More Than Words Can Say

“More Than Words Can Say,” Ensign, July 2002, 53

More Than Words Can Say

When Grandma lost her ability to talk, our family found new ways to keep our loving relationship alive.

Grandma was wise and witty—a delightful conversationalist. Folks flocked to her door for small talk and a piece of cherry pie. Our weekly visit to Grandma’s house became a family tradition. Dressed in her Sunday best, she’d greet us at the door, face alight. Every wrinkle was a smile, and her blue eyes seemed to twinkle out of the creases. Then the fun began. We’d rattle off the events of the week while Grandma oohed and ahhed and showed us in a thousand ways how much she cared. She’d tell of her visits to the doctor or her fishing trips with Uncle Reid and the boys. Then we’d troop into the kitchen for a piece of homemade pie while she filled us in on the news of others in our large and active family. Grandma was information central. From her we learned of new babies, old illnesses, travels, and trials. She was the hub—the sun around which our family revolved.

But as Grandma neared 90, the joys of those visits began to slip away. First to go was the cherry pie. Then the fishing trips. Finally, worst of all, the conversation. Helplessly we watched as age and illness took their toll. Grandma struggled to keep mind and mouth in sync, but thought processes slowed and words got more and more garbled. Our attempts to communicate were awkward and, for the most part, ineffective. We grew frustrated and Grandma was embarrassed. Sometimes she wouldn’t even try but sat tight-lipped, wringing hands betraying her anxiety.

The children were puzzled and hurt. What was wrong? Why wouldn’t Grandma talk anymore? Teenagers started balking at the Sunday visits, certain Grandma didn’t even know they were there. But she knew. When we came into the room her eyes would light up. Sometimes her wrinkled hands reached out, grasping. Then, as if remembering she couldn’t communicate, her body would tense and she’d quickly withdraw her hand, and herself, into a solitary shell.

How we longed for the old, easy rapport, the comfortable family feeling with natural, spontaneous, and satisfying conversation. How could we find it again? Even as we searched for answers, each visit grew more tense and awkward than the last.

Lilac Lotion

Grandma’s outstretched hand was our first clue that she wanted to touch and to be touched as a way of feeling our concern and love. We began to hold her hand, to stroke and pat it gently. It was Aunt Fern who first thought of the lotion. Grandma was always primped and powdered and perfumed. The soft, fresh fragrance that surrounded her had long been part of Grandma’s charm. So we lavished sweet-smelling lotion on Grandma’s hands, then held them up to her face so she could savor the lilac fragrance. With a little prompting, she learned to respond with an appreciative “Aaaaah.”

We hugged Grandma often and made sure our visits began and ended with the kisses she’d come to expect. The warmth began to return to our relationship. Marked by the lingering scent of lilacs, our afternoons with Grandma became—even more than before—a celebration of our love, with touch playing an important part.

Adding Music

One day Grandma was sitting in her chair, stone still, hands folded in her lap. Uncle Reid jumped up impulsively and burst into a boisterous rendition of “Old Man River.” His singing voice was not particularly impressive, but his performance was dedicated entirely to an audience of one—Grandma. He stood on tiptoe to reach the high notes and pressed chin to chest for the low notes. His whole body quivered with the dramatic vibrato. Grandma was spellbound. Her eyes sparkled and her face came alive with an animation we hadn’t seen for months. Mouth open, body swaying, she strained to be a part of the song.

So music was incorporated into our visits—favorite hymns, children’s songs, even old standbys like “I’ve Been Workin’ on the Railroad.” Grandma joined in, her head bouncing in time to the music. Sometimes she clapped her hands. Always she smiled. Never mind that she couldn’t carry the tune or come up with the right words. She was in on the action, and that was what mattered.

Laughing Again

We’d read that laughter was valuable in treating illness and pain, so we started telling tall tales and silly jokes, then laughing out loud. Taking her cue from us, Grandma smiled tentatively at first. Then, as she caught the spirit, she laughed right along with the rest of us. Discomfort and anxiety were forgotten as the healing power of laughter bound us together even more tightly.

Then, almost by accident we stumbled on a way to carry on a “two-way conversation” with Grandma: we decided to pretend. We girls used to carry on one-sided conversations with our dolls by just inventing their responses. Why not do the same with Grandma? We knew her well and could easily predict what she would say. So we pretended. We’d tell her the news of the day, pausing often to imagine her reply. Then we’d go on, explaining and exclaiming, just as if she’d responded. It was like a play. We gave Grandma her cues, and prompted her when she “forgot” her lines. The kids caught on fast, telling about school, sports, and friends. Again Grandma was up-to-date on the latest happenings.

“You should have seen Holly all dressed up for the prom. She looks pretty in blue, just like you do. … That’s right, she’s a senior in high school. … I can hardly believe it, either. … Yes, I know about the dances you used to go to, how you polished Uncle Bill’s shoes and helped with his chores so he’d take you along. … You got acquainted with Grandpa at a dance, didn’t you?”

Once we got the hang of it, it was easy and fun. We could rattle on for a long time, filling in the blanks, hardly noticing that Grandma wasn’t really talking. She was listening, though. We could tell because she watched us closely, head cocked with her good ear forward, trying to catch every word. Going to visit Grandma became pleasurable again. The Sunday afternoon tradition survived.

Within a few months, Grandma had passed away. Those last joyful visits were a family treasure. Real communication had been achieved. Love was expressed and understood.

Late in life, Grandma had ceased to be a fascinating conversationalist, but she was still the focal point of our family connection. Thanks to the imaginative use of everyday means of communication, our loving relationship not only survived, it flourished.

Photo © Photodisc; photography posed by models

Photo by Kelly Larsen