Have you ever heard a robot talk? Have you ever heard a robot say, “Let me tell you about my time in the pornographic industry?”
What, that’s not normal?
Contrary to his own beliefs, Chris Rosati is no normal man. “I’m really no different than any of you,” he tells our class. “I worry very little. I eat like a pig. I haven’t had a vegetable in…” On March 20, Chris wheeled himself into my classroom. Everyone applauded at the sight of him. He just said, “Give me a minute or two,” and before you knew it, a robot put a voice behind his next words.
A monotonous deep voice began the presentation by sharing one of Chris’ stories about his beautiful chocolate lab. “We would sleep in the same bed every night. She was my best friend. She was my companion.” There was something so beautiful about the dichotomy of the emotionless voice and deeply emotional sentiments expressed. Chris cut in to finish the story. “Whenever I was stressed, she would come over and drop a tennis ball in my life as if to say, ‘Fuck it, let’s play.'” I had never heard the unconditional simplicity of the dog-owner relationship described with such perfection.
But it wasn’t easy – understanding Chris’ words. There was a disconnect in what his brain tried to communicate and the sounds that escaped from his lips. At first, it was hard to believe we spoke the same language. But the more I listened, furrowed my eyebrows, watched his facial language, and focused on the syllables, the easier it was to piece together his message. And over time, as I adjusted to Chris’ language, it became as quick and easy as the conversations I have in my head.
As I sat there, listening to Chris speak, I got to thinking about other times when I’ve struggled to comprehend what others were attempting to communicate. All technological malfunctions and language barriers aside, there is a larger elephant in the room that gets between one person’s brain and the other’s ears. We’ve all experienced it– a friend, significant other, family member, trying desperately to make you understand how they feel, but to no avail. I wonder, if we can get past the border of ALS with some care and effort, why won’t the same formula break through the emotional barriers between our peers and ourselves?
Generational gaps, gender standards, socioeconomic walls, language barriers; we all struggle to understand each other at one point or another. Chris shared a tribute video of his daughter being interviewed on Father’s Day. When asked what she will remember about him, Chris’ daughter responded, “He tried to make friends with the world.” All daughters think that their dads are heroes. I did. But Chris’ daughter understood something that can take many daughters 20 years to fully grasp. “Dads who think their careers matter in the slightest, are clueless.”
Despite Chris’ chronic condition, he spread laughter throughout the room time and again. At the end of his robot’s speech, we asked him “Why do you care so much about making others smile?” Chris responded, “I guess in the end it makes me happy, and I like being happy. Maybe I’m the most self-centered guy in the world.” And so he got it, another laugh from the crowd.
But Chris always compounded the laughs with truly motivational words. Inspiring tears across the room, Chris’ muddled voice assured us, “every one of you will be knocked to your knees one day. It will happen. Get up and keep living.”