Aphasia

April 18, 2014 § Leave a comment

“Great Aunt Minnie, never asks why,
She’s so skinny ‘cause she never eats pie.
No no no no no means ‘aye.”

“Oh, Bra-vo, Ambrose, Bra-vo! Shelley, what do you think, was it his finest or was it his finest?”

“Truly magnificent, it was, and I think we’ll have a hit if Great Aunt Minnie has anything to say about it.”

Shelley nudges her sister in the direction of the corner, where a nonagenarian tortures her face in creation of an expression. A single tear creases across the wrinkles in her cheek. “Bra-vo, Ambrose.”

Six months earlier, Shelley, Sunnie, and Ambrose Gallant, at 43, 45, and 11, respectively, encounter the word “aphasia.” There are no dictionaries in the doctor’s office, except, of course for the DSM-IV, which Doctor Hoddinott is currently hogging, and has been grappling in his lap across the desk for over ten minutes when Sunnie speaks up.  “Well, that’s ok, doctor, I’m sure we’ve had our share of euphorics over the years, and then some – go on, give us anything in there, we’ll give you two Gallants’ve had it now or then.”

Dr. Hoddinott slams the book, bottom right heavy, on the desk between them and points to a picture of the brain, upside down. Pointing to a walnut shape on the frontal lobe, Sunnie’s right, he explains, “This is Minnie’s Broca.” And to a peanut on his own right, “Here’s the Wernicke. Minnie has undergone extensive damage to both regions.”

Sunnie stares at the peanut.

“If you don’t understand the aphasic’s thought process, you are going to have a lot of trouble communicating with her.”

Shelley follows the walnut.

“Let me put it this way.” Ambrose fixes on the doctor’s face.  “A few years ago a stroke victim came through the ward – a 340-pound woman with aphasia – Rita Latimer. The hospital was doing a lot of cutbacks at the time and nurses were in high demand, sharing the tasks of sometimes two or three floors. Rita never had the same nurse twice in a day. No one noticed when she started losing weight because no one noticed she was refusing all of her meals. In fact, it was a consequence of her aphasia that, thinkin to say yes, she actually said no. And the more adamantly she signalled her assent, the more threatening her refusals appeared to the nurses. She was both dreaded and reviled on the ward: the anorexic waif who wailed and tugged at your scrubs at the mention of food. Rita Latimer walked off the ward almost 200 pounds lighter, and every ounce of it weighs on the conscience of St. Michael’s.”

“So…” says Sunnie, thoughtfully, “she’s got her brooches mixed up in her wardrobe, is that right?”

“Hm,” from the doctor. “I guess that’s a figurative way of putting it.”

“And, saying she wants a green one, we’d best give her the red.”

“I’m not quite sure what you mean by that”

Shelley steps in. “She means she means to say what she doesn’t say, right?”

“In a manner of speaking, I think.”

“She means the opposite.”

“In Rita Latimer’s case, yes.”

Ambrose suddenly breaks his trance. “What does Ephesian mean, Aunt Shelley?” Twenty-four hours earlier, Shelley, Sunnie, and Ambrose Gallant discover the condition of their fortune. Great Aunt Dolly has died and left to them both the fortune and its condition: an estate on the Atlantic and the care of its inhabitant, the aphasic Great Aunt Minnie. They meet her in the corner of a couch in the living room, dozing in natural light.  She says groggily, “I want to stay here.”

Ambrose asks, “Can we, Aunt Sunnie?”

Shelley and Sunnie consult a medical advisor. Now the estate is empty on the Atlantic and Shelley, Sunnie and Ambrose share a room. Great Aunt Minnie drifts between a corner of the couch in the living room and her bedroom, formerly the room of Ambrose. She has said she doesn’t need so much room. When she asks for breakfast or lunch, she invariably gets none. When asked, she has learned to say that she would like a tuna melt for lunch. This is because she would actually rather eat cold turkey. But the psychology of the lesser Aunts is not always so simply discerned by an aphasic.

For instance, Great Aunt Minnie, spending the latter half of her life in the window of an estate on the Atlantic, misses quite sorely and often the sight and smells of a beach. In the beginning, she stupidly stated it baldly, “I’d like to go to the beach today.” To which she was bluntly assured, “We will never take you to the beach, Great Aunt Minnie” with a squeeze of the shoulder from the lesser Aunt Sunnie.

She tried again. “Shellley, I think I might try spending a quiet afternoon in the garden,” which, translated into the dialect of the Gallants, meant “Sunnie, I most definitely intend to spend the evening with Ambrose in the den. Perhaps he may grace me with a sample of his poetry.”  Thinking this a wonderful idea, the lesser Aunts left Ambrose with the aphasic Minnie for the evening, with instructions to disobey her entirely.

Ambrose is not a malicious boy. He is a poet.  He tells this to Great Aunt Minnie. “I am a poet.”  She doesn’t appear to respond. To Ambrose, a poet needs an audience. He tells her this, too.  No response.  The natural consequence of these two facts leads to an obvious question, “Will you listen to my poetry?”  But since Ambrose is not a malicious boy he cannot read for her if she says “Yes.” The Aunts say that means “No.” Since Ambrose is a poet, he is more sensitive than most boys, and so the sound of her rejection, as much of an assent as it really may be, may put him in a sour mood for reading poetry. Consequently, he does not ask Aunt Minnie anything. He reads all evening and into the morning, ignoring his bedtime.

In fact, Great Aunt Minnie hates Ambrose’s poetry, and she is quite sure that if the lesser Aunts hear their nephew’s poetry, they will hate it, too. Great Aunt Minnie can be a malicious aphasic, and she blames the lesser Aunts for exposing her to the poetry of Ambrose.  She devises a plot.

“Sunnie, she says. “I am not so sure that I wouldn’t like, for the first time, far into the future, to spend a quiet afternoon in the garden, quite alone and without my greater Uncles.”  She holds her breath.

“Shelley,” comes the translation, haltingly. “I am…most definitely adamant…that I would love…again…right now…to enjoy an evening with Ambrose in the den…with my lesser Aunts! What a wonderful idea, Minnie!”

The aphasic exhales, but makes a mental note to frown. And so, by now, Ambrose has recited his poem, for which he is pleased to have had an audience at last. Great Aunt Minnie tears and grimaces, disguisedly laughing at the artlessness of her relatives, their easy ambush, and their now permanent post in Ambrose’s growing audience. The lesser Aunts gush genuine appreciation from the crowd, having actually quite liked Ambrose’s poem, after all.

To view the original pdf, click here.

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