July 5, 2020:
Sun. Summer. Sidewalk crowded with office workers on lunch. I'm on Market Street near the San Jose Museum of Art, meandering slowly southward toward the end of my break.
A young woman approaches, looking both bright and troubled. She approaches me with great concentration, facing me directly, so that when she speaks I see her lips clearly from the front. I immediately understand why. Dysarthria, a symptom of cerebral palsy. Although her thinking is unimpaired, she has trouble forcing her muscles to form words, so that her speech is muddy-sounding. It's a bit easier to discern words by watching her lips move. She uses only one: "Ewik?"
I understand she means to say "Eric". But I don't know what she wishes to communicate. Is she asking if I'm Eric? Or do I know where to find Eric? I'd like to help her but I don't grasp her meaning. "I'm sorry," I say sincerely. "I don't understand what you're asking." In the end she looks around, confused, walking away in what seems a random direction, displaying very minor symptoms of ataxia.
I think of her all afternoon. I'm troubled because she was asking something earnestly and I worry that perhaps she needed help. She reminds me of the palsied students in high school I tried and failed to protect. I feel there's something I might have done for her if we hadn't failed to connect.
At my desk late in the day I suddenly understand. It's the proverbial blinding flash: she was asking for directions to Erik's DeliCafé, two long blocks north of where we'd met. I imagine she probably was meeting someone there. She was close, but leaving me she struck out in the wrong direction, and maybe missed her friend, or her lunch date, and very certainly I could have helped if I'd cottoned-on in time.
This encounter took place in 2015, I'm writing this half a decade later, and I've thought of her with remorse literally every day since then without fail. I fantasize, often, that'd I'd understood in time. Perhaps I could have offered to accompany her? Maybe though that's patronizing. Perhaps better then just to point her the right way? As long as she finds her destination and meets her friend for lunch. It makes me so happy to imagine that outcome, and so terribly sad to admit that in reality she may well have not.
This hits me especially hard because she was so close, and doing so well, and if I'd been faster I could have been of use.