May, too

Today I have a story about May, and how she learned – again! – to say her own name.

When I met her, May lived in a nursing home. My mother was a physical therapist, and sometimes I accompanied her on her rounds. She had a few nursing homes on her route, and one day, when I was eight or nine or so, maybe younger, we stopped at this one.

May was not my mother’s patient, but she was in the parlor when we arrived. Sitting. I’m not sure who introduced us, maybe one of the nursing staff. Somehow I learned that May was recovering from a stroke, and could not speak. Yet. I think she was waiting for her speech therapist, who was late.

May and I liked the looks of each other right off. We both had blue eyes and curly hair, though hers was white and mine was blonde.

“I’ll stay here,” I told my mom, so she went off down the hall to put her patient through his paces.

“May,” I said carefully and clearly. I had decided that she could say her own name. Of course! And I was patient.

May looked at me expectantly.

“My name is Susie,” I said, “your name is May.”

She nodded.

“Mmmmmm,” I said, “Mmmm-aaaayy.”

“Mmm,” she said.

We both smiled.

“Mmmmm-aaaayy,” I said.

“Mmmmm,” she said.

“Mmmmm-aaay,” I said.

“Mmmmm-aaa,” she said.

“Yes!” I said, “Mmmm-aaayy.”

“Mmmm-aaa,” she said.

“You can do it,” I said, “Mmm-aaay.”

We got stuck on Mmm-aaa for awhile, so I changed tack. “May is such a beautiful name, don’t you think?”

May nodded.

We both smiled.

“The month of May,” I said, “is a very good month. You’ve got flowers and birds and sunshine and warm days. Am I right?”

May laughed, which crinkled her eyes.

“Mmm-aay,” I said, “May.”

“Mmm-aaa,” she said. She was beautiful, May was, not just her kind and amused face, but her spirit.

Some of the people in the nursing homes were dour and cranky — of course they were! One old guy in a wheelchair liked to pinch me. I stayed behind my mother when we saw him in the hallway. There were also creepy guys who leered at me, young as I was. Prepubescent! But mostly these places were filled with sad, old, tired, sick humans who rarely had visitors, other than the medically inclined.

Which is probably why my mother brought me along, to mix things up a bit. I was a change of scenery. And I liked it, except for the creeps. I liked watching my mother help people move their broken bodies, edging them toward homeostasis. She treated all sorts, from amputees to athletes, quadriplegics to the comatose.

A few of her patients were famous: Larry Fine, of the Three Stooges, a kind old bedridden man whose eyes lit up when he saw me; bandleader Xavier Cugat, married to a very jealous Charo; and Robert Shields of the mime duo Shields & Yarnell. (I had a crush on the graceful Lorene Yarnell, starstruck. Hard to believe that one day I’m in her kitchen and the next night she’s in our living room — on TV!)

Regardless of the patient’s station in life, my mother was competent and calm, and never condescending. She treated folks equally and equably, whether they had use of all their body parts or not.

I don’t know how long my mother was gone that day, doing range of movement exercises with her patient in that nursing home. 30 minutes? 45? 15? Time was fluid back then, sitting in the parlor with May.

And after we’d been practicing awhile, it popped right out of her mouth. “Mmm-aay,” she said, “Mm-aay!”

“Yes!” I said, “May!”

“Mm-ay!” she said. “May.”

“May,” I smiled, “hello!”

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