Friday, December 5, 2014

Lost in the wilderness

Penelope Lively writes in Moon Tiger, "Language tethers us to the world; without it we spin like atoms ... I control the world so long as I can name it. Which is why children must chase language before they do anything else, tame the wilderness by describing it, challenge God by learning His hundred names." 

I’ve read and reread this passage because it so eloquently expresses the plight of my mother, who several years ago had a stroke that caused little damage to her body but impaired her ability to speak. She often starts a sentence but loses her way before she can finish it. In particular, she finds it almost impossible to find the right noun or to recognize that she has used an inappropriate one. She can say “rabbit pellet” in place of “grape” and wonder why her listeners are surprised.

It seems especially cruel for this particular affliction to befall my mother, who had a way with language. She didn’t speak the way I imagined other mothers did. Her language was arch rather than emotive, allusive rather than specific, abstract rather than concrete, stylized rather than direct. But she was articulate, she got her point across, she held the floor, and she was proud of it. So it’s interesting to me to examine the few complete sentences she has uttered recently.

During my last visit, she complained repeatedly, “I don’t have any money,” and asked again and again, “Where are my keys?” She has no need for cash or keys these days. She never goes out on her own and never makes a purchase. Her only outings are to doctors, always in the company of her home aide. And my sister-in-law and I write checks for the few bills that are not on auto-pay. I think it’s not cash or keys she wants but the autonomy they represent. And autonomy—the reality or the word—is something she’ll never have again. I can’t give her that. So I fetch her keys and put a bit of cash in an envelope for her to keep close by. It’s not what she really wants, I know. But it’s what I can give her, and it seems to appease her, for the moment.

Recently she told her home aide, “There’s something coming out of my body.” What she meant was that she was having a bowel movement. She didn’t used to be so delicate. Perhaps she does not call a thing by its name because she can’t remember how to say it. But perhaps she doesn’t want to acknowledge the specifics in a life that has been reduced to the simple acts of survival—eating, pooping, sleeping. 

And she sleeps a lot. She used to spend her post-retirement days reading: at least two daily newspapers front to back, plus Time magazine and the New Yorker and the New York Review of Books every week, plus books. But her attention, or maybe it’s her eyesight, has weakened. So she’s bored, or maybe depressed. So after a 12-hour night, she sleeps an hour or two after breakfast and often some more after lunch. Her sleep life is livelier than her waking life, and she sometimes finds it hard to differentiate between dreams and reality. One day on my last visit, she told me excitedly, “Someone came into my room last night while I was sleeping and offered me chocolate.”

Lately many of our conversations betray a wish for things to be different, mostly for her children to live with her. The other day, she asked me on the telephone, “Why do people take showers?” To keep themselves clean, I said. “Do you take showers?” Yes. “Why don’t you come here then and take a shower?” Referring to her kind and competent home aides, she told my younger brother that she was spending her life “with strangers.” And sometimes a little bitterness creeps in. One of her aides and I were discussing things we wish we had done differently as parents. I turned to my mother and asked her whether there was anything she wished she could change, and she replied, “My children do not comply with my requirements.”