72: The Language of Silence

72: The Language of Silence

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Family Caregivers

The Language of Silence

Love cures people—both the ones who give it and the ones who receive it.

~Karl Menninger

It was a beautiful day on August 13, 1996, when I returned home from attending the first seminar of the new school year. Shortly after I arrived, the phone rang. I recognized my mother’s trembling voice as she spoke. “You need to come to the hospital right away. Your daddy’s had a stroke. He’s conscious, but he isn’t talking to us.”

Daddy’s health had begun to deteriorate some time ago, and he was admitted to the hospital for a colon hemorrhage three days before my mother’s call. He would have been released the next day.

My husband and I left immediately to make the two-hour trip to the hospital. As we sped along the interstate, a flood of emotions hit me as memories of my father’s voice sped through my mind. “Daddy’s speech silenced?” I asked myself. The man who taught me to write my name, who sent me an Easter card signed “Daddy” when I was four, and later drilled me on my spelling words was speechless. As a storyteller, he could make you laugh or make you cry as we sat around the woodstove on a winter night. Enchanted, I listened time after time as he told about the day of my birth on a frosty Easter Sunday morning.

After what seemed like days, we turned into the parking lot and found the spot closest to the hospital entrance. I ran up the stairs to his room where he lay amid a tangle of wires. Brushing back tears, I touched his hand, but his only greeting was a smile. I knew he recognized me. As the nurse suctioned out his mouth, she said, “Who is this pretty girl?” but he remained silent.

Only a week before, I had driven him and my mother through the countryside where he grew up. Each home and family prompted a story. Now my mother and I sat with him through the night and into the next day, and I saw the depth of grief in her eyes. The test results showed he had suffered a massive left-brain stroke, which left him paralyzed on his right side and a victim of aphasia—the inability to speak and process language. Doing research, I learned that one out of three stroke patients experiences aphasia. The recovery of speech depends on the severity of the stroke. Daddy’s stroke was severe.

He did manage to say two sentences in the first few days. When I asked him what time it was, he looked at his watch and said, “It’s twenty till one,” which was correct. Another day, he said, “I’m not going to get any better.” That prophetic statement was the last sentence I would ever hear him speak. Yet, he seemed to be aware of his surroundings most of the time.

When I asked him what time it was, he would immediately look at his watch. If I told him it was raining, he looked toward the window and watched the rain splashing against the windowpane. When I asked him to look at the sunset, he watched the sun until it dropped over the horizon.

Daddy spent 17 days in the hospital, and each day was like a cliffhanger in a TV serial as I called my mother, waiting for any change in his speech and physical condition. The physical therapist and speech pathologist continued to work with him, but he made no progress with his speech or motor skills. All he could utter was an occasional “yeah,” “oh,” and “good.” So, he was moved to a nursing home.

I became angry, frustrated, and bitter. I missed him the way he was before the cruel stroke silenced his conversations with me. My heart broke as I watched him struggle with frustration when he could not release the words he wanted to say. Then I started thinking of ways to communicate with him by means other than speaking, and my anger dissipated. One of my aunts gave me an idea when she said, “Reckon he could write something?”

I gave him a notepad and pen, but he could only make a few straight lines. They made no sense to me, but maybe they made sense to him, and I encouraged him to continue making marks. I longed to teach him to write his name as he had taught me to write mine, but maybe he already thought he was writing his name.

Though it meant separation from my family, I went home every weekend to be with my parents. If my dad couldn’t speak, my presence would comfort him, knowing he was not alone.

I drew pictures of objects on white index cards with a black marker. They included a sketch of the van he used to haul produce to market. I cut out pictures of fruits and vegetables, which he had grown on the farm. I set up a flannel board on his bedside table. Pointing to the pictures and repeating their names, I asked him to say them, but he remained mute.

When he looked at pictures of family members, he would sometimes cry and sometimes smile. I always wondered what he was thinking in his silence during the times he was connected.

I read children’s books to him, changing the conversations to show the grandfather as a main character doing the speaking. He smiled when I read All the Places to Love by Patricia MacLachlan.

One day when my sister was home she told me, “He absolutely loves that book Country Road by Daniel San Souci.” She and other family members continued to read to him and show him the cards when I couldn’t be there. As I wheeled him outside to look at the trains on the railroad track, I retold the hobo stories of his youth when he hopped freight trains to find harvest work.

Sunday was the hardest day of the week because I knew I would have to leave him and my mother until the next weekend. Before I left, I took him to the church service in the activity room where I hoped to keep language alive through the preaching and singing.

Daddy stayed in the nursing home for nearly three years with no change. I realized it was not just he who benefited from my visits. I found myself enjoying these activities and looking forward to the weekends. Karl Menninger says, “Love cures people—both the ones who give it and the ones who receive it.”

As I held his hand, one late winter morning in March, he turned his face toward the light in the window and breathed his last breath. I feel he was taken to heaven at that moment. Twelve years have passed since the day he left us. Though he was silenced during his last years on earth, I know he was healed and made whole again. And I wonder now what story he is telling to entertain the angels.

~Janet N. Miracle

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