We visited my aunt last Friday afternoon. Living out of town, I haven’t made this pilgrimage for over two years. She is my mother’s 88 year old older sister. My brother, sister, and I walked into the home and immediately saw her, wrapped in a bright red sweater, across the lobby listening to music (what turned out to be Friday afternoon “Happy Hour”), sitting in a wheel chair. We walked right over. She recognized us, was teary eyed, in fact. We reminded her what our names were just in case she couldn’t remember. Her eyes showed recognition, understanding, comprehension, awareness, but she had few words. Sometimes there were recognizable ideas/ sounds in what she said. Sometimes there were clues. Sometimes it was just jibberish or parts of words, truncated sentences, fragments, pieces. She has lost the ability to communicate using speech. She has aphasia.
She seemed to suffer no frustration, however, in her lack of words, except for once when she just waved her hand as a kind of dismissal at her inability to get out what she had to say. Perhaps she is just resigned to her situation. She just moved forward with her utterances, attempting to ask questions, attempting to answer ours. We worked hard to understand her and sometimes were right on, trying to respond intuitively and honestly to her. “Ble, ble, ble,” she said asking why a photo we were showing her was in black and white (My sister figured this one out). “Sticka sticka sticka” referred to a photo of me when I was in my early 2os, wearing a low-cut top. She was trying to say I was sticking out and she laughed and nodded her head at our understanding of her observation. When she was introduced to my brother’s daughter, she said, “Oh, she’s adorable” as clear as day. And then there were the many times we had no idea what she was saying. The words were incoherent, mysterious, disjointed. My aunt always loved to gossip and talk about people she saw on the street. She began to nod her head in the direction of a man who was stacking chairs in the commons area of the home, letting us know she was talking about him. But all that came out of her mouth were secret and unintelligible shards, scraps, and snippets in an almost recognizable syntax, yet we knew exactly the flavor of what she was saying.
What does it mean to not have words, especially when one still has intelligence and clarity inside? How hard it must be to lose them. Can we still think without words? Or perhaps, how does our thinking change without them? Our words define us, create us, demonstrate ourselves to the world. They are manifestations of our personalities, of our dreams. Without them, we are without specifics and nuance; without them we can only respond in broad strokes and simplifications. But maybe that is the point. Maybe lacking words forces us to pull from deeper places inside, from those places that have no words to explain them anyway.
It was hard to see my very sensible, knowledgeable, acerbic, and vibrant aunt this way. But maybe making sense of the shards, scraps, and snippets was another way of coming home, a route on an uncharted map I never thought to access or imagine.
My aunt and I held hands and bounced them on the arm of her wheelchair to the rhythm of the “Happy Hour” music being played by a man on a guitar— just pleased to be together.
Moving. Observant. Insightful. What does it mean…
As a speech pathologist (I don’t work with aphasia) I was touched by your description of your aunt and your thoughts about language. I often wonder the same things.
I hope I run out of things to say before I run out of words. I was touched by your post. My family does not tend to live long enough to get in that position.