Inarticulate Speech of the Heart

 by Larry McCloskey   

A young guy who had roared down country lanes on his motorcycle in the liberating spring after a Canadian winter lay imprisoned in a room with three other spinal cord patients, windows shut to keep summer from seeping in, with a novice unwanted stranger doing unwanted strange procedures, who would stroll away in carefree fashion at the end of his shift.” —  Page 24, Inarticulate Speech of the Heart.

I was that novice. As a grad student I got a job as an orderly for money. I’d chosen the spinal cord unit over the psychiatric ward as a pathetic attempt to exorcise my fear of immobility. The orderly gig led to a job working with students with disabilities at Carleton University, which became a centre and a career, which over 35 years and against intention and expectation became a vocation, a place to stay, home.

I was privileged to work with thousands of students, many in tough situations whose most endearing feature was being bloody interesting. That privilege was not inherent. Though decades in the making, I learned that work, “is our love made visible.” (Khalil Gibran, The Prophet). My friend Paul, visited upon by cataclysmic quadriplegia as a young guy, had gotten me the university job after which we talked every day about how to move the needle on providing services for students with disabilities. He even lent his name to the Paul Menton Centre for Students with Disabilities after he died at the tender age of 37.

Years earlier, Paul and his brothers had taken a road trip from Ottawa to the west coast in an attempt to normalize the inexplicable that had descended upon their lives. In 1976, their authentic road trip vehicle was a woefully tiny and underpowered VW van that all three slept in every night for six weeks. How that was possible, how they were able to take care of their spinal cord injured brother, how they were able to negotiate down Rocky Mountain roads in a van with faulty brakes, remains unknown. When I asked the brothers thirty years later they shrugged their shoulders, and said “no big deal,” which I realized was less a deflection than an expression of love that is as close as un-emotive brothers ever get to the inarticulate speech of their wounded hearts. And realizing this, I shut up. Actions shout, words whisper.

Early death has a haunting disquietude that words cannot adequately capture. And yet, I decided to write this book when I began hearing and reading death announcements of my early students, most far younger than me. Curiously, early death seems to correlate to those whose imprint in life is largest.

Such as Gord. As a cocky teenager, he ignored the adult pronouncement that he would go blind unless he took better care of his diabetes. He travelled to Europe on his own, and being his own man, and a gregarious one at that, Gord spent considerable time in pubs. Years later, in the middle of his otherwise riotous comedic routine, he never failed to hush the audience as he recounted the terrifying moment in a Welch pub when a pink fog descended upon his field of vision. He managed to leave the pub but did not know how to get to his hotel. He literally felt his way along a row of hedges. Gord went to bed wishing the nightmare away only to wake in the absence of pink, fog or any light. The nightmare of dark was to be visited upon the light of day for the rest of his life. And yet, Gord realized his dream of becoming a comedian, wrote a travel column with his wife (no joke), and was the happiest and funniest guy who ever lived, until he died. Oh yeah, he was a golf fanatic who had a certified hole in one in his achievement chest. (Again, no joke in reference to the man whose formula for a life well lived was to find humour and tell jokes in all situations).

One day, I walked into my office and noticed a perfectly hard written phone message. Message long forgotten but I can still recall the note neatly and conscientiously placed beside my phone. The note-taker did not work for me, he was not a volunteer, but Paul had taken the message, the proof being his note said so. I stood looking down at his handiwork for ever long, marvelling at the fantastical nature of commonplace revealed.

Paul did not have hands or feet, arms or legs, because his mother took a drug called Thalidomide prescribed to women in the early 1960’s for morning sickness. What Paul did have was consideration, a desire to contribute, and adaptive skills—with the creative use of about six inches of an arm stump—that are still hard to believe.

In grade school, he was assigned to the ‘opportunity class’, what everyone then understood to be euphemism for dummy class. On the island of the misfits one emotionally disturbed student continually shrieked every time he saw Paul. Which cost him because in addition to everything else, Paul was further burdened by intelligence and a deep desire to learn. His only recourse to the shrieks of his disturbed classmate was to forego the opportunity haven and learn from home where he began to teach himself five languages. Paul eventually was welcomed by Sister Hennessy into St. Brigid’s—a school mercifully without an opportunity class—but it was at university where he really thrived. My friend Claudia Persi Haines, Chair of the Italian department, called Paul her best all time student. With graduation looming, Paul’s twenty-year pending legal case against Thalidomide was settled, he was rich, and as so often happened to my many students, he was all there until he was gone. These repeated abandonments were both hard to take and exactly as it was supposed to be.

So what can any of this mean to any of us? Disability is not separateness. Disability is a distillation of the human condition, and for those without the luxury of complacency, extremity may lend itself to insight. The problems is, we moderns increasingly believe in the settled science of God’s non-existence wherein insight into what follows our millisecond of life is oblivion of the very personhood atheists believe sacrosanct. How’s that for irony.

Wait, there’s a greater irony. Advancements in science in recent decades speak to fantastical complexity, meaning that science is never settled, further meaning that some unknowns may be unknowable, which logically, empirically even, leads to the proposition that beyond what can be known, might just be God. Science may be on the threshold of proving, or at least making a compelling case for the existence of God that secular modernity has yet to catch up to. I am literally saying that even though non-belief is the new religion, archaic old world notions of a spiritual life may have an ally in science far beyond modern assumptions.

Which might take us to what people throughout time have always known. Our existence is a self evident truth borne of consciousness, that astonishing, out of body, singular gift we take for granted from the cradle to the grave. A brilliant star streaks across the night sky, an explosion of trailing light, the most luminous since the beginning of time as we moderns huddle inside bingeing on a Netflix original. Maybe we need a reality alignment. Maybe those lives most often ignored and least regarded as having something to offer, have the most to teach us. 

For those not glued to Netflix, or some such modern distraction, maybe the extremity of disability is where meaning and insight meet.

Inarticulate Speech of the Heart by Larry J. McCloskey
Publisher: Castle Quay Books
Print ISBN: 9781988928395, 1988928397
eText ISBN: 9781988928401, 1988928400
Copyright year: 2021