Beyond words

My grandfather is now in a nursing home, following a series of medical events originally triggered by a broken hip. There have been a lot of ups and downs in his journey of the last six weeks. I’ve been particularly intrigued by the changes in his command of language.

Gramp readingHe can still read words on a page—I think. Sometimes he seems to simply page through the newspaper “as if” he’s reading; other times he’ll surprise me and read a headline out loud to me and comment on it.

And he still has many of the skills of conversation. He listens and nods and makes various expressions as if he’s participating. But, often now, when he talks, the words are not correct, though the intonation is. It’s like he has maintained the rhythm and cadence of conversation even while his vocabulary is slipping away.

What’s also interesting is that I feel like I can, in a sense, understand what he’s saying, even without the words.

It’s not like I could repeat the content of these conversations, because there really is no content. But I can sense that he is simply participating in his own version of small talk, just as a way of staying connected with family.

So I participate too. When he points out the window and asks, “What did he do with that gadget?”, I respond with something like, “I don’t know; it was there yesterday.” And he shrugs and returns to his newspaper. I have no idea what he thinks he was asking about, and maybe my answer sounds like nonsense to him. But it doesn’t matter. Mainly, he’s letting me know that he’s not completely lost in his own thoughts or unaware of my presence or his surroundings.

He’s using whatever words he has to let me know he is still here.

And I’m playing along to let him know that I know.

Words are simply containers. They hold the meanings we all assign to them, and we use them to carry our thoughts and share those thoughts with others. Gramp’s words no longer convey the meaning they were designed for, but they are not empty. They contain little pieces of our relationship, little understandings that go beyond words.

16 thoughts on “Beyond words”

  1. Love your idea of words being containers. My grandfather acted similarly when he could still communicate with us. One of the strangest things he said to me was “look at that little one sitting on your shoulder.” For some reason I thought he was talking about my baby girl, but who knows. He said it so sweetly. Lovely post, Melanie…

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    • Thanks Julie! I think sometimes it’s hard for people to “accept” a loved one who is different now than he was 10 years ago. To me, it’s helpful to remember that a person is more than just what I know of him—he has a whole lifetime of experiences and growth that are all part of him. My grandfather is not “less” of a man now. He’s different. But I’m still learning from him.

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  2. Beautifully written by one who cares deeply.
    I’ve heard it said that 93% of communication is non-verbal (voice inflection, intonation, body language, etc.)
    I’ll never forget the time I sat next to Brenda and your grandfather at a new members luncheon. Brenda’s love for her grandfather was transparent. I’ve never seen her so animated before. It was a joy to behold.

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  3. I’m so glad you visit him regularly. That’s part of the reason you understand what he is communicating even though you may not understand all the words.

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  4. Melanie, you have such a gift for putting things into words that aren’t always so easy to express. When Mary Lou was close to the end she gave me such a gift. She laughed with me. The CPAP machine that was helping her breathe was too tight and it was hurting her so the doctor came in and loosened it a bit. When she breathed out it leaked out and made a particularly funny sound. I said something to her close up and she laughed. That smile and that laugh and that last bit of our humor will be something I’ll never forget, it was a precious gift.

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