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When words fail

God can still reach us when we lose our ability to reason

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Nouns are the first words to arrive, and the first to go.

If you’ve seen The Miracle Worker, on stage or screen, you’ll recall the turning point of the story. Young Helen Keller, robbed of sight and hearing while still in the cradle, finally recognizes what her teacher Anne Sullivan has struggled to get through to her: that the cool liquid flowing over her hand is water. What’s more, everything has a name, and to name a thing is to acquire some degree of power in relationship to it. The light dawns in Helen’s face as she locates herself in a world of things.

A baby’s first words, typically ma-ma and da-da, have the power to produce squeals of delight from Mommy and Daddy. Once she recognizes those appendages waving before her face as my hands, she’s all in. Palms smack and fingers point: What’s this? What’s that? Spoon, block, mommy’s hair (ouch!), blanket, peas. Hands + words + objects make a formidable team.

Beyond toddlerhood, we no longer ask with the same eagerness, but vocabulary increases by leaps and bounds. Also power. One can’t pick up a stream of water, a pile of bricks, or an excavator, but one can talk about them—and, with enough resources, one can build a bridge or dam the stream for a hydroelectric generator.

I’m still acquiring the names of things (lately tools and medical procedures), but since late middle age I’m also losing them. It’s as if our brains were constructed to hold only so many, and new ones displace old ones. For weeks, I couldn’t remember the name of the bush outside my office window. It finally popped back in: japonica. But what’s the name of that other bush? And why have I already forgotten the name of the new church member I met last week? And my nephew’s respiratory infection—what’s it called?

Though this is a normal consequence of aging and not (necessarily) of early dementia, I feel a loss of power and control. Nouns are the signposts by which we steer our thoughts and order our daily obligations: keys, bills, meetings, appointments. We don’t think about them until they begin to go. If enough pegs disappear, what happens to thought?

Before he retired, my husband ran his own transportation consulting business, specializing in oversize loads to be shipped by rail. Like every field, it had a specialized vocabulary, words he’s known almost all his life. He wielded them over the telephone like a plumber wields a pipe wrench, putting together coast-to-coast shipments. But dementia has stolen them, as well as everyday words like plate and comb and tree. “The water’s in the fridge on the bottom shelf” or “Please hand me that hammer” are mysteries he can’t unravel. His conversation mushes made-up words with concrete objects; I can sometimes guess the context, but when it ranges beyond immediate needs I’m as lost as he is.

What must this be like? Lacking reason, his brain flashes with sensation. Lacking words, he’s at the mercy of feelings. For most of his life, he was terrified of feelings—literally fled from me when I got angry or weepy. Now, though, he can be surprisingly empathetic. When my words don’t reach him, my tears can.

We’re created as emotional and rational beings, ­qualities that put us only a little lower than angels and high above animals. My husband, like many men, claimed to despise emotion (though influenced by it more than he realized). But now he often tears up in church. His reason led him astray more than once, but such is God’s mercy: reaching him through feelings when reason fails. My husband sometimes forgets my name but sings the name of Jesus. His word-salad prayers ramble, but the Spirit groans within him, too deep for words (Romans 8:26).

Funny how the brain works, though. Last week he noticed a leather cutout of my home state lying on the countertop. “That’s Texas,” he said. Go figure.

Janie B. Cheaney

Janie is a senior writer who contributes commentary to WORLD and oversees WORLD’s annual Children’s Books of the Year awards. She also writes novels for young adults and authored the Wordsmith creative writing curriculum. Janie resides in rural Missouri.


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