In Translation: Losing a Language

William A. Balk, Jr.


“Sitting across from each other, we are trying so very hard to communicate. I apologize to her repeatedly for misconstruing what she attempts to tell me. She searches futilely for the word I will understand, for the English word which holds her meaning. More time! More time.”—William A. Balk, Jr.

Epicurus’ Porch

By William A. Balk, Jr.

Three old friends.

Three old friends.

William A. Balk, Jr.

ELKO South Carolina—(Weekly Hubris)—8/1/2016—Sitting across from each other, we are trying so very hard to communicate. I apologize to her repeatedly for misconstruing what she attempts to tell me. She searches futilely for the word I will understand, for the English word which holds her meaning. More time! More time.

More time will not serve us well. It will not clarify our exchanges nor provide the needed vocabulary. Each day brings further limits to language’s ability to connect us. For the several years since we recognized dementia’s onset in my mother, I have been preparing her and ourselves for her eventual loss of language. We are making alternatives to the use of words, practices which might augment language, in order to keep open lines of communication for as long as we can.

My mother has not lost language—not yet, anyway. But a simple word—an adjective to describe how she is feeling, a noun naming the location of a pain, an idea more complicated than, “I’m doing something! Don’t interrupt!”—these functions of language are not always available to her when she needs them. Sometimes this results in her stammering in search of a word which will not appear. Usually, now, it means she retreats to the absolutely true “I don’t know,” when she is asked for a response.

Most of the time, words are useful between us in a support role: over the last couple of years, I developed a number of phrases to describe precisely a function I want my mother to perform, or to prepare her for something I need to do for her. The phrases rarely vary, and I began using them a year or more ago when such rote was not yet essential. Now, when I need to assist her in standing from her chair, I describe each step in the process before we execute it.

“Mama, I’m going to help you stand up in a minute.”

“I’m going to move your tray out of the way over here.”

“Let’s put your little pillows over here, so we can put them back when you sit down.”

“I want you to wiggle up to the front edge of the chair, and I’ll help you.”

“I’m going to move your feet so you can stand up more easily.”

“When I count to three, push up with your hands, and I’ll help you stand up.”

“Wonderful! Now get your balance . . . and stand just a little straighter.”

“Now, take four steps in that direction. I’m holding on to you, and you cannot fall.”

These eight phrases are uttered each time my mother gets up from her chair to sit in her wheelchair. No longer instructions, they are mnemonics for her, offering a sense of what to expect. The words’ import is drawn from acting repeatedly in a certain way, not from their intrinsic meaning. 

When there is variation in the process, there is always confusion as she tries to comprehend precisely what is being asked of her. We have adapted language here to serve as a touchstone for ritual, rather than as a vehicle for conversation.

All human activities comprise deeply complex processes though, for most of us, eating and walking require no forethought whatsoever. For my mother, however, a plate of food presents great challenges. Sometimes, it is not immediately obvious to her what this object in front of her is, so a recitation of the familiar names of the foods is reassuring. What, exactly, she is to do with a fork is not always clear. Verbal reminders still suffice, usually, but many times she will forget what she’s to do even after several bites. Grateful for our months and years of preparing for this, I find that supplementing the language with repetition and with simple gestures provides clarity for her.

Expressive hands.

Expressive hands.

There is a kind of cliché praise given to caregivers, acknowledging the sacrifices involved in such care, often ascribing levels of virtue to the caregiver. We caregivers just as often will offer in reply that the care we are able to give is more rewarding than the effort demanded of us. I think both observations are essentially correct, albeit perhaps simplistic.

As caregiver, as translator and interpreter, I have had to humbly offer empathy, listen acutely and attentively, and sharply hone my words. It is a skill set for human survival, not just for patient care.

My mother is vibrantly present. She is by nature kind and appreciative, and she frequently finds either language or other means to express fulsome gratitude for the care and love she gets from those around her. She is charming and engaged with visitors, who don’t usually recognize that all her conversation and responsiveness during a visit has been gesture and expression implying engagement.

Her apparent involvement in conversation with a visitor is perfectly genuine and apparently unhampered by her deficits, but it is no longer her facility with language or language’s expressive range that makes it so. Rather, she has found her own means to compensate for the deficiencies inherent in her diminishing linguistic abilities.

Language fails us. Words lose meaning; words disappear. The essential function of language, however, remains, and we are forced to imagine alternate means of conveying ideas, new methods of sharing feelings, sensations, emotions.

It was always thus. Language is a miraculous tool, developed to enable complicated communication among our species. Even when that tool is unavailable, the imperative to communicate will make its own way.

William A. Balk, Jr.

About William A. Balk, Jr.

Born and reared in the Coastal Plain of South Carolina, William A. Balk, Jr. was educated at the state's namesake university, became an activist confronting the power of the modern State and its military, and spent two years in a radical gay commune in the nation's capital. He has taught textile construction and design for the Smithsonian and Textile Museum in Washington, collected modern porcelain masters, and has submitted to a peculiar affinity for independent book stores. Balk returned to the South Carolina Low Country in middle age, as well as to his extended family, and a literary life lived largely out of doors. Book stores and gardening remain his perennial passions, as does writing. Like one of his heroes, Epicurus, whose philosophical school was called “The Garden,” Balk's aim has long been “to attain a happy, tranquil life, characterized by ataraxia—peace and freedom from fear—and aponia—the absence of pain—and by living a self-sufficient life surrounded by friends.”
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10 Responses to In Translation: Losing a Language

  1. Anne Roberts says:

    Thank you for this Will.
    It’s not about loss but love — not about forgetfulness — not about dementia, but giving care. The miraculous ability to keep on communicating.
    When the Indiana and Istanbul cousins convened at my house in June, after 2 years divided geographically and linguistically, they had no trouble communicating. You play Marco Polo, surf the waves and find shell treasures, eat popsicles without dripping. A joy to watch and a learning experience for this aging grandmom. It’s not about loss but all the possibilities of giving care and communicating.

  2. Will B says:

    Thanks, Anne. I’d have loved to be there to watch the kids interacting . . . and their grandmother taking it all in….

  3. Alex Billinis says:

    You have made me think of language in a whole different way, and I wish I had read this beautifully expressed essay to hand when my own father faded into Dementia. It would have provided a different way of looking at communication.

  4. Will B says:

    Thanks, Alex, for your kind words. We are all learning our way with each step.

  5. Diana says:

    Will, you have touched on or rather beautifully expressed this other way of becoming silent that I wanted to put in my own column but realized I couldn’t do it justice. Too many friends are losing their words and I don’t always have the patience to sit and communicate with them. You have described your relationship with your mother so beautifully, it will, as Alex says, become a guide for others with a relative with dementia. Thank you for bringing so much love to the condition.

  6. Will B says:

    Oh, thank you, Diana. The patience needed is truly a challenge – when mine seems to be fraying irretrievably, I try to remember the patience required of this wonderful woman while raising five very challenging children. I do indeed remember the times when her patience ran out – then I forgive my own impatience and refocus on her situation rather than my own. It seems a pity that it has taken me this many decades to learn this acceptance, this patience. It would have proven useful more than once along the way. It goes without saying, I think, that this whole approach probably would have been utterly impossible had she not been the kind and appreciative soul she is…and, sadly, a great many people will lose that quality in the progression of dementia.

  7. Danny M Reed says:

    Mr. William Balk, I have experience with Dementia Care as a Rehabilitative Cert. Nursing Assistant and in caring for my parents and grandparents when they had Dementia. I’m not sure of what variety. I guess it didn’t matter. I found the trick to continuing communication is to find old photographs, music and so on that she finds familiar, from an earlier time when she spoke freely. These can sometimes induce lucidity to the point where she returns temporarily to the condition she was in before. She is still there, right to the end, it just takes some creative induction to access where she is. For instance, anything or anyone familiar can bring those senses back. I’m waiting my turn to have dementia too.

  8. Will B says:

    Thank you, Danny Reed. It’s dawning on us all – albeit slowly – that dementia is our future, if there is a future. I’m paying a lot of attention now in preparation, I suppose, for that eventuality. I’m grateful for your insightful input for ways into our loved ones’ minds. I suspect that each person must react in her own way, must experience her diminished capabilities uniquely. My mother, for instance, has for the last two years responded politely, but with relative disinterest, to the more usual memory stimuli like photographs, old films, music, which are intended to evoke her personal recollections of the past. It appears that her past is not of particularly strong interest for her to spend much energy on. Instead, she is delighted to be engaged in the present with another genuine and empathic person – sometimes in conversation, but often lately, simply responding with facial expression and short vocal signifiers that she is indeed listening and appreciative. I showed her the photo from the article, the one of her hand in mine, which I had just taken; she was delighted with it and recognized immediately her wedding band, although not the hands. Oddly, perhaps, for the way we usually perceive dementia, our mother has decided to it it her own damn way – and it’s up to us to follow along if we dare.

  9. Sandra Lee says:

    The thought of losing language terrifies me, but if I do, I hope there will be someone as insightful & kind as you to ease my way.

  10. Will B says:

    Sandra, thank you for the kind thought. I’m confident that if that time comes, you will be wonderfully cared for by your Ray and Leah.

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