'If' a song and a story

I have been diving deep into the transcendental work of Akira the Don. He created a piece with Jocko Willink reading “If” by Rudyard Kipling. The combination of Akira’s hip hop sorcery with the bold voice of Jocko reciting one of the most remarkable poems ever written took me to a place, or perhaps a feeling, I had all but forgotten.

When I first started my graduate studies, I expressed my interest in working with adults. I was fascinated by aphasia, the acquired loss of language as the result of brain injury or stroke. I was given the opportunity to treat a client we will call John.

John was an elderly Jewish man, 2 years post left-sided stroke. He had some difficulties speaking at the sentence level and his cognition was impaired because of mild dementia. His lovely wife Glenda would join him for therapy. She drove and transported him to the clinic, holding under his arm with the care and strength we’d all be blessed to have from our spouse.

John had an exciting but tragic life. He was a teenager in Poland during the second world war. He was fortunate enough to escape with Glenda, but their families stayed and were lost to the atrocities of Auschwitz. Upon his arrival in the U.S., he enlisted in the army to fight the evil that tore apart his home and killed his family.

He never got to see combat, but he made many good friends in the military. When the war ended, he came back to the U.S. He invited Glenda down south where he was stationed after the war. Glenda told a story about how John tricked her into eating at KFC by telling her the K stood for Kosher.

“It was the crispiest chicken I ever had!” Glenda would add as she smiled and rubbed her hand down John’s old, withered face.

They moved back to New York, got married and had a family. They are blessed with children, grandchildren and several great grandchildren.

Since it was difficult for John to complete sentences, we would work on using familiar concepts to improve his verbal output.

Every time John entered; he would ask me if I was Jewish.

“No, I’m Italian.” I relished this moment because every time I told him I was Italian he would pat his chest and say “Oh my dear friend is Italian. We met in the army. He is my favorite person; I can’t wait to see him again. We have such good memories.” It warms my heart to remember the sincerity in his voice.

He was referring to his friend Carl who he met in the military. Carl had passed away twenty years ago from lung cancer. Sometimes after his exuberant recollection, he would ask Glenda when Carl was coming over.

Sessions would be a cycle of pulling him into the present moment, redirecting his excitement about Carl and talking about the scheduled family events he had coming up. The semester flew by and I found myself preparing for my last session with John.

My supervisor had told me that he loved poems. Since I was unsure which ones he liked, I printed a bunch of my favorites. The plan was to name titles and see if they sparked any recollection. The top of my list was ‘If’ by Rudyard Kipling.

Our last session began like all the rest. After the Italian uncovering, right before the nostalgia of his long-lost friend, I asked John “Do you like poems?”

“He loves poems!” Glenda shouted from beside him.

“Why do you yell when I’m right here?”

“Because you don’t hear me half the time,” she said as she slapped his shoulder.

Their banter was always amusing.

“I figured since it was our last day, we would do something different. Have you heard the poem If, by Rudyard…”

“Kipling… Yes. I read that poem to my boy, my only son.”

He attempted to begin the poem, as his mind tried to connect with the circuitry of the motor pathway to create words. I saw his struggle, so I began reading.

I would read a line and he would nod his head, muttering the words under his breath. He began finishing the sentences on his own.

“If you can dream and not make…”

Dreams your master!

“If you can think and not make…”

Thoughts your aim!

He ended every stanza with “You’ll be a man my son!”.

We finished the session without a dry eye in the room.

John looked at Glenda. “Why are you crying?”

“Say thank you to Matt, this is your last session together.”

John looked at me. He did his usual up and down scanning of me.

“Are you Jewish?” He asked as he pushed himself up from his seat. I stood up and put my hand out. He grabbed my hand and shook it firmly; with a strength I didn’t think he still had.

“Go be a man, my son,” he said as he nodded. He turned toward the door. Glenda smiled at me with her watery eyes. She thanked me as I held the door for them.

John passed peacefully in his sleep a few months later. He was surrounded by his loving family.

The remarkable thing about speech and language therapy is not knowing what or when something will click. You don’t know what will spark the synaptic impulses, or whether what you are doing is making a difference or even working.

But like most things in life, the truth reveals itself in moments. Life is nothing more than a sequence of moments. You prepare, you show up, you execute, often without any external feedback from the world. But when it does connect, you realize that a moment is all you get. And that moment is enough.

Here’s the link again to If by Akira the Don and Jocko Willink. The lyrics for If are listed below.

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If by Rudyard Kipling

If you can keep your head when all about you   

    Are losing theirs and blaming it on you,   

If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,

    But make allowance for their doubting too;   

If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,

    Or being lied about, don’t deal in lies,

Or being hated, don’t give way to hating,

    And yet don’t look too good, nor talk too wise:


If you can dream—and not make dreams your master;   

If you can think—and not make thoughts your aim;   

If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster

    And treat those two impostors just the same;   

If you can bear to hear the truth you’ve spoken

    Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools,

Or watch the things you gave your life to, broken,

    And stoop and build ’em up with worn-out tools:


If you can make one heap of all your winnings

    And risk it on one turn of pitch-and-toss,

And lose, and start again at your beginnings

    And never breathe a word about your loss;

If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew

    To serve your turn long after they are gone,   

And so hold on when there is nothing in you

    Except the Will which says to them: ‘Hold on!’


If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,   

    Or walk with Kings—nor lose the common touch,

If neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you,

    If all men count with you, but none too much;

If you can fill the unforgiving minute

    With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run,   

Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it,   

    And—which is more—you’ll be a Man, my son!