51: Runaway Words

51: Runaway Words

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Living with Alzheimer's & Other Dementias

Runaway Words

Language is the blood of the soul into which thoughts run and out of which they grow.

~Oliver Wendell Holmes

My husband Jack was a man of few words, which is a funny thing to say about someone who adored them. Quiet and introspective, he loved everything about words — quirky spellings, pronunciation and, of course, their meanings and origins. The man was not a bookworm but a book python, devouring the printed word in all forms, digesting every vocabulary word that came his way. He read two newspapers every day, did The New York Times crossword puzzles, and subscribed to countless magazines, including The New Yorker, Harper’s, The Atlantic, and The Smithsonian

Jack was also a bit of a word snob, and liked to throw them around from time to time in our blue-collar city. He often introduced me to people by saying, “Rose is a peach and that’s a conundrum!”

Later, when our daughter came along, he referred to us both as his “Peachy girls!” Once, we got into a crowded elevator in a city hospital. An uncomfortable silence had fallen over the shoulder-to-shoulder group, when Jack announced loudly, “I did not like that doctor. He was too effusive!”

From the back of the crowd, a man said, “What a great word!” They laughed together and shared a hearty handshake as though they were members of some secret lexical brotherhood.

Jack read with a little notepad by his side and wrote down words as he went along. Sometimes they were words he didn’t know, but mostly they were words that caught his fancy and he wanted to research later. I recently found a slip of paper, three inches by three inches, with sixty-two words on the front and back, written in his neat printing. Such words as cupidity, threnody, miasma, and pullulating fill this scrap, most crossed through to indicate completed homework. This reading was done before online dictionaries: his battered three-inch-thick Living Webster Encyclopedic Dictionary was his constant reading companion.

The man read all eleven volumes of Will and Ariel Durant’s The Story of Civilization twice, and was attempting it a third time when he was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s at age fifty-nine. Jack had to give up his job as an art teacher and together we began a slow journey of losses. But the most tragic for him would be the loss of words. He told me, “The words see me coming and they run away.”

At the suggestion of our doctor, Jack and I began to keep journals. Jack’s was to help him remember things such as appointments, agreements we made and, most importantly for him, notes about his reading. It frustrated him to read one day and not remember any of it the next. It felt like starting the same book over and over. So many of his journal pages are notes on the topic he read, the dates involved, and the page numbers. I am not sure if he found this helpful.

In Alice Walker’s The Color Purple, we see the main character Celie grow as a person. Her writing at first is rudimentary and we have to guess at words and meanings. But as time goes on, she gains her voice, learning how to read and write with clarity. Jack’s journals, to me, are just the opposite. We see the progression of his long journey, with his spelling and syntax falling to ruin. Examples of his new words include squerills, corderoe, maneuvors, comradite, bran mufee, buryall, and messaric.

After six years at home, our lives became more complicated with a diagnosis of colon cancer. A few months later I had no choice but to place Jack in a nursing home. I would visit him daily after work, watching him become quieter and quieter. Every now and then a window of lucidity would open. I treasured those moments!

Once he told me that seeing me was like going out on a first date, over and over again. Another time he proposed marriage and, when I informed him that we were already married, he said, “Oh, boy! We’re going to have fun tonight!”

Gradually he spoke less and less, and then all the words were gone. I can’t tell you when I noticed this for good; it just slowly happened. I miss his repartee, his intelligence, his kind and loving words.

After Jack died, I went through his beloved library and sold many of the art and history books to a good friend for his bookstore. I still have his dictionary and the Durant collection. I can’t part with them when I know his fingerprints are on every page. I have promised the history set to our son Kevin, and one day the dictionary will go to his peachy girl, Heather. Their dad would be happy to know his treasures have remained in the family. These words are staying right here.

~Rose M. Grant

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