There’s a lot of linguistic stuff happening in my family lately. Some of it is good, fantastic even, like the other day when my three and a half year old grandson’s eyes opened wide upon spying my cleaning lady swiping at cobwebs with a telescoping duster, and he said, “Wow. She doesn’t even need to use an arterial handler to reach up high.” Arterial handler, material handler–whatever. I love listening to him create and use language. New words stick to him as lint to Velcro. He rolls them around in his mouth, chews them up, savors them and digests them to nourish his rapidly expanding vocabulary. At times, words tumble out of him faster than his tongue can handle, and he stutters as he struggles to order his thoughts and put them into words. And, the marvelous part is that he is able to do just that with every-increasing proficiency and complexity. His one-year-old brother is developing his oral language skills mostly by shrieking so far, but also yelling his big brother Ben’s name (“Ba!”) as he crawls around after him or whenever he hears Ben in another room. Likewise, his 15-month-old cousin gleefully points out and declares, “Da!” at every sighting of a dog, large or small. I’m sure they will soon be wowing their grandma with their linguistic prowess as well.
Then, there’s my mom. An Alzheimer’s type dementia has been slowly but surely robbing her of her linguistic proficiency for the last eight years or so, and the decline has been particularly striking and heart-wrenching in the last six months. The first thing I noticed about eight years ago was that the sentence structure in her annual Christmas letter was much simpler than it used to be; there were virtually no complex or compound sentences. And, Mom was no slouch in the language department either. She prided herself on her precise enunciation and command of English grammar and corrected her children’s grammar at every opportunity. I clearly remember learning several fancy words from her as a kid: inclement (written in an excuse to a teacher as to why we had been delayed returning from a trip to my grandparents’ house), obstreperous (used to describe my brother) and loquacious (said about my sister Mary). As time went by, Mom started to have trouble retrieving common words and telling an organized story, much to her own frustration. Eventually, she forgot the names of many everyday items and had trouble expressing her thoughts, needs and wants. Nonetheless, she would amaze (and fool) us with her ability to utter appropriate cliches in response to certain conversation prompts or social situations. For example, up until recently, when asked how she was, she would invariably reply, “Well, I’m able to be up and about.” Or, whenever she would see me again after an absence, she would say, “Well, you’re sure looking good.” She should have been a politician! By last year at this time, Mom had pretty much lost her ability to carry on a conversation, but she still seemed to enjoy listening to the talk around her and could respond more or less appropriately to a direct question. But, over the course of last summer, she seemed more and more lost in her own world, largely unable to communicate any but the most basic thoughts and sometimes speaking incoherently. She was resorting more and more to gesturing, making faces, and laughing. Thank God for the laughter. She could still enjoy a joke and some silly fun. Just about the time when I thought her speech was no longer was making much sense at all, this past autumn Dad asked her at breakfast one morning, “Well, Ma, what are you going to do to piss me off today?” Without hesitating, she replied, “I don’t know, but I’m sure I’ll think of something.” Cracked all three of us up. Then Dad told me they had the same “conversation” every morning.
That was last fall. Mom fell at Thanksgiving time, and after a short hospital stay and a six-week stint in a nursing home, we moved her into an assisted living home in January. Physically, she has recovered from the fall, but being institutionalized did not do her cognition any good. With every transition she seemed to lose more linguistic ability to the point where now she carries on conversations mostly with herself. What she is able to articulate in words often doesn’t make any sense to those of us that adhere to more accepted linguistic norms, but she carries on as if she is making sense or reverts to laughter to smooth over the gaps in understanding. I guess that’s an old conversational trick we all use at times and another one that dies hard.
For my dad, of course, this process of watching and trying to deal with Mom’s mental decline has been devastating. It would be for any spouse. But, I can’t help feeling that for him it is especially hard because his way of interacting with people, including her, has always been about the B.S.– the banter, the debate, the verbal give-and-take, the expounding, the pontificating, the lecturing, the ranting, and always with the ear tuned for a smart rejoinder, a witty comeback, a new joke–something to incorporate into his own vernacular. Mom was his foil and (mostly) appreciative audience for over 60 years–laughing at his oft-repeated jokes and stories in spite of herself and sharing in the fun, even when it was at her expense. It was part of their public and private dialogue, their dialect, their dance. Now the dialogue has become a monologue, the dialect is becoming extinct, and the dance is coming to an end.
There is much research being done into Alzheimer’s dementia and how to relate to patients and understand their needs and the reasons for some of their bizarre behavior. Familiar music, old photos, and coloring all seem to help calm my mom and trigger some memories, but so far I cannot decipher this new language that her diseased brain produces and that she tries mightily to use. I can only cling to the moments when we share a laugh over something silly, she acknowledges that I’m her daughter, or at the end of a largely unintelligible visit, she hugs me and says as plain as day, “You can leave now, but you come back to see me.” And, I will go back, always hoping for a glimpse of the woman I used to know and whose advice and easy company I miss so much. I would give anything to discuss a book with her or to have her know her great-grandchildren, to marvel at their intelligence, teach them fancy words, and even correct their grammar.