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Sunday Journal: After a stroke, language consisted of two choice words

I met Raymond at a gallery exhibition of my watercolor paintings and graphite drawings. He immediately struck me as a pompous elitist. Politely and without hesitation I refused his invitation to visit his home and studio. In time, however, after occasional meetings at art functions, I learned to admire his personality and character.

Raymond was a John Houseman kind of guy, standing tall and handsome with a distinguished demeanor. He was an imposing personality, and when he spoke your attention was guaranteed. His wry sense of humor often spiced the most serious discussions. Well versed in literature and art, Raymond was but best acknowledged as an accomplished artist whose portraits of the distinguished were highly regarded.

We soon began to exchange views and attitudes about art in general and became devoted friends. Our wives also became close.

And so it was for 36 years, until a stroke rendered him speechless and with limited mobility. His determined attempts to form words were both fruitless and agonizing to a man who was once a gifted speaker.

But one day the professed atheist uttered two words: "god damn." I didn't know how to respond; he had never sworn before. But now these two words were Raymond's response, question, exclamation, request and frustration to everything. Sitting in his art studio's mechanical chair, wanting something from across the room, he would point, accompanied by his exhortation. Asking Raymond to be more specific made things worse as he angrily repeated them, his face distorted. It was a scary sight and painful to witness. The helplessness I felt was painful and deep.

But not all was unbearable. During my once or twice a week visits with my wife, our time was usually pleasant. Seeing Liz brought a big smile to his face. Seeing me resulted in a smiling scowl. As usual, I sat in Raymond's high-back leather desk chair and faced him sitting in his easy chair. We soon engaged in an incoherent language, which he nonetheless enjoyed, as we feigned our old-time conversations.

We also developed a show of strength game I called "foot push." With a gleam of expected superiority Raymond would raise his left leg as a challenge. I smirked while extending my right leg until our shoes met. When I gave the signal we pressed until one of us won. Of course my sitting in a chair with casters while Raymond was firmly planted in his chair would send me wheeling across the room with one good push. I expected to lose and always did. To hear Raymond's expression of victory in two words gave me great pleasure.

But I missed the old times when I'd watch him at work on a painting. At times he would ask, "What do you think, John?"

"Your perspective is off, Ray."

"I just knew you would spot it," he would answer and promised to adjust it, which he always did. I sometimes wondered if his perspective was askew just to test me. Now those moments between two working artists left a deep void in our relationship.

One day in an attempt to arouse his creative instincts I suggested we paint together. He frowned and pointed to his useless right hand. I then pointed to our left hands. He nodded in agreement, his two words softly offered in confirmation. We each completed a small watercolor scene. I later framed mine and presented it to him, and whispered his refrain.

Week after week we found ways to enjoy each other's company, and always parted on a happy note. On one visit, during our farewell, I looked Raymond straight in his eyes and I started to sing.

"Oh Danny boy, the pipes, the pipes are calling . . ."

Raymond began to sing. After finishing the final verse, it was I who was speechless, marveling at this seeming miracle. I leaned over and gave him a warm hug and quickly left to hide my tears.

I later learned that some stroke victims who could no longer speak were sometimes able to sing. This was a remarkable accomplishment, although attempts to elicit everyday speech failed. So Danny Boy it would be, and at the end of each visit that followed, we joined in song.

After four years Raymond passed on. A dear friend, as close as a brother, was lost to me. It gives me great joy, sitting in his high-back leather desk chair with its casters, now in my own studio, playing an imaginary foot game with a guy who will never be forgotten.

John M. Angelini is a painter and writer living in Hudson.

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Sunday Journal: After a stroke, language consisted of two choice words 04/16/11 [Last modified: Saturday, April 16, 2011 4:30am]
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