At the end of a busy, varied life, my mother was hit by a series of strokes, at first so minor as to be almost unnoticeable, then becoming more serious. Gradually, very gradually, her speech deteriorated.
At first it was as if a poltergeist was moving her words around, in a very subtle way. ‘Butcher’ would become ‘baker’, ‘garden’ would become ‘pavement’. Or ‘butcher’ might become ‘pig’, ‘garden’ become ‘flower’. The sentences were often surreal (and sometimes hilarious) but listening to her speak you could not only find the meaning but see clearly the way in which the thought process had been scrambled.
Later on, the substitutions were much more extreme, almost random. ‘Butcher’ would become ‘wine glass’, ‘garden’ become ‘doctor’. And her speech became halting, uncertain, fragile. It was impossible to tell if the problem was that she couldn’t form the thought, or whether, having formed the thought, she couldn’t articulate it, couldn’t bring it into the world. The process was clearly extremely disturbing for her, and extremely disturbing to witness. And of course there would be the agonizing guesswork, which was occasionally successful, but more often led to nothing except frustration.
It was not all misery. She evolved a brilliant method of keeping a conversation alive, by using the interviewer’s trick of repeating the last few words of what the other person has said, and making them into a question, and by deploying a series of stock phrases that she had always been fond of – ‘by and large’, ‘who’s to say?’, ‘better than nothing’…. With these familiar phrases, and the familiar way in which she spoke them, she maintained a fragile identity in the midst of the disintegration of her speech. And occasionally she would come out with a perfectly formed sentence, and we would all be triumphant – those of us that heard it; the problem was that my father had become very deaf, and I suspect that when the two of them were alone he often missed these beautiful sentences completely.
I’m contributing to Stroke Odysseys in her honour.
Written by Orlando Gough