The Talk-Around

THE BOY IN THE BARBERSHOP mirror wanted a haircut for summer sleep-away camp. He was nervous and talked a lot. The clippers buzzed. The blond hair fell.

In the next mirror, a man just out of stroke rehab wanted a shave with his haircut. The barber couldn’t understand him. Partially paralyzed and mostly mute, he let his wife do the talking.

That would be me: The woman occupying a chair opposite the mirrors. The lone female in a room filled with men who were reading, yes, the sports page in, yes, actual newspapers because in this particular small-town barbershop — that would be the small town in upstate New York where I live — the use of cell phones is prohibited.

I studied the wood paneling and the various jokey signs that adorned it — including one that detailed the type of torture that would be inflicted on those caught flouting the phone rule. The conversation in the room focused on fishing and involved little eye contact. Hanging out in a barbershop was like walking into a men’s restroom. There was some unspoken code of conduct here that I didn’t get.

Cell phone injunction or not, I had to figure out — within the next fifteen minutes — if my husband’s medical records from the inpatient stroke center had been sent to the outpatient speech therapist. That’s where we were headed next. I also had to remind the pediatrician’s office to please fax our son’s vaccination records to the sleep-away camp. Which started tomorrow.

Because the kid in the first mirror belonged to me, too.

This was my biggest problem: Gazing alternately into two mirrors, I was having some sort of dissociative episode involving time. The future seemed to be hurdling toward the past like a rogue meteorite, and I no longer knew if I was young or old. What stage of life was I in? Was there even a word for my problem?

If you can’t find the right word, the inpatient speech therapist had told Jeff, don’t just fall into silence; talk around it. Okay, here was the talk-around for my problem: My backpack contained two handbooks. The first one advised me, the parent of a first-time camper leaving home, to avoid saying, “I’m really going to miss you!” and say instead, “Make new friends!” It was illustrated with cartoons. The second one advised me, as the spouse caregiver of an aphasic stroke patient returning home, to “keep up with hobbies and crafts!” It was illustrated with silver-haired couples in Florida condos. My backpack also contained an invitation to speak in the European Parliament about the public health effects of fossil fuel extraction. Which I was going to have to turn down.

But I’m really going to miss you! (Wait, what if I called public testimony a hobby?)

The next day, Elijah left for camp, and Jeff and I strolled slowly through our neighborhood, taking in the flower beds and porch décor. After our weeks in the neurology unit, the scene was lush. I noted that we had walked these same sidewalks to lull babies to sleep.

“How come we only got ten years between strollers and strokes?” said Jeff. Except that, because of the aphasia, he didn’t really say it.

Behold, declared the falling arm.

Why? asked the palm of the hand.

“I don’t know,” replied Jeff’s wife, who lifted his arm and kissed his hand.

So, this is what happened last summer: My son made new friends, learned to dive, and won an award for Best S’more Made with Solar Power. After suffering two strokes of unknown origin, my husband began relearning speech. Leaf, chest, knife, speed, clock, dog. The American Heart Association announced that the stroke rate among those younger than fifty-five had, over the last decade, increased 84 percent. I spoke out at local hearings against planned fossil fuel infrastructure projects. Before voting to fast-track one such project, the supervisor of a town board turned to me and said, “Ma’am, I don’t understand you. I don’t understand what you are saying at all.”

And the past hurled itself at the future.

Sandra Steingraber is the author of Living Downstream and several other books about climate change, ecology, and the links between human health and the environment. She was an Orion columnist for six years. Author photo: Laura Kozlowski.


  1. Oh, Dr. Sandra, how you touch all of us who know these cross-time, cross-tabulated sorrows of joy and purpose and resignation and determination and past and future. There is not a four-fold table, or even six-fold, to contain the categories of suffering and joy you describe in that sublime way of yours. My eyes fill with tears as I read this, as I am hope you hoped would happen to some who do understand you. My very best to you and Jeff, Elijah and Faith.

  2. Incredibly evocative.
    This connects on numerous
    levels and quantifies tensile strength of human spirit.

  3. Sandra, you are a beacon for me, as I look at my family and how they have grown the last two years while I was off fighting fossil extraction in IL. Your words remind me that we are all spirits having a very human experience and that split second of seeing a woman in a mirror between two men she loved so very much while her thoughts race from past to present- yes I can relate. You are a remarkable woman. Much love to your family, to Jeff and his healing, to you for strength, and to your kids for their patience and understanding.

  4. Sandra, Thank you for so poignantly letting us in on your life, and yet it has similarities to mine that your words touched my heart, and made my eyes leak. Seeing the picture on facebook of you and Jeff sitting on a couch, that is encouraging. Remember to take care of yourself, so you can be strong for the rest of your family. Recently I accompanied my husband to his two chair barber shop, and I can so relate. Your job as a parent is to give roots and wings to your children, and as scary as the world is, you are doing that,

  5. So what did you say to the commissioner who did not want to hear you speak against fracking or whatever it was? I figured from the title of your piece you were going to get political about how public meetings are a waste of everyone’s time, and a form of theater of the absurd…. The personal parts of the essay were a nice turn into the blind alley of talk as a form of NON talk.

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