During the first year of my son’s life, I wrote a book-length poem titled “The Language Year,” in which I thought about his process of language acquisition, my role in it, and the complex relationship between love and language.
Peggy’s last year was a Language Year for me too, though different and not as sweet. After her stroke in June 2018, I think all who loved her were relieved that she had retained her power of language. However, as the months passed, her language changed and withdrew from her. At first, we conversed normally, and I spent many an hour with her at Cayuga Ridge chatting about home and children. Interestingly, her lifelong interest in talking about politics receded at this point–it was a marvel that she did not want to rail about the president for a change! A fond memory from these months is an evening when I streamed Nina Simone songs on my phone and she sang along, transported to a happier time in her life.
About two months into her recovery, she began to babble a bit. She grew fixated on the name “Crystal Sarakas,” the name of a local sonorous presenter on WSKG, the radio station which broadcast the operas Peggy loved so much. She repeated the name over and over, rhyming and changing it, sometimes into “Dukakis,” whom she must have supported, and more.
She went through a time in which she would cry “Crystal! Crystal! Oh, Crystal!” in a yearning voice. When she first arrived at Bridges, the staff asked me who Crystal was. While Peggy listened, I explained that it was the news presenter. Peggy nodded, with what appeared great relief, and I realized then that I had a role in helping to give language back to Peggy to explain what was happening to her.
That continued. When she had an episode of atrial fibrillation, I told her the name of what was happening to her body, and she sighed. Oh yes, she said, I have that.
Later, she spoke very rarely, and usually only single words in response to questions, Yes, No, I do. Those efforts seem to take a lot of energy. Once, when Jon Frankel and I visited, she burst out by saying Jon! Another time, when I read a poem by Inta Ezergailis, The Dress, and said off-handedly, do you remember when she wrote this, she said I do!
I explained more and more. I told her the month and date, the day of the week, the weather. I described the room in which she was sitting and the meal she was having. I told her the color of her blouse. She blinked with what I interpreted as appreciation. I believe her aphasia affected her ability to speak but not to understand. I wonder if it was not necessarily a deficit in the brain area producing language, but a physical deficit in the muscles which controlled swallowing and speaking.
To the end, I spoke directly to her and gave her information about what was happening. I felt that we had always been honest and direct with each other, and that it was helpful to us both. I hope I was right about that.
After the hospice nurse could not find a pulse and informed us that Peggy was near death, I said, Peggy, you are dying and that is the right thing for you to be doing right now. You have lived a long life, accomplished much, and you are going to rest now.
I am not sure if the ability to speak and to understand language develops simultaneously in infants. It is interesting and cruel that we can lose one or the other or both as adults. It feels very intimate to write about how Peggy and I spoke to each other in this tender year, much as it did when my son was a baby. Both were special times, this moment in which communication was deeply intertwined with a loving, empathetic amanuensis, a midwife into or out of independent communication. What an honor it has been to play that role now several times in my life, with both my children and now with Peggy.