By Jean Balchin 27/02/2018

On Friday, October 13, at about 11.30pm, a blood clot travelled up from my father’s heart to the left side of his brain. Here, it lodged itself in an artery, and promptly caused a stroke.

I don’t know how Dad felt about this, or whether he knew what was happening, because he hasn’t been able to speak since then. It’s been almost two weeks since I’ve heard my father’s voice, and the silence between us has made me realise how important language is.

My father was a wordsmith, a scholar, a speaker. He strung his words together so they flew from his mouth with graceful ease, hammering home his point to anyone within a 20m vicinity.

Now, his face crumples when he realises he can’t find the right word. I can see the frustration in his eyes as he wills his tongue to move, his voice to work. That little blood clot has robbed him of his greatest skill. In my first year at university, I learned about Broca’s aphasia, where a person can understand others, but is unable to explain themselves. They can see the words in their mind, but they struggle to speak them, or string them together in a coherent and grammatically correct way. I never thought I’d see Broca’s aphasia in action.

Communication is as important as breathing or eating to my family. Ironically, it was never said out loud in my household, but we learned that language possessed a certain strength and importance, beyond that of hard work, honesty and intelligence. At school I was taught maths, science, history and literature, but I never really learned how to speak or express ideas clearly. I learned this from my father, and now it’s my turn to teach him.

We’re too quick to judge people on how well they communicate. I’m guilty of thinking that if a person has difficulty speaking, they must have difficulty thinking, too. This is not necessarily true. The blaring television, the incessant radio, the buzzing phone have drowned out the quiet murmur of other forms of communicating – the brush of a pencil on paper, the soft fumbling of fingers as they spell out words, and the silence of flashcards as they are turned over in an autistic child’s hands.

So savour your words. Turn them over in your mouth, feel the weight of them before you push them out into the world. Use them to connect with those around you, to stand up for yourself and others. But at the same time, utilise other means of communication. Challenge yourself. Learn sign language, one letter at a time. Carry a pencil and a small notepad with you if you can, and learn the value of nonverbal communication. Don’t make fun of people for using flashcards or apps to make sense of the world.

I never thought I’d miss my Dad’s loud voice. It would wake me up in the morning, as he lustily sang Herman’s Hermits’ Sleepy Joe and ordered me to practise the piano. His bellowing and pontificating would give me a headache, and at times we’d use our words as weapons, trying to stab each other where it hurt. At other times, it had a soporific effect, lulling me to sleep in church as he preached about the importance of listening to God’s word. But now I find myself missing his foghorn voice. For now though, I’ll carry on reading Dad The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, and together we’ll make ourselves understood through halting, clumsy sign language.

This article was originally published in the ODT on the 26th of October 2017.