When Words Fall Away

In time, the language we learn is also the one we lose

By Wiley Cash

My dad and I are pacing up and down the road in front of my parents’ house in Oak Island, North Carolina. I have my arm around his waist and a hand beneath his elbow as if I’m escorting him. We’re only moving as fast as his shuffling feet will allow, but I’m scared to let him go. I’m afraid that he might fall.

It’s Monday, May 23rd of last year. The late morning is warm and bright, but not yet hot or humid the way it will be hot and humid in a week or two. A motorboat courses along the waterway across the street. A blue heron flushes at the sound, spreads its wings, and rises from the bank. Its shadow passes on the road at our feet. My dad’s eyes are downturned, and I know he did not see the heron take flight, but I wonder if he saw its shadow when it drifted before us. I look over at him; his eyes are closed, his mouth moving silently as if he’s speaking to himself or to someone who’s not there.

“What are you saying, Dad?”

He raises his head a little. His eyes are still closed. “Maw and Paw,” he says.

“Maw and Paw? Your grandparents?”

He blinks his eyes until he can open them all the way. He looks at me for a moment. “Maw and Paw,” he says again. “We going to see them?”

“I don’t know,” I say. “We might.” Maw and Paw were my dad’s maternal grandparents, tenant farmers from Cleveland County, North Carolina, where my dad was born and raised. His grandfather passed away in 1955; his grandmother in 1973, four years before I was born. My dad will pass away on Friday evening, only five days from now, but of course, I don’t know this yet. Two weeks ago he was diagnosed with an inoperable brain tumor — the melanoma he had six years ago has returned — and the oncologist has told us that my dad has no good options aside from being kept as comfortable as possible.

The tumor is roughly the size of a walnut. It was discovered following two separate seizures, the first in late March, the second in early May, that both resulted in weeklong hospital stays. My dad’s short-term memory and motor function were the first things to be affected, and then he began struggling with language: He couldn’t find the right words. He referred to the hospital in Myrtle Beach, where he was flown by emergency helicopter, as an airport. A few weeks ago, during a restless stay at the hospital in Wilmington, he and I were taking slow laps around the floor when he stopped at a window and looked out on the rainy afternoon. He sighed. “It’s pretty snickers out there today, isn’t it?”

“It is,” I said. “It’s pretty snickers.”

My sister is a hospice nurse, and she has explained to our family that as the dying reach the end of their lives they begin to talk about people who have gone before them. Perhaps that’s why my dad is asking about his grandparents now. But perhaps it’s something else. Perhaps he’s substituting the words Maw and Paw for death or unknown or uncertainty. I look over at him. His eyes are closed again, his mouth moving in silent speech. I picture words bouncing around the inside of my dad’s brain as he tries to speak them. He attempts to focus on each word as it passes before his mind’s eye: hospital blurs into airport; rainy or cloudy or dreary morphs into snickers. Tonight he will stir in the hospital bed set up in my parents’ bedroom. He will open his eyes, find me sitting beside him. He will say, “There’s a snake outside in the grass.” Will this mean he’s afraid?

Earlier in the spring, my wife and I stood in our kitchen and watched a dove flutter against the screens of our enclosed porch. We’d left the door open during the night, and the bird had found its way inside. My wife wanted to go out with a broom and guide the dove toward the open door, and I imagine myself trying to do this with my dad, with the word he needs ping-ponging inside his head, looking for a way to escape. But instead of using a broom, I will ask him, “What do you mean, Dad? What are you trying to say?”

I convinced my wife to stay inside, convinced her that the dove would find its way out on its own. Seconds later, something sliced through my line of vision and exploded inside the porch like a hand grenade. When the feathers settled, a Cooper’s hawk stood in the middle of the porch, the dove clutched in its talons. The hawk lifted into the air and flew through the open door. I took the broom out to the porch and swept up the feathers and left for work.

My wife called me at my office a few hours later. She and our two girls had gone outside and discovered that the trees in the backyard were full of what seemed to be hundreds of birds all sitting in total silence. She said she stared up at them, shocked by what she was seeing. And then, all at once, the birds lifted from the trees in a storm of wings and took to the sky.

“I can’t do it justice,” she said. “I can’t tell you how incredible it was. It felt like they were all gathered there in mourning.”

I remember standing at the office window and staring out at a half-empty parking lot where the midday sun slanted off the roofs and windshields of parked cars. I listened to my wife struggle to find the words to explain what she’d just seen, how it had felt to see it, what it had meant to her.

“I’m trying to describe it,” she said. “But I can’t.”

I understood. I spend an incredible amount of time thinking of ways to attach language to abstraction, the root of all feeling, whether those feelings are fear, uncertainty, wonder, or grief. Language is a concrete thing humans created eons ago to say the unsayable, and we’ve been trying to say it ever since.

Our oldest daughter is 2, and every day we watch her grapple with language. A phrase she’s probably heard more than any other is “I love you.” Perhaps this explains why she refers to herself in the second person. You can ask, “Who wants to play?” and she’ll say, “You,” meaning herself. “Does anyone want to read a book?” You. “Raise your hand if you want to go to the library.” You! You!

Eventually, she will understand the rules of our language, and she will begin to supplant the second person you with the first person I, but that does not mean she will have a different sense of herself. Her you has always meant me, and we’ve always understood because we’ve watched her use of language evolve.

Now, I’m watching my dad’s use of language devolve. I have no doubt that he understood what he meant when he looked out the window and described the scene as “pretty snickers,” and I have no doubt that if I had more time with him that I could slowly begin to understand and speak his language. After all, I understand how he feels, I just need more time to put a word to it.

But by Wednesday afternoon he will be too weak to speak, and he will be relegated to a hospital bed set up by a picture window in my parents’ bedroom. At least one member of our family will be at his bedside day and night, sometimes talking or praying, sometimes sitting in silence. I won’t remember the last words I say to him, nor will I remember the last words he said to me. But I will remember how it felt when he passed: the dark, quiet bedroom; the feel of my family pressed in tight around his bed; the awareness of a subtle stirring, of something lifting away; the certainty that I’ll never be able to find the words to explain it.

Wiley Cash is the New York Times best-selling author of A Land More Kind than Home and This Dark Road to Mercy. His forthcoming novel, The Last Ballad, will be released in October.

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