Wednesday, June 19, 2013

All day, e'ry day.

I was talking to a man in clinic the other day. A big, strong man in his sixties with a deep voice and a throaty laugh. His muscle tone rivaled that of a teenager and at one point in the visit, he even pulled up his sleeve to flex a bicep for proof.

"Man, I bet I can still do more push ups than this young guy can do!" He gestured over to his resident doctor with a challenging twinkle in his eye. His doctor quickly waved his hands in full surrender, laughing out loud and assuring our patient that he was correct in that assumption.

"I even got the six pack still." Our patient pulled up the side of his t-shirt with one hand and pointed to his abdominal muscles with the other.

"Wow, sir. That's impressive!" His resident doctor couldn't help but release an incredulous chuckle when he said that. And me, I just smiled at the entire exchange because this patient and his doctor were enjoying one another and I think that's therapeutic.

"Do you exercise a lot?" I asked.

"I'm jest a doer," he said. "I get outside and mow the lawn, chop some wood, do some projects around my yard and other folks' yards. Do some push ups with my grandsons and sometimes run outside and play some football with 'em when these knees ain't bothering me."

"That's awesome." And I said that because it was pretty awesome to hear of the kinds of easy, everyday activities that had helped a man who was nearly old enough to get a social security check maintain a body like this. Kind of like he'd figured something out that we hadn't.

"How many grandkids do you have?" I always like knowing these things. We'd already reviewed the plan with him and were on to the pleasantries--which is often my favorite part of the visit.

"Nine of 'em. Five grandsons and four granddaughters. And love 'em all to pieces."

"That's so cool that you play football with your grandsons."

"Yep. All them grands is athletic like they granddaddy. I play basketball with 'em and even play some volleyball with my oldest granddaughter. She ain't thank ol' granddaddy could spike that ball but I had somethin' for her!" He laughed out loud and mimicked a spiking motion when he said it. We all joined in and laughed with him.

"You are the first granddaddy I've ever met who spikes a volleyball and has six pack abs. That's for certain!"

"You shoulda seen me when I was a young dude. I had a twelve pack back then!"

And this was how this part of the visit went. Fluffy, confluent laughter and animated gestures. Us asking and him telling and all of it bringing us closer to better understanding exactly who our patient really is.

His voice had this musical quality to it. Mostly southern but almost like a radio personality. And since his resident doctor was still entering in orders and preparing the after visit summary, I decided to ask a few more small-talky questions since I was enjoying hearing about his life so much.

"I like your voice, sir. Where are you from?"

"Right here, baby. Rights HERE!" He pointed at the floor. "I'm a Grady baby."

I playfully bowed before him. "Oh. . .man, that makes you royalty."

"Is that right?"

"You know it!"

"Did you play any sports in school or after?" I was curious about this, too. Any sixty-something year old man who was diving for a volleyball and tackling his grandsons in the front yard had to have a good sports story behind all of that.

"Sho' did. All day e'ry day! Played it all and was good at everything. You ever met somebody like that? Just pick up any sport and good at it?"

I smiled when he said that because we've often said this about our son Zachary. "Yes, sir. I know just what you mean."

"Yeah, well that was me. I could play anything you put in front a' me. Some of my grands is the same way. Bet one of 'em gon' make it to the pros long as they figure that school part out."

I nodded when he said that because he was right about the school part. I wondered if there was more to that, but not for long because he went on.

"Tha's what did me in. Well, that and the times, you know? I got all the way up to the eleventh and couldn't do nothing past third grade level. That held me back real bad. I was gon' play baseball or football at one of the colleges but couldn't because of that."

I furrowed my brow and leaned my chin into my hand. "Because you had trouble with your school work?"

"It was more than trouble. I can't read or write. Well--I take that back--I can write my name and some numbers down. That's about it. And them schools back then just pushed me on along. And when them college people came to talk to me they give you papers to look at and fill out. I was too shamed to say I can't read none of this. And it ain't like I could take it home and get mother or daddy to do it 'cause they ain't read none neither."

The resident doctor froze on the keyboard midstroke and looked at his patient. "Do you still not read or write?" he asked.

"Nope. No more than basic stuff. Like real, real basic stuff."

I have no idea what prompted me to ask this next question but I guess he'd just been so open that I felt comfortable digging a bit deeper. "What is it like. . . .I mean. . . you know. . . to . . "

He didn't make me finish that awkward query. "To not know how to read or write? Man! It's terrible! Terrible, do you hear me?" He shook his head hard and for the first time his face grew serious. His eyes became distant and quiet. So did his voice. "My biggest fear. . . . my biggest fear is the day one of my grandbabies look at me and ask me, 'Granddaddy, what do that spell?'"  He wiped his hand over his face and sighed hard.

I didn't know what to say. But really, what was there to say? This man had gone up to the eleventh grade without being literate. He'd been failed by a system and the whole thing sucked. Every bit of it.

"But you know what? I got hustle in me so I always made it happen. And usually I ain't had no problem admitting to folks that I don't read and write so I always managed to do stuff that don't require all that. I made my living and been jest fine."

"That's good," I said.

"It's jest that them grands came along and something about telling them that they granddaddy don't read or write? My voice jest go silent. Like I want them to feel proud a' they granddaddy, you know? And they are. Proud a' how they granddaddy do for them and do stuff with them like other granddaddies can't. I hate the thought of them being disappointed in me 'bout something basic as that."

"My bet is that there's nothing you could do to make them not be proud of you."

"I reckon you're right, Miss Manning. But that's still hard."

"I know." I wrinkled my nose and shook my head quickly when I said that. "I mean--I don't know. But I think it sounds really hard."

He sighed and gave his head one nod. "Yeah."

Instead of giving him a pre-printed after visit summary, we spent more time explaining the plan and the follow up appointments. We went to the social worker and looked on line for literacy programs and made a plan to explore programs for teaching adults to read. And our patient seemed genuinely excited about all of it. Even more excited than he was to show us his six pack abs.

Here is what I know for sure: Every single patient has a story all their own. Filled with experiences and triumphs and tragedies. Packed with thoughts and fears and beliefs and goals. And all of it is there just waiting for us to explore it, ask about it, hear about it. The journey becomes richer. The caring relationship blossoms into something symbiotic.

This moment with this granddaddy was just one tiny piece of my day in clinic the other day. It is a slice of humanity--the kind you have to slow down to savor.

And this? This is Grady. All day, e'ry day.

Happy Wednesday.


  1. I heard an interview on NPR once I'll never forget. It was with a man who could not read who made his living as a trucker. Now think about that- can't read maps, can't read signs. How?
    That man had to be so SMART. A genius. And your grand daddy there- the same.
    I sure hope he can learn to read for his grandbabies. If anyone has the spirit and the will, it's him.

  2. My goodness, what a powerful story. I remember the time when we found out an employee could not read. It was a moment that is imprinted on me. Unlike your patient, he was so defeated that he didn't want to learn how to read. It still saddens me when I think about him and knowing that he is not alone in his illiteracy, it is epidemic.

  3. I sure hope I'm reading this blog a year or two from now and find out that this granddaddy is learning how to read & spell. That would seriously make my... decade! I love this one.

    And I love you.

  4. Wow- What a neat story! You know, it reminds me of the movie "The First Grader" that is about a Kenyan freedom fighter who learned how to read at the age of 84. He wanted to learn how to read so that he could read a "Thank you" letter from the government commending his efforts to help Kenya gain its independence in 1963. The film details his struggles because he ends up having to go to a small, very poor primary school with little children who laugh at his old age, and parents who think that it's weird for such an old man to go to school with their tiny kids etc. Either way, it's based on a true story, and is a testament to the power of will and perseverance. I hope that your patient is able to garner the same will to read, and make his grands prouder ( although I'm sure they're already proud of him already!)

    PS: I should also add that in the movie, one of the elder gentleman's most steadfast friend is a little crippled first grade girl whose aspirations are to become a doctor :-)


  5. My husband said to me, "Did you read Grady doctor today?" So I came over here and read and I see so clearly was he was moved. I hope and pray this extraordinary man is able to become literate. I'm praying and visualizing him reading to his grand babies. Thanks for introducing us to him. I am glad there is you.

  6. One of my dreams is to teach an adult to read, in an adult literacy program. I am in awe that he revealed this to you. That is the first step, getting over the shame. Now he can start to learn. I , too, am glad you are there.

  7. It was a story such as his, and my grandmother not being able to read, and President Obama volunteer America, that I joined Project Literacy.


"Tell me something good. . . tell me that you like it, yeah." ~ Chaka Khan

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