More than Words


My mother talks and talks. Often our phone calls reach a point where I impatiently interrupt her, “Mommy, just tell me the short version!” Her stream of consciousness is torrential, and I have to avoid it so I can get on with my day. Whatever she’s telling me—an account of a play she’s seen, a dress she’s bought, or an encounter at the dog park—she goes on, elaborately and excessively, relishing the telling of her story with an absolute disregard for the constraints of time. My mother’s sentences, spoken and written, are run-on, exuberant, and ornate.

My mother argues unnecessarily, irritatingly, uncontrollably—the fifty-year-old habit of a practicing attorney. She will argue the sky red and the earth flat, just for the sport of it. You will never win.

My mother questions. She wants to know everything about everything; She’s a collector of information and a gatherer of facts, details, and data. She questions authority, and the status quo, and strangers on the street. Meet my mother at a cocktail party and she will ask you a thousand questions about what you do, where you come from, and who you are. She is relentless.

But four weeks ago, my mother had a hemorrhagic stroke. Her contractor found her too deeply asleep in her bed. When he roused her, her speech was garbled and incoherent. She was taken to the hospital, enraged and insisting that she was absolutely fine. By the time she got there, she couldn’t tell anyone her name.

Over the next days, her speech deteriorated. Many of her words had disappeared, replaced by a vocabulary of nonsense words and syllables—what the doctors called “word salad.” On a whiteboard on the wall in my mother’s room, the nurses wrote down her made-up words. “Devreel” was one, as was “Devroneel,” and “Breel.” We tried to figure out what these words meant, but they were meaningless—rude, unwelcome impostors crowding out the real words she wanted to say. “Devreel” stood in for everything from “toothbrush” to “telephone.” Devroneel could mean “my dog” one day, “my house” the next.

My mother had a large bleed in the left hemisphere of her brain, in the area where the language centers are located. In these centers, the brain organizes the patterns of language—word choice, inflection and pronunciation controls, nouns singular and plural, tenses future and past, determiners and prepositions—all the ingredients of your words and sentences.

Here’s what happens every time you say a word: Your brain selects a word from your mental dictionary, then interprets the lexical entry, identifying the meaning of the word, how to pronounce it, and so on. Then, your brain determines what physical combination is necessary to produce each sound in the word, and instructs the motor cortex which muscles to move.

The science of language and the brain is overwhelmingly intricate and hard to understand. It seems that no one really understands it perfectly. In the abstract, I suppose it’s fascinating. I never knew any of this before. Unlike my mother, I am not a ravenous seeker of information. I am passionate about learning what I need to know, but there are some things, like cars and computers and bodies, of which I don’t understand the inner workings. I’m content to simply use them, and expect them to function reliably and well. I wish I didn’t need to know about the language centers of the brain. I just wish my mom could still speak reliably and well.

More than Words 1It’s called aphasia, this thing that silenced my mother. It is a communication disorder caused by damage to one of the brain’s language areas. When the trauma occurs in the posterior region of the brain, where my mother’s bleed happened, speech usually remains fluent—the inflections and rhythm sound normal—but it is full of wrong words or made-up words. My mother still sounds exactly like my mother, except for the words.

Mothers and daughters have a language of their own. My mother’s cadences and inflections, her facial expressions and body language, tell me most of what she wants to say, words or no. After two short weeks, I could decipher and interpret and translate. I told other people what she meant, and she didn’t like this. My mother has always spoken up for herself, “in spades,” as she would say.

She was so angry, at the insult of her inability to be understood, at everyone who doesn’t understand. At me, especially, those times when even I couldn’t understand. She would rant and rage, until I finally, triumphantly, guessed at what she wanted, “Oh Mommy, you need your glasses!” She’d reply, with extreme exasperation, “Yes, that would be nice.” She was sarcastic and condescending. I was an idiot.

The right side of your brain stores your habitual expressions—the figures of speech you use so often that they become automatic, stored intact in your memory bank, like a musical phrase from an old favorite song. My mother’s characteristic idioms, the figures of speech with which she routinely decorates her sentences, remained intact. “In other words…” still came out perfectly, or “I must say that…” “so perfectly lovely,” “just the other day I…” Many things were, as always “absolutely outrageous.”

I believed that my mother’s words would come back. No matter what the doctors told me, I knew my mother and what she could do. They saw a frail, tiny grandmother, a stroke victim. I saw my mother, the strongest woman in the world. She would surprise everyone; she always does. She is invincible.

Our first night in the hospital, the nurse told me to be careful with my mother’s jewelry. While she slept, I slipped off her beautiful art deco diamond ring, her diamond pendant. Watching over her, I wore her ring around my finger; her necklace tangled into my own. I kept her diamonds for her, just as I held on to her words.

There were better and worse days. On one of the hardest nights, she couldn’t make any sense; it was all word salad. We were both frustrated and sad and exhausted. She looked at me and said, clear as a bell, “Honey, you look so tired.” I burst into laughter and tears. How many times had she worried about her daughter, and spoken those words to me? So many times that they’d programmed themselves into an instinctive, indestructible phrase, like the melody of a favorite song.

The last time I saw her before her stroke, we went to a movie—my mother, my daughter, and I. We’ve always joked that Gemi (the name her six grandchildren call her—an allusion to Beatrix Potter’s Jemima PuddleDuck) would even talk through a movie, but this time she didn’t. It was a silly, sweet comedy, one that all three of us enjoyed from our different, though equally female, perspectives. That afternoon we didn’t talk very much, but we had fun joking around during the trailers. I remember feeling so lucky that all three of us shared a common language of silliness, of exasperated, complicated, conflicted, abiding love.

More than Words 2Then, in the hospital, that common language became everything. In the first few days and weeks, the beginning of the road, no one could tell us what might be ahead. I felt so sad that I couldn’t find the words to describe my sadness. And I was too tired, at the end of those long, hard days, to find the words for my weariness.

Four weeks after my mother’s stroke, her words are returning, torrentially. She talks and talks. She argues. She questions. She is run-on, exuberant, and ornate. She is relentless. But now, after the last four, terrible weeks, it’s music to my ears, like the melody of a favorite song. We’re tied once again by the threads of words, but have also found an even more profound connection through the relearning of our very first language, our mother tongue. We practiced it in the evenings I spent lying down in the hospital bed with my mother after another long day of fighting for her and speaking for her, silenced by sadness and tiredness. Lying there quietly, holding her hand that I know like my own, breathing in her Hermès Caleche perfume, fitting into the shape of her that is so like my own, her body that shaped my destiny. An unmistakable, unspoken language moved between us when I rested my head on her shoulder, a remembered gesture from always, from babyhood, from before I even had any words. And it was enough to just lie there together, not talking at all.


Photographs provided courtesy of the author.

Lara Downes is a concert pianist, writer, and radio producer. Called "a delightful artist with a unique blend of musicianship and showmanship" by NPR and praised by the New York Times for her “loving attention to mood and color”, Lara’s performances bridge musical genres, traditions and audiences. Born in San Francisco and raised in Europe, she made early debuts at the Queen Elizabeth Hall London, the Vienna Konzerthaus and the Salle Gaveau Paris, and has won over audiences at diverse venues ranging from Carnegie Hall and the Kennedy Center to Le Poisson Rouge and Classical Revolution. Her recordings have topped the Billboard Charts and have been called “luscious, moody, and dreamy” by the New York Times and “ravishing” by Fanfare Magazine. As a pianist, Lara is heard regularly on national radio programs including NPR Music, Performance Today, Sirius XM Symphony Hall, and Impromptu. She is the producer and host of The Green Room, a radio program about the lives of classical musicians, distributed nationally by WFMT Chicago. Visit for more. More from this author →