Nothing Comes Easy

"Walking came no more naturally to Ray than talking. After getting up from his seat, he’d stand there swaying, as though he were about to take—and fail—a sobriety test."

When Ray had a story to tell, he was full of nervous anticipation. He seemed momentarily overwhelmed by the magnitude of the task: there were so many things he wanted to say. The words were somewhere inside him, but he struggled to get them started. He put his whole being into pushing the first word out: his jaw moved up and down slightly while he got his mouth set; his large, moist eyes flickered a bit—he was concentrating too hard to look at his listener—and his hand, with his fingers lightly closed, hung poised in the air. Several anxious seconds passed before the word finally broke loose; then Ray’s head and hand fell forward, just as one sprawls past a jammed door that has suddenly given way. The rest of his speech followed with only minor halts, like a truck jouncing down a dirt road after extricating itself from a tenacious mudhole. The fact that much of what he said was incomprehensible—sometimes he told whole stories of which I barely caught a single word—was less important: Ray’s triumph lay in the production of sound, regardless of its meaning.

Walking came no more naturally to him than talking. After getting up from his seat, he’d stand there swaying, as though he were about to take—and fail—a sobriety test. Once in motion, he’d stagger from side to side, his feet landing a full shoulder’s width apart, like a landlubber traversing a rolling ship. Though Ray was only in his thirties, his eyesight had deteriorated badly—his glasses became superfluous, so he wore them less regularly—and that made getting around even more awkward. One morning in the lobby he stumbled into a tall potted plant, mistook it for me, and said, “Oh hi, Blenh.”

In the prevocational area, he worked every day on developing the sense of touch he would increasingly depend on. Ellen would take ten small squares each of rough, medium, and fine sandpaper—all painted black so he could not use vision as a crutch—and mix them together. Then Ray, very deliberately, would take one piece at a time, first stroking it over and over with his finger while it lay on the table, then picking it up and rubbing it between his thumb and forefinger. Out of habit, he’d keep his once helpful eyes within inches of the sandpaper. Carefully he’d make his choice, placing the piece in one of three piles. Months of effort made him proficient at this discrimination.

Likewise, when Ray was sanding or steelwooling, he kept his eyes close to his work, as intent as a scrivener working by candlelight. Whenever I said, “Keep up the good work, Ray,” he was very responsive. Rubbing his hands together excitedly, he’d cock his head to one side and smile in open-mouthed wonder, as though he had just received a delightful surprise. “Ye-aaaah!” he’d say, his voice rising. Or, in a low tone, “Mmmm, yeah”—concentrating, getting right back to work. Or hushed, as if he had been sent on a vital secret mission: “Okay, Blenh!”

In the lunchroom Ray’s failing vision occasionally caused him to ram a sandwich or a large cookie into the side of his mouth. He was thrilled when he had a quarter to spend on pop: grasping the coin tightly, he’d show it to me as though it were a rare doubloon. In 1981 Ray’s teeth had to be pulled. Unable to adapt to his new dentures, he’d keep them in his mouth until lunchtime, then set them on the table while he gummed his meal.

By feeling, Ray was able to button his coat, but on cold winter days he’d be one of the last clients to leave the cloakroom. Doing battle with his coat and galoshes, he’d become absorbed in yet another task that most of us do automatically.

Ray was on the short side of medium, with a slight build, and his brown, rumpled hair was receding. Usually he wore cowboy boots; he was especially proud of these because they were a gift from his parents. Ray adored his mother and father, and loved it when he could leave his group home to stay with them for a few days. Once or twice a year they came to the Center. Ray, after being told he had visitors, would totter up to them in the lobby, suddenly realize who they were, and greet them with warm hugs.

Ray had more than his share of hardships and adversities, but when good things came his way, he showed boundless appreciation. Whatever gifts life gave him, he treasured. One year his parents sent him a Valentine’s Day card showing scenes from a rodeo. He became really attached to this card, and for weeks it was his constant companion. Whenever it was time to work, his supervisor would offer to put the card in a safe place; but Ray would quickly stash it between his leg and the chair seat, refusing to part with it for even a moment.

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