I’m writing a second piece on the same patient, for a change – because Soukaina’s story isn’t finished. In the weeks since I posted my initial description of her, she has truly and amazingly come alive. She has cast off her shadows, and seems to have beaten the depressing psychiatric odds with which I ended that first post.
It began with laughter. A kind of bubbling energy she simply could not keep inside. An entire Thursday morning meeting once played itself out to the underlying soundtrack of Soukaina’s bursts of hilarity. Like a steady rhythm, she accompanied other patients’ words, sighs, and tears with her own uncontrollable snorts, giggles, and whinnies. The same impulse would get the better of her when out and about on the ward; the tiniest odd sound could set her off. She tried to hold it in, she really did – hands shielding her mouth like a prison door, the head pressed tightly into her knees, she did her best to maintain an internal sense of order. But to no avail; she seemed beset by an effervescence too large for her small frame.
Her laughter then paved the way for words. Cautious utterances at first: a tentative “mezyane” (good) or “nglis?” (can I sit?). But with every passing day, her voice grew stronger and her communicative overtures bolder. And last week, this development culminated in an actual conversation. She and I sat side by side on a bench in the sun, my hand in hers, as she asked me question after question. Where was I from? Where were my parents? Did I have brothers and sisters? Where did I live now? Did I live alone? What was my job at the hospital? How old was I?
This conversation likewise had its own laugh track. Everything I said prompted a burst of giggles. Maybe, I remember thinking self-consciously, it’s my horrible pronunciation of Arabic. Maybe it’s my strange blonde hair, or the way I look at her. But maybe it’s simply her own joy at the lifting of that mental cloud – and maybe it’s all of those things at once.
But mostly, I remember, I simply had the urge to giggle along with her. I responded to each of her questions with one of my own, and I reveled – as she sat there with her eyes full of recognition; as she revealed her self to me. I reveled in the possibility of being able to actually listen to her.
There was an urgency to it all. We talked as though we were making up for lost time – or perhaps as though we were afraid this window might close up just as quickly as it had opened. But the next morning, when I found her again in the courtyard, our conversation simply continued.
This time she requested to see photographs of my family. I took her with me to the doctor’s office, opened up my laptop, and showed her a collection of pictures. Again, her reaction was strong and fizzy. It was the details that seemed to strike her most – the color of my sister’s dress, my father’s glasses, a can of coke in the background somewhere. It all met with an explosion of laughter, and constant, repetitive requests for me to explain what was shown in the picture.
After lunch on that same day, it was she who dragged me back to the doctor’s office. I once again opened up the pictures of my family – but that’s not what she wanted, this time.
“Show me pictures of the king of America,” she now demanded.
I smiled, toyed briefly with the idea of interpreting that creatively, then connected to the internet and searched for a few pictures of Barack Obama.
Soukaina showed a decided preference for a set of photos depicting the president along with his family. Old wedding pictures, or professional portraits of the Obamas with their kids. Again Soukaina responded with laughter, and endless requests for me to identify each individual in the frame.
Her favorite photo of all showed Obama’s two young daughters, gleaming on a stage somewhere – a snapshot moment during the campaign trail, no doubt. Soukaina stared at it for a while, as though caught by something; then pointed to Malia’s dress and looked me in the eyes.
“what do you call that color in French?”
“Rose,” I responded. “Like your pajamas.”
Soukaina looked down at her own chest, looked back up at the picture, then turned to me.
“Rose,” she repeated, and once more burst into laughter. She leaned in, hugged me close, then kissed me on the cheek. I couldn’t help but laugh with her. I was mystified by the connection she had just somehow made, the recognition she had found in that picture of two unknown girls –
… but I loved it.
And I hope with all hope that she holds on to this clarity and joy…