ago. We tell her about Martin joking he’d have to kill Tom if he gave him the mailbox’s combination and about his dodging the parking meter problem.
She says, “He is showing the kind of higher thinking that can’t be taught. Arithmetic is a lesser skill. He can relearn it easily if he needs to.”
Tom and I retell Martin’s clever answers when friends call for news. We try to explain how enormously promising his comebacks are, and how they show that his thought processes are subtle and complex. Our friends don’t challenge us, but they probably can’t understand why we are so pleased. They don’t know how far Martin has already come.