By Josh Jordan
My mother and I sit in the car, staring forward, unsure of what to say. The October night seeps through the walls of the garage, through the metal of our old black sedan. I’m 15. Thick darkness surrounds us, tightening its hold as my mom starts the car.
“Do you think she will be the same?” I ask my mom. I know that neither of us knows the answer. Maybe asking this question is my attempt at trying to crowd the car with something other than cold air and doubt.
“Do you think she will still be able to talk?”
“I don’t know.”
We drive down the road without speaking. The soft tick of the turn signal provides a temporary reprieve from the quiet. The sky feels heavier tonight, pushing down on the car as we drive to the hospital where my grandmother lies.
In less than an hour I will see her—and I’m scared. I’m scared of the silence that will come when she cannot say my name.
Gilded rays of light flood into my bedroom through the holes in my battered shades. I open my eyes as the morning warms my face.
“It’s time to wake up, Josh,” my grandmother’s voice rings into the room as she lightly taps on the door. “Time to enter the land of the living.”
I smile as I hear her voice, pull off my covers, and begin my ascent into the day.
Two weeks after her stroke, I visit my grandmother in her nursing home. The image of her bound to a hospital bed still dominates my thoughts. Expecting the same vulnerable figure, tied helplessly to tubes and beeping machines, I am surprised to find my grandmother smiling, upright in her chair, sporting a tidy haircut. I run over to give her a hug, and in this moment, it’s as if nothing has changed at all.
And then she tries to talk.
Her mouth curls and her tongue contorts into unfamiliar shapes. She stares forward intently, using all the energy she can pull from her body in an attempt to form even a single word. But she can’t. When she looks at us, sees our blank stares, and realizes that we cannot understand her, she deflates with a sigh.
But her drive to make contact remains. Her words are gone, but her will to communicate—to express her love, her hopes, her frustrations—is not. Some days, after trying as hard as she can to create a sentence, inevitably ending in exasperation, she releases a deep breath, holds my hand, and smiles. Other days I do the talking. She always nods thoughtfully, but the veiled look of confusion in her eyes and the unchanging expression on her face always makes me wonder how much she comprehends. Yet we never stop listening, taking in the sound of each other’s voices.
The human urge to be heard does not fade easily. We have complex grammars and noises and songs that evolve, blend, change, like we do. And while my grandmother keeps trying to make words, she gradually develops signals and motions and sounds to take their place. Even in speech’s absence we create language in other ways, as if our bodies cannot fathom a world without it.
My grandmother can no longer understand me or make herself understood, but through the lilts and turns of her wordless speech, she still reaches out.
Laughter merges with clinking plates and silverware. My grandmother sits at the end of the table in front of a Jewish holiday meal she has prepared for 15 people.
Tapping a knife against a glass to command attention, she clears her throat and lights a single candle, preparing for the evening’s prayer. Bright specks from the candle glimmer in her eyes as she sings a Hebrew song I cannot understand. Her voice is gentle but cuts through the room with a calm confidence, a delicate and riveting softness.
Smiles flash around the table as we bathe in the warm light of her ancient lullaby.
On the first Thanksgiving after the stroke, I watch from the garage as my father struggles to lift my grandmother out of the car and into her wheelchair on the driveway. She grimaces, still not resigned to the dependence that now marks her everyday life. As she settles into the chair, both breathe a heavy sigh. I slip inside the house and wait there to say hello.
It has been over a year since my grandmother has been in our home—over a year since the tiny but insistent waves of her voice have carved out dwellings in the nooks of our rooms and the cracks between our sofa cushions. I wait anxiously in the kitchen, unsure of how she will react to a scene from her old life, when she still had her mobility and her words. The door to the garage opens. We are all silent for a moment as my grandmother looks around the kitchen where she used to tell me stories and helped me learn to read.
For the first time in my life, I watch my grandmother cry.
Later, during a pause in conversation at the dinner table, she clears her throat and begins to talk. As always, her speech is indecipherable, a quiet and thoughtful jumble of syllables and sounds that don’t quite make sense. We are sad, but we smile anyway.
It has been five years since my grandmother’s stroke. She lies sleeping, chest rising and falling with the labor of lungs in their last hours.
She’s silent, as always. But this silence is different. No humming, no waving, no way to tell us what she’s thinking. Her eyes—eyes that normally glimmer with meaning—are closed.
Six of us huddle around her bed, looking for something to say or do to fill the space around my grandmother as she becomes quieter, and quieter, and quieter. My father smiles faintly and speaks to her gently, carrying a one-sided conversation that we know she can hear, even if she cannot show it.
For a moment she opens her eyes. I do not know if she sees me, but she smiles. In that fleeting instant I can feel her voice again.
Her eyes close.
That night, I dream that my grandmother and I are walking side-by-side. I’ve had other dreams like this, but this one is the last I remember.
We are floating together in that space in the brain where dreams feel real, where everything seems too true to be a figment of the imagination.
No longer wheelchair-bound, she seems content, unhurriedly walking forward. She does not talk, although I know that she is able. For the first time in years I’ll get to hear the words that brought me to sleep as a child. I’ll get to wrap myself in their soft warmness one last time.
I ask a question so that I can hear her speak. She turns to me and answers with just a few simple syllables, but she is quiet, so quiet that I can hear her answer but not her voice. She does not speak again.
We continue walking, not talking, our feet gently tapping on the colorless pathway below us. As we stroll forward together I am calm, accepting that this is most likely my last goodbye.
I do not get to hear her words. I am disappointed. But some deep part of me has known since that cold October evening in the car with my mother that I would never have that chance again.
For years, I sealed away all the moments I shared with my grandmother before her stroke in a distant corner of my memory, coated in a thick layer of varnish to preserve their perfection. Over and over I replayed them—and judged each new moment by the impossible standards they created. I held on to the hope that things could one day be like they used to, that my grandmother and I could go on as if the stroke had never happened.
But as time passed, I learned to create new memories with my grandmother and to stop comparing them to the older ones. And when I did, I began to understand those old memories in a different way. I realized that there had always been something in my grandmother’s voice that moved me more deeply than the content of her speech. The way her song could absorb a room. The way the timbre of her voice could surround me in calmness, or how it could warm me on cold evenings. And these things transcend words.