More Than Words Can Say

When speech is silenced, there are other ways to communicate.

By S.I. Rosenbaum | The St. Petersburg Times | September 25, 2007

Sometimes at night, he murmurs in his sleep.

She lies awake, listening hard, hoping to catch a word. Any word.

But it's just sounds.

She closes her eyes. Maybe one day, she thinks, maybe when he's sleeping, maybe when she wakes him in the morning, he'll speak to her again.

"I always have that hope," she says. "I don't care if it's Spanish or English. I just want him to say something."

And they'll laugh together.

On March 7, 2006, in a parking lot in Dade City, a blood vessel burst in Jose Rodriguez's brain.

It was 3:30 p.m. He was 57 years old.

Rescue workers took him to Pasco Regional Medical Center, but that hospital doesn't do brain surgery. It took hours to find a hospital that did and to order a helicopter to fly Jose there.

Surgeons at University Community Hospital opened his skull at 11:45 p.m.

Joan Rodriguez spent hours in the hospital's chapel, praying for her husband's life.

"God, I don't care how he turns out," she prayed. "I just want him by my side."

They'd been married 17 years. She had always been proud of her smart, sophisticated man. Everyone noticed when he walked into a room. He was a salesman. He could talk to anyone.

"I loved to talk to him," Joan Rodriguez says.

She's sitting in a Dairy Queen, trying not to cry: a middle-aged woman with highlights in her dark hair. She talks a mile a minute. Words tumble out of her, pile up on each other.

"We were so close together," she says. "As a marriage. As a couple."

He used to call on the cell phone, just to tell her about the jerk who cut him off or the funny billboard he was passing. "You would not believe what I'm having for lunch," he'd say.

He still talks to her, all the time. But she doesn't understand. There's no meaning in the sounds that come from his mouth.

***

If you ask Jose how he feels, he'll show you: It's as if his right side has been cut from his body.

"Ah me ga," he says. "Ma me guh mah, ma ge mi ga ma . . ."

Inside the darkness of his brain, crucial cells have died. A delicate network of neurons is tattered and broken.

For months now, he has spent every day in speech therapy on the University of South Florida campus. He sits at a table with a dozen other stroke survivors.

Their right hands are limp or rigid; some have right legs in braces. Some can speak almost normally. Others have only a few words.

Today they're talking sports. An aide tries to get Jose to say the name of his favorite team.

"Yan-kees," she says.

"Oh-see," Jose says, singsong, his voice skipping up an octave with strain.

"Say the whole thing," says an older man sitting on his right. "Say Yankee Stadium. Come on. You can do it."

But Jose can't do it.

It seems to him, says speech therapist Cheryl Paul, that he's talking normally, making sense.

With therapy, he might regain some words, she says. She's trying to teach him to be flexible. If he can't say something, maybe he can draw it, maybe he can act it out.

"We'll accept any way you can get the information out," she says.

"But often you'll find family members who will only accept speech. That's the way the person was; they want them speaking again. . . . They want that back, and it's hard for them to accept that may never come back."

She said she has seen marriages fall apart after a stroke. Others become stronger.

"I have some clients who have been married so long, the wife will give him a look and even though she's not speaking he'll understand exactly," she said.

***

Sometimes Jose's frustration boils over.

He can't drive anymore. He can only sit in his prized red 1977 Porsche. He hates not being able to come and go when he wants.

A few weeks ago, his therapy appointment ended early. He had to wait for Joan to pick him up.

When she got there, he was furious. He wouldn't look at her.

"What's wrong?" she said, but he sat in the passenger seat, tight-lipped.

At home, she asked again. He looked at his watch, mimed looking around for her. "Excuse me," she said. "Are you saying I arrived late? Well, you are so wrong. I got there at 2:30 sharp."

She said, "Don't blame me. You know this is a sacrifice for me. I work on the opposite side of town."

She said, "When I come to pick you up I don't expect you to be like this with me."

A few days later she was on her way to pick him up. There was a rainstorm, and traffic slowed to a crawl.

She called him, but she wasn't sure if he understood.

When she got there, he was gone.

She drove through the USF campus, frantic. She called his phone, but he didn't pick up.

Finally she spotted him sitting on a bench. She stopped the car, got out. She started to cry.

"Why did you do this? Where the hell did you go?"

He looked at her, his face sober.

"What do you expect me to do?"

He didn't say anything. They were late for a neurologist's appointment. "Honey," she said, "Let's just get in the car."

She gave him a sandwich. She wiped her face.

They drove to the neurologist.

On the way home, she said, "If you do that again, I'll divorce you. If you do that again, you'll get a one-way ticket back to Puerto Rico."

He leaned over and put his left hand on her leg.

She knew what he meant. He didn't have to say a word.

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