The day I met him, his roommate had just dumped his entire lunch tray on the floor in a fit of coughing: 3 small glasses worth of apple juice, a glass of milk, a flattened roll, some chicken dish with green beans, jello, countless pieces of glass, a warm plate amazingly unbroken, all mixed and mashed and scattered on the floor.
I was in the hallway when I heard the coughing, followed by the crash of the tray. I turned around and entered the room. I spoke to the roommate, made sure he wasn't choking, and surveyed the damage. I began to clean up the large pieces of the mess, dumping them into a trashcan. As I leaned down by his bed to pick up a chunk of glass, his hand reached out and touched the top of my head. I was startled, as I hadn't even realized he was awake.
I looked up to see him staring down at my from the edge of his pillow. Eyes, yellow and red, one a blueish gray color from the cataract. Shiny, feverish, but alive, looking back into mine.
"Hi, Mr. R. I didn't realize you were awake."
His lips moved, but no sound emerged. He began blinking rapidly, touching his tongue to his upper lip, and still tapping my head with one hand.
I finished cleaning up what I could of the mess, and then sat on the edge of his bed, surveying the mess within his bed sheets. His body was mangled, losing the battle with arthritis. His skin was ashy, yet still beautiful blue-black mahogany beneath all those scars. He had no clothes, so it was easy to see that under the sheets, he was skin and bones, a slight skeleton. His hands and head seemed grossly out of proportion with the rest of his body. He had a full head of salt and pepper gray hair-a huge 'fro, in fact.
He reached for my hand, and maintained eye contact.
"Mr. R, is there something I can get you?"
His lips never stopped moving. I bent down, placing my ear near his mouth, straining to hear his words:
"What do you need?" I began rearranging his sheets and his pillows and his bones. I moved his call light closer to his other hand. As I moved to re-adjust his neck, he placed his hand on my wrist, mid-stride.
"...time....need more time...."
I am so silly sometimes. I am always doing and helping and thinking and saving. I forget sometimes, that I am not listening.
"What do you mean? More time? For...?"
I placed my hands in my lap. He left his long fingers wrapped around my wrist.
He began slowly tapping his thumb on the underside of my wrist.
He maintained eye contact.
"....I don't know you.....but....I know of you.....I need more time.....to talk to you....."
And then he fell asleep.
I sat for a few minutes, poised on the edge of his bed, holding my breath, waiting.
He didn't stir.
I left the room confused. I was told he didn't talk, didn't respond to people, rarely responded to touch.
Later that afternoon, I went back by his room. He was seemingly in the same position, unchanged yet different. His eyes followed me as I walked across the room, towards his bed. I smiled and said hello.
His response: "...did you hear?...that I don't talk?"
I laughed out loud. Yes, that's indeed what I had heard.
Only once, in all the time I knew him, did he do this: He laughed. A gruff, throaty laugh, that I almost missed.
I visited him daily. Sometimes he said only a handful of words, sometimes none, sometimes his mouth moved but his throat did not. But he always made eye contact, and I learned his facial expressions-the tiny nuances, the subtle changes in the planes of his cheekbones when he was in pain, the secrets among the creases around his eyes when he smiled.
He grew sicker. Weaker. Thinner.
He talked less.
No one believed that he talked. He was dismissed by so many.
He was homeless prior to landing in our facility.
I don't know his past life; he didn't speak of it. I learned later that he had been in the military.
One morning he didn't respond to my voice, didn't make eye contact, didn't speak. I worried for him, as co-workers talked circles around me of who would take his bed when he was gone.
I spent an afternoon with him, in the darkness of his room, listening to the oxygen machine compete for breathing space.
I sat in a chair next to his bed, too afraid that I would somehow hurt him if I sat on the edge of his bed. I reached for his hand at times, rubbing lotion into the ashy lines. I brushed his hair, and leaned over, whispering in his ear, random things, for my sake, not his.
I stayed in his room long after I should have left for the day.
When I said my goodbyes, there was no squeeze of the hand, no whisper on my wrist, no last words.
I got a call a few hours later, that he had passed.
I still feel bad that he essentially died alone. No family. No friends.
I think of him from time to time, and dream of his past, wishing he had spoken more.
His words: "Need more time". They come to mind sometimes, and I smile, recalling his huge head of hair and his deep voice.
I roll those three words around in my mouth, twist them with my tongue, try them up and down and upside down. I learn to deal with the bitter taste they leave, waiting for them to grow sweet.
I have put those three words on my bulletin board at work. Until I figure out their meaning, they are a good reminder for me: slow down, breathe, stop, listen.
Need more time.