new Mennonite Life logo    June 2000     vol. 55 no. 2     Back to Table of Contents

Speaking in Tongues

Gordon Houser

The worst part of the job for Jennifer Jarvis was the paperwork. Today, the last Friday of the month, she could not put off any longer the task of writing up her reports. She always scribbled notes after a visit, knowing, in a litigious society, the importance of documentation. But her jottings, on unlined notepaper torn from a five-by-seven-inch tablet, gathered on her desk like dust.

Her neck hurt as she typed, recalling interactions with patients at Shannon Medical Center as she translated her abbreviated notes into the proper language of a hospital social worker: bureaucratese.

She was less than a third of the way into her stack when the phone rang. Bernice, the daytime charge nurse on third floor, sounded peeved. "Jennifer, we've got a patient we're having trouble dealing with."

"OK. Is this person out of control or--?"

"No, he's pretty calm. But nobody can understand anything he says."

"Is he Hispanic? We could call Robert Gonzales in ER."

"No, it's not Spanish. It's--I don't know--why don't you just come see for yourself."

"I'll be right up."

Why do these things happen on Friday afternoon? she thought as she rode the elevator to third. She had hoped to get out before 6 p.m.; she knew 5:00, her official quitting time, was out of the question. But she and John were planning to drive into Ashton for dinner, and he had told her to get home by six. "Just say no," he had said when she started to explain that you can't always just leave. "Isn't that what you tell addictive personalities? Quote Nancy Reagan to them?"

He was kidding, she knew, yet she also knew he was not always happy with her choices. He'd told her once, in a rare, confessional moment, that he sometimes felt hurt when she chose her work over him. That had touched her at the time, and she oozed with guilt and even suggested sex that night, a kind of compensation. Despite her best efforts, she kept a mental tally of what she owed and what was owed her; she couldn't stand to owe anyone for long.

Later she wondered if he was being ironic, teasing her, playing her guilt strings. After all, when she did come home on time, he didn't always want to be with her. They talked about their day over supper, but then he was in front of the TV or doing the crossword in the paper or playing basketball at the rec center.

Besides, he didn't apologize when he had to work late, when his supervisor needed some numbers crunched right away. Next time he made an issue of her liking her job more than him, she told herself, she'd bring up these points. She thought about saying, "Yeah, I do like my job better than you." But she knew she could never bring herself to do it, even in jest. She feared it might be true.

Bernice met her at the nurses' desk and motioned her to follow. At room 323, she stopped and let Jennifer walk in ahead of her. A balding man in his fifties was sitting up in bed jabbering at Jill Pankowitz, a young nurse fairly new to the hospital, who was trying to get an IV started.

"Please, sir, we need to get some fluid into you," Jill said slowly yet loudly, as if the volume of her voice made it easier for him to understand her.

The man stopped talking when Jennifer walked in. He looked at her as if she were in charge and could get this situation straightened out. Jill gave her a similar look.

This nod of respect arose, she had learned, out of people's desperate need, but it also evaporated quickly, since Jennifer had no quick, easy solution to offer. Her approach, taught her in grad school but reinforced through experience, was to build on people's strengths. "You can do this," she often said to clients longing for someone to bail them out.

Jennifer took a breath, smiled at the man and held out her hand. "Hi, I'm Jennifer Jarvis, the hospital's social worker. How are you doing?"

The man looked at her, sad and quizzical. He shook her hand limply but said nothing.

"And your name is?"

"That's the main problem," Bernice said from behind her. "We don't know his name. Don't know anything about him. And we can't understand a word he's saying."

"And he doesn't understand English?"

"Doesn't seem to," Bernice said. "He showed up in ER with a head wound. The doctor wanted him put on IVs to prevent dehydration, and he wanted him under observation until we can figure out who he is."

"No ID?"

Bernice shook her head. "Nope. We tried to call you earlier."

"I was visiting an outpatient."

"Anyway, we called in Bill. He said he'd call around to the mental health centers in the area to see if anyone's gotten out. And he was going to check with the police about missing persons."

Bill Matthews was the hospital chaplain. Jennifer got along well with him, but he didn't usually step into a case unless the patient or family requested his presence. She owed him for this.

The man jabbered again, gestured with his right arm, while Jill held his left, waiting for a chance to slip the needle into his vein. Jennifer looked him in the eye and listened for a clue to what he was saying. He seemed agitated.

She turned to Bernice. "You think he might be allergic to something and is afraid we're going to give it to him?"

Bernice shrugged. "Your guess is as good as mine. They drew some blood downstairs, and they're doing lab work on it. But we need to get him calmed down and get some fluids in him."

"OK." Jennifer put her hands on the man's shoulders and said, "Sir, we need you to calm down. Everything's going to be all right."

He stopped speaking and lay back against the pillow, then said something else she didn't understand, moans formed into words. She guessed it was along the lines of, "Why are you people so stupid?"

Jennifer knew a little Spanish, and even though the man's speech sounded nothing like it, she asked, "Habla Español?"

He furrowed his brow and gave her a look that said, "What in the hell did you say?"

Once he was calm, perhaps resigned to the futility of trying to talk to these people, the man closed his eyes and let Jill proceed.

Jennifer said, "Excuse me, I'll be right back." She walked to the nurses' desk and called Bill. She finally reached his pager, and he called back a few minutes later.

"Any luck with our strange man?" she said.

"No. No one's reported anyone missing."

"We need to find someone who understands what he's saying. It's not Spanish--or anything that sounds familiar."

"He doesn't look Spanish either," Bill said, his voice crackling over his cell phone. "He looks--I don't know--east European or something."

"I thought he looked more Mediterranean." Jennifer checked her watch. "I've got to call John and let him know I'll be late."

"What're you going to do next?"

"I know a guy who teaches at the college," she said. "I thought I'd ask him if he knows an expert in languages at the university who might be able to figure out what this guy is saying."

"Worth trying, I guess."

"Anyway, you can go home. You don't have to worry about it. You've already done more than you should."

"Oh, so are you going to do all my paperwork that I'm about two weeks behind on?" Bill said and laughed.

Jennifer winced. She still owed him.

She hung up and called John. He was not happy when she said she'd be late.

"What? Again?" he said.

"This is different. This is a special case."

"Jen, they're always a special case."

"But this really is. He's--"

"Look, I'll be here when you get home. See you later." He hung up.

"Damn it," she said as she slammed down the receiver. One of the nurses at the desk looked at her and smiled. Jennifer smiled back, then went to the man's room.

He was asleep. Jill had left, but Bernice remained. "What'd Bill find out?" she said.

"Nothing. No one's missing anyone."

"Well, he can't stay here forever. We could let the accountants figure out who he is. They'll want his money."

Bernice left. Jennifer pulled a maroon vinyl chair next to the bed and sat down. The man was asleep, his breathing slow but steady, his face still. She stared at him. "Who are you?" she whispered. She knew he wouldn't wake. They had given him more than just fluids. Her gaze traced the deep-set wrinkles along each side of his nose, which curved to one side, as if it had once been broken. Wisps of grayish hair curled above his leathery ears. He's spent a lot of time outdoors, she thought. The sun was setting, the light coming through the west window a subdued salmon. It reflected on the man's bare forehead like the glow from a fire. "Where are you from?" she spoke again, louder this time. She felt a longing to touch him, to somehow reach across the wall that prevented her from helping him. She reached out her hand, then held it aloft for a moment. She let it fall on the sheet that lay across the man's chest. His stomach rose and fell--ever so slightly--with his breathing.

* * * *

She reached her friend at the college that night. He called around and finally found a professor in the linguistics department at Ashton State, thirty miles away, who could come up on Sunday afternoon.

She learned later that Bill had mentioned it to some minister friends of his, and the local paper found out about the mysterious stranger at the medical center.

Jennifer went in on Saturday, something she usually tried to avoid, and found a reporter in the patient's room. Her first thought, a latent hope, was that this might be a relative of the man's. But then she recognized the reporter's face from the local newspaper, which ran columns by most of its writing staff. "What're you doing here?" she said before he could introduce himself.

"I wanted to talk with someone about this patient," he said.

"I don't believe he's allowed any visitors, except family members."

"I'm sorry. Does he have family?"

"You shouldn't be here." Jennifer crossed her arms, caught herself and put her hands to her side.

"Look," he said, "I just want to help. And you've got to admit this is an interesting story."

"I'm concerned about the patient, not about your story. Maybe you should talk to someone else."

"Like who? I tried talking to a nurse, but she said to talk to you."

Jennifer remembered that this was Saturday, and Marjorie Jorgensen, their part-time communications person, was out. And where was the administrator? He'd pass this guy on to her, no doubt. Probably already had.

Suddenly she noticed the patient watching them converse. "Look, can we talk somewhere else? It's not polite to talk in front of this man."

"Fine with me. You want to go downstairs?"

"Sure, we can go to my office."

The reporter said little on the way down in the elevator. A good thing, Jennifer thought, since she was preoccupied with the previous evening.

When she had finally arrived home after 7:00, John hadn't said a word.

"You still want to go to Ashton?" Jennifer said.

"Naw, I called and cancelled our reservation," he said without looking up from the newspaper.

"Well, do you still want to go out to eat somewhere?"

"I already ate some leftover casserole. I didn't know when you were coming home."

She shrugged off her coat, then sat down on the sofa. "Look, I'm sorry I'm late. But I did call and tell you."

"Yeah. That's why I cancelled at the restaurant." He looked at her.

"Then why are you so pissed off?" she said.

"I'm not pissed off."

"Oh, give me a break, John. I know when you're mad."

He didn't say anything, a sure sign he was upset but didn't quite know why. She tried a softer tone. "Look, this is a really unusual case. And it came up at the last minute."

He rolled his eyes, which sent her off.

"Don't give me that look," she said.

He roughly folded the newspaper and sat up in the recliner. "OK, I'm a little pissed. I thought we talked about this before. But it seems like it doesn't make any difference. Something always comes up, and it's always a special case or unusual."

"You don't understand. This guy came in who doesn't know any--"

"I don't care who the hell he is. You can't save everybody."

The volumes of their voices rose to a crescendo. Jennifer heard herself yelling. "I know I can't save everybody. I'm just trying to do my job. Why is it OK for you to work late but not me?"

"Because I don't do it every goddamn night."

"Bullshit. I don't work late every night. And when I come home, you're buried in the paper or the computer or off somewhere."

He became silent again. But this time, she knew, it meant he was hurt. And even though he was likely hurt by the truth, his hurt pained her. She stayed silent as well. For a moment. Finally, she said, "I'm sorry. I didn't mean that."

"No, no. You're right. I don't pay enough attention to you." He stopped. She reached across and put her hand on his. He took it and squeezed gently. "Jesus, maybe we should go somewhere and eat something," he said.

"You sure?"

They went to a truck stop for pie and coffee and talked about their day, their week. But whenever Jennifer mentioned the man who didn't know English, John seemed to turn a deaf ear. "He's probably an immigrant who just got here," he said.

"Yeah, right. In the middle of Kansas, and he doesn't have any papers on him, no ID or anything."

"Maybe he's a dope addict."

"Come on."

"Part of the Russian mafia." He smiled.


He switched the subject, and she didn't object.

At home they made love, but it felt like wrestling, an extension of their argument, not rough but certainly not gentle. Within minutes John was asleep, while the sex only stirred up Jennifer more. She knew she wouldn't be able to sleep right away and got up. She looked through textbooks she still had from grad school, searched for something that might provide a clue to the strange man's problem. Jesus, she thought, I don't even know his name.

She found nothing to help her, finally fell asleep around 3 a.m. John went to the rec center after lunch, and Jennifer came in to check on the man with no name.

"You OK?" The reporter's voice brought her back from her reverie. The elevator door had opened. "Which way do we go?"

"This way," she said.

In her office she told him what she knew, which wasn't much. Confidentiality was such an important aspect of her work that it felt like betrayal to be talking with a reporter. However, this client had told her--could tell her--nothing confidential, and she learned that the newspaper had access to data bases that might prove helpful in locating this man's identity.

The reporter, who had introduced himself as Scott, proved eager to help. "Let me see what I can dig up," he said. "Maybe we can find out this guy's name and background."

After the reporter had left, she visited the patient again, but little had changed. She still understood nothing he said, and when she tried to teach him words, pointing to objects in the room and saying, "bed" or "door" or "glass," he only looked at her like she was loony and named the objects in his own language. She assured him everything would be all right and left.

She returned on Sunday afternoon, when the weekend nurse called to say a man was there from Ashton State who said he was a linguistics professor. When she arrived, he had already begun talking with the man, writing down what he heard in his own phonetic script.

Jennifer asked, "Do you know what language he's speaking?"

"This is fascinating," the professor said. "He's using elements from different language families. I thought he might be speaking Hungarian, which is quite unique among languages, but it's not that. He uses gutturals and trills, even some tonal sounds, like in a Chinese dialect. About the only thing he hasn't used is the click sound of Xosha."

"So you don't know."

"Uh, no, not yet. I'm not sure it even is a language. Maybe he's developed his own. This is quite interesting. I'm glad you called."

"Well, I was hoping to be able to communicate with him, find out where he's from."

"Sure, sure. I don't think that's going to happen for a while. Listen, I need a tape recorder. I didn't realize this would be so interesting. Do you have one I could borrow? And a tape?"

"I guess so. Let me get it."

The professor stayed for two hours, recording the man's talk, making notes. When he'd left, Jennifer said to the stranger, "I'm sorry, I didn't mean for you to become a lab rat."

The media circus began two days later. Monday's newspaper carried a story about the man, and on Tuesday the calls and visitors began pouring in. Caring for them consumed all of Jennifer's time. Her other clients, her paperwork, her home were left to themselves. Two TV stations in Ashton called and wanted to film the man. The hospital administrator, Marvin Nichols, told them no at first but later changed his mind, against the wishes of Jennifer and the nursing staff on third floor. Someone must have greased his palm, Jennifer thought, or at least convinced him of the financial benefits of such media exposure.

On Tuesday morning a Pentecostal pastor stopped in to visit the man. After talking for a while to the man in his bed, the pastor closed his eyes and began jabbering something Jennifer could make no sense of. The patient looked at her while this minister went on in his singsong repetition of sounds. The patient's eyes seemed surprised, then questioning. Finally he put his hand on the minister's bowed form and said something. The pastor looked up, tears in his eyes, and said, "Praise Jesus. Have mercy, O God, on this man."

"What were you doing?" Jennifer asked.

"I was praying in the Spirit for the healing of this man's soul." He furrowed his brow. "You know, you can try all the counseling and therapy stuff you like, but this man needs to come to Jesus."

"OK." Jennifer didn't know what to say.

"Only the Holy Spirit can release this man from the bondage he's in," the pastor went on.

"Look, maybe it's time for you to go. This man needs his rest." She feared she'd have to call Bill to get rid of this guy, but he merely frowned, picked up his large black Bible and left.

Jennifer turned around to hear the man with no name laughing. She smiled, then joined him, laughing from her gut until tears formed. He said something, a joke, she guessed. She nodded.

That afternoon a TV crew came. Jennifer had to be with another patient and arrived as they were finishing. A director kept her from entering the room until they had finished filming. Several nurses and a half dozen patients from that floor had gathered in the hallway to watch.

When they had finally departed, she went into the room and saw a look of horror on the man's face. Evidently the experience had terrified him. He moaned a word that had to be "Why?"

She said, "I'm sorry. I didn't want them to come." She took hold of his hand, thin and knobby, and held it in both of hers. He squeezed her one hand, then placed his other over hers. He continued moaning, and soon he was crying. They sat like that for a couple of minutes, until he became quiet and still.

That night at supper she said to John, "You should have seen this poor man. Those cameras scared him to death."

"I saw it on the news," he said. "He didn't look that scared."

"Well, I saw him later, and he was genuinely frightened."

"What's there to be scared about? They were just shooting film."

"Maybe he's never seen a TV camera."

"Maybe not," he said, then resumed eating.

She wanted to ask him what he had against the man, why he always contradicted whatever she said about him, but she didn't have the energy for another argument.

The next day Jennifer learned that the doctor had deemed the man well enough physically to be dismissed. Bernice told her, "He could have been dismissed earlier, but Nichols wanted to get the publicity from Channel 3. Besides, he's got nowhere to be dismissed to."

"I know," Jennifer said. "I've been working on that, but I haven't had much luck. No one knows where he came from, and the police are talking about turning him over to INS."

"INS? What for?"

"Well, since he can't speak English, they want to deport him. But they don't have any idea where to send him?"

"Everybody just wishes he'd disappear, right?"

"Yeah. Everybody but me."

Bernice gave her a look, then said, "He grows on you, doesn't he? Has his own kind of charm."

Jennifer spent much of the day on the phone with various agencies--the police, SRS, the local mental health center. By the end of the day, a judge had ruled that the man be taken to the state hospital in Topeka for evaluation. Meanwhile, the police said they would continue to pursue their investigation of missing persons. And the professor from Ashton State said he planned to visit the man as a field study. He'd be good for a journal article, Jennifer thought, maybe even a book. A guinea pig.

The hospital administrator told her a van would come around noon on Thursday to transport the man to Topeka. That morning, Jennifer stopped in to see him one last time. He had become accustomed to his room and was on friendly, if not speaking, terms with the nurses. He smiled when she came in.

She took his hand and patted it. She had decided that since she could not communicate with him through speech, she could at least show her concern via touch. Nevertheless, she talked in his presence, a difficult habit to break, and perhaps, she thought, the sound of her voice might provide some comfort.

"You're going to be leaving us," she said, and before she could say more, she began crying.

He frowned, seemed worried by her distress.

She tried to speak but could only cry. He put his hand at the back of her neck and pulled her head down to his shoulder. He murmured some unintelligible phrase and patted her back with his other hand. She thought, Oh my God, what if someone walks by? What will they think? How unprofessional. Then she let that fear pass and buried her face into the cotton gown of this man with no name who held her and whispered words she could not comprehend but knew well what they meant.

Soon her crying subsided, and she raised her head. "Thank you," she said. "I hope everything turns out all right for you." She stood there a moment, holding his hand, not wanting to let go. Finally, she said, "I have to say goodbye," and she waved, hoping he would understand that gesture.

He lifted his hand and waved back, either understanding her meaning or simply imitating her. She didn't know.

Jennifer was gone when the people from Topeka State took him away. She had cases to catch up on, and she was now even further behind on her paperwork. That evening she told John the man had been taken to Topeka.

He must have seen at least part of her sorrow. He said, "Maybe they can help him."

She wanted to say, "No, they'll just stick him in some bed, give him drugs and forget about him." Instead she said, "Yeah. Maybe so."

She told herself she would set aside some time the next day to write up this case. It wouldn't take that long. After all, what could she say?