Hearing and Writing the Words at Last: Jim's Story

Jeanette J.A. Holden, PhD, Queen’s University, Kingston, Ontario, CANADA

October 2006

It’s time again to reflect on the last 6 months and all that Jim has accomplished during the summer of 2006. Those of you from Ontario, or living here, will appreciate what spring is like here. It is quite magical to see the spring birds returning and snowdrops coming up from the cold earth. Fortunately, Jim also enjoys watching the signs of nature and the changing of the seasons. As soon as the days start to really get longer and the grass begins to turn green, Jim starts talking about cutting the grass with his tractor lawnmower! This past summer has been one filled with Jim’s new-found enjoyment of the garden and helping us construct a huge new garden with a walkway and wall of rocks from a near-by creek.

In early May, Mom, Jim and I decided that we needed to make more room for flowers because Mom and I really enjoy gardening a lot. Little did we know that this would become a passion for Jim as well. After being frustrated trying to hire someone to help us dig a garden, we decided to have a “Garden Party” – i.e. “making a garden” party! Our Team of Staff, Students and Summer Students came together and broke the ground! Not an easy task, but one that we all enjoyed enormously – including Jim, who helped by gathering the sods and bringing them to an area that we decided to build up on our very sloping back yard area – hopefully to house a water feature/pond next summer. He was thrilled to be a part of this happy and energetic group who welcomed him and included him each step of the way. The day was the start of a summer filled with digging and moving soil, collecting rocks for the wall and raised garden, planting, watering and finally enjoying the products of our toil! What had started out as a suggestion from Mom for another garden, turned out to be about 100 feet of garden in an area that had been only grass when we bought the house 2 years ago! Of course, we didn’t do all the digging and dirt-moving, but we did a lot, and most of the rocks were collected by Jim and his worker, Jo-Anne.

Jim was in charge of weeding the lawn – removing all kinds of weeds using a nifty tool that he became proficient at using. And he even dug a part of the garden by himself – an area that he decided should be garden! He helped plant some of the plants, and to water them. But his greatest joys were weeding and cutting the grass! He took on these tasks independently – at one point telling us that he preferred to cut the grass when Jo-Anne wasn’t’ there because she watched him too closely and Mom and I left him alone to work on his own. He actually said that he didn’t want Jo-Anne to follow him around as he cut the grass! When we explained this to Jo-Anne, she was delighted at his independence and we all now give him the room to work on his own! Sometimes when we went outside to walk around the garden or to work on the flagstone pathway, Jim would gather his weed-retriever and go off and work by himself, collecting all the weeds that he and we found and dumping them in the compost area.

Our vegetable garden didn’t get the attention it deserved this year, because of putting in the new beds, but when I started clipping some of the enormous weeds in mid-July, Jim asked if he could use the clippers! From someone who had difficulty figuring out how to maneuver through a doorway carrying a large box two years ago to figuring out how to use a pair of clippers, it was really something. It took a couple of tries, and then he was off and we couldn’t stop him – ah well, most of the garden plants he clipped came back (or didn’t….) – but he had a great time!

Our brother, Brian, and a colleague of his (Mike) visited this summer. Jim adores his brother and they went cycling together and Brian was amazed at all the new things Jim did. Remember that only a few years ago, Jim’s focus was on doing the laundry and vacuuming – having all these new interests was opening up a new life for Jim. Jim has always enjoyed music and Brian had his I-POD with him. Well, that was a huge hit, and Jim now has his own I-POD! I’m still figuring out how to add some of his other CDs to it (Brian kindly loaded it with a lot – but not everything!) As the weather gets colder, we are hoping that he will be able to start reading the lists of artists and songs by copying them on his computer, and using the Write Outloud program to help him read words. Remember, he can write hundreds of words, but reading them back is still difficult: he has not been able to use phonics because of his hearing impairment. However, he is starting to “get” phonics and hopefully by next spring, he will be able to figure out new words on his own.

Although Jim did continue with his writing at the computer, it was not his priority this summer. He preferred to be outdoors and to do things – to be a part of an activity that Mom, Jo-Anne and I enjoy a lot. As the weather has become cooler, he starts each morning at the computer before Jo-Anne arrives. And if she is unable to come, he continues writing alone. This has been really revealing. We have been working with him to write sentences, with all the articles and prepositions and fluid thoughts. When Jim is alone at the computer, he writes a lot of words that don’t make sense in the order he is writing them – one has to know him well and what he might be thinking about to figure out what he is trying to say. When we sort out the words and put them into a sentence, if we get the right context – he tells us (“yep!”). And when we are wrong, he also tells us (“No, no, no, no”) and he makes us try again. When he has written a string of 8-10 words, we need to take the time to figure out what he is thinking about. These are not random words – they are all part of a coherent story/sentence – it just takes a while before we get them all in the order that he wants them in. It reminds me of when I used to study for exams as a student – key words, that’s all I wrote down, because it was all I needed to know what I was thinking about. Perhaps he is doing the same thing. It’s a nuisance writing all the extra words just to make a grammatically correct sentence. Besides, this is also one of the most difficult tasks for people who have English as a second language. Also, he is trying to write down his thoughts as quickly as possible, while he thinks of them – and I do the same: jot down key-words before I forget what I want to say! I know this requires a lot of patience on another person’s part, but it is definitely worth it to learn what he is thinking about.

Taking initiative and being self-confident: It is clear from Jim’s work in the garden and weeding and also working on the computer, that he is taking control of his own life and taking initiative. He is self-confident and wants to do things on his own. One morning when Mom slept in and I was working in my home office, Jim decided to prepare his own breakfast – he was clearly hungry. When Mom got up, she saw the empty bowl and realized he did it on his own. He sometimes decides that he would like eggs at lunch time, and he prepares them himself – boiled or fried – with toast that he prepares too. These may seem like simple tasks, but his self-confidence has soared as he deals with things on his own and helps us out.

One last short story for now: On Thanksgiving weekend (Canadian Thanksgiving, that is), we went for a nice long drive in the country – to Picton and Prince Edward County – to have lunch and get some apples. It was a beautiful day, and the leaves were magnificent. The sun was going down as we drove home along Highway 2 (I don’t like busy highways, and this is a lovely country road). The moon was full and just rising above the horizon. It was incredibly beautiful. Jim noticed it before we did, and pointed it out. I mentioned that it was a full moon, and Jim said “shadow, the earth”. These are not words we use every day – in fact, how often do either of these words come into anyone’s daily conversations? I tried to figure out what he meant and realized that he might actually understand that the shape of the moon depends on the shadow that the earth casts on it. I asked him what he meant, and whether the earth made a shadow on the moon – and he said “Yes”. Jim never says Yes unless we are correct when we are trying to figure out what he is trying to say. When I asked how he knew this, he said “TV”. At some time, Jim must have watched TV and seen something about the earth revolving around the sun, and rotating on its axis and that the phases of the moon “reflected” these phenomena. There were two small miracles that day – Jim telling us about something he enjoyed seeing, and Jim letting us know that he put together an observation he made with something he had seen on TV – not just a “thing”, but a complex process.

Jim’s latest “garden toy” is a leaf vacuum/blower – we have some magnificent old trees (and young trees) on our property and Jim’s new job is to vacuum those leaves up and mulch them, getting them ready to put on our new gardens to protect the roses and other perennials. He is a pro! He loves it when the wind blows the leaves around, and he has to do more vacuuming!

Jim is clearly interested in the world around us – he noticed the moon, and he watches the leaves falling and knows that winter is coming. He sees the geese flying overhead and knows that they will come back in the spring. He knows the hummingbirds are gone now, but they too will return – and that the bluejays are waiting to be fed. And we learn so much from every word that Jim utters or writes, that his world is a happy one and that he enjoys belonging to it with everyone who is willing to share it with him.


Part 1

Part 2

Part 4

Part 5