The student had become a frequent-flyer in my school nurse’s office. I knew her pattern of dropping in mid-day when she had a class where she struggled. At first, I struggled with being patient with her because she stuttered. It was hard for her to get out a simple sentence about wanting pain medicine for her headache. After many trips to see me, I could guess what she was asking for, and it would have been easy to supply the words so she could just nod her head. But I needed to listen to her and deal with my issues of impatience. She needed her voice heard.
Since she came in so often, I had plenty of chances to work on listening. In time, I saw there were situations when the stutter wasn’t as pronounced and she talked more freely, sharing how much she loved music, writing songs. Eventually, I relaxed into the conversation, knowing it would unfold slowly and that was okay.
I’ve had a similar experience in learning to listen to Mama. With her decline over the years with dementia, she can’t enjoy conversation like she used to. She was known for being a talker and often frustrated Daddy when she was one of the last to leave after church because she was talking with her friends. He would be waiting in the car, wanting to get home to eat the Sunday dinner she’d prepared. Even when Mama was at home with just her family, she enjoyed telling us stories. She most loved the tales of her and her cousin, Yvonne, their adventures in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania as nineteen-year-olds training for civil service jobs during World War II.
Now, we have days when Mama can put a few words together to make a simple sentence, or she starts as if she’s going to tell you something and she just stops. She might say, “And they said. . .” “I guess . . .” and then the rest of her words aren’t fully formed, just sounds that are like something has chewed up the rest of that thought. What is more intact is her nonverbal communication, especially the way she raises her eyebrows or has a concerned expression, or furrows her brow with confusion, or smiles. She’ll say something that’s not understandable, then smile like she’s said something humorous.
What I’ve come to realize is that no matter how difficult it is to understand what she’s trying to say, she wants to be listened to just like she did years ago in the churchyard. She feels, in as much as we have any understanding of what she thinks, that she has something to say and she still needs to be listened to. I need to be alert to her tone of voice, her facial expressions, and the occasional clear words to piece the story together.
I understand wanting to be heard—after all, I’m a writer and telling stories gives me great joy. At times, I’ve been so intent on telling my story, my clever rendition of an anecdote, that I haven’t listened to others, wanting to jump in and get my turn. I apologize to those of you to whom I’ve done that, thinking my story was more important than yours. It’s not. Because everybody has a story that they need to tell, and all of us need others to really listen. And that goes for middle school stutterers and old people with failing memories and half-formed sentences.
The need for our stories to be heard is universal, and listening is the one true gift we can give to one another. Whether in our everyday lives with our families or the people we work with, or our extraordinary days of being on a journey and encountering a stranger, we will make the world a better place by listening to each other’s stories. Sometimes we’ll need to wait patiently for them to unfold.
How about You?
How could you better listen to the stories of other people?
How can you let others’ know that you need for them to hear your story?