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I have become enchanted again by words. Writing almost every day for the past four months has set me on the quest for words. I collect them, I save them and I use them.

I search for words like a birder looks for birds. Always on the lookout, regardless of other tasks, the birder hopes for that elusive, unique bird. Or, perhaps it is the bird that they have yearned to see for decades. It might be the bird that brings s smile, or maybe a bird that sings sweetly and reminds of lost love.

Like a birder, I watch for words throughout the day. It is amazing how many words there are in our lives. The internet is proportionately the residence of over 100 trillion words. This astonishes me. I remember when there was no internet. I don’t think there were fewer words then but I think it might have taken more time to find them.

Finding words is an important part of anyone’s life. We knew a child with delayed language. He was breathtakingly distressed, crying with tears of sorrow and of rage. He refused food and then would grab at it. Meals were chaos. It was very difficult to be with him. Someone taught him the sign for food and for light. The chaos relented. He could communicate. He could communicate about food in ways other than refusing or grabbing it. He could communicate yes and no.

Years ago, my grandmother fell and hit her head and suffered the loss of language. When she emerged from her coma she was frustrated and cross and crying for help. She had lost her language. If she made a loud sound to get your attention, and you tried to help but guessed wrong what she wanted, she was frustrated and angry. I you guessed correctly she relaxed and was content. After a few days of struggling to communicate, I made flash cards for her. I don’t remember where I got the cardboard to write on but I do remember making two stacks. One stack was for negative and one stack was for positive. Yes, no. Want, don’t want. Stop, go. Cold, hot. Now, later. Help me, do not help me. The most basic communication is affirmation or rejection. We kept her words sorted by what we called “yes words” and “no words.” I posted a large sign at the end of her bed on her eye level that said, “Speak Slowly” because she would get going and after one or two words it would all run into a babble and she would become sad or mad. When she would start to babble and get frustrated and angry, I would quickly lay out on her table some words that I thought would work. I always separated by affirmation and negation. Most of the time she would fish through the cards like a magpie sorting through treasure and pick up one or two and hold them in the air. Sometimes she could not find the right card or I would not understand what she was trying to tell me and she would get a stony look on her face and throw the card at me.

My grandmother did not normally throw things at me. It was the brain injury and her inability to communicate that made her so frustrated. She was an articulate woman and the loss of all words must have been like locking her into a cell.

She did get her words back. She loved “CoCola” but was on limited fluids because of the danger of her choking.  When she came from intensive care to a regular room in the hospital, she kept fumbling with a sound I finally figured out was for CoCola. I patiently told her that she could not have it. She implored every person that passed through her hospital room with her jumbled sounds for CoCola. I was so frustrated with trying to manage days of CoCola interactions that I finally said to her, “You will have to ask your doctor when she comes. You must learn to say the words.”

Suddenly we both had a task. We needed to use words. Four words. Six syllables. “I want a CoCola.” She had cards for “I” and” want.” We did not make a card for “a”. With trepidation, I made a card for “Coke-a-Cola.” I kept that card except when we were using it. I could only imagine what she would do to visitors if she had the word-card for that most valued thing. It took two days of practicing. She would try until she was exhausted. The word “want” was very difficult but was the exact word that she needed to learn. The whole exercise was about want. She wanted that CoCola. Alone CoCola was just a thing in a bottle. It was not animated until it was set into motion by someone wanting it.

After two days, the doctor came on her appointed rounds. My grandmother and I were sitting at attention for we could hear her making her way down the halls talking to people. When she came in, my grandmother struggled to sit up straight and look like the formidable woman she had been before she lost her words. I was breathless waiting to see how the words would turn out. I was afraid that she would get excited and it would become babble and the doctor would look at me to interpret. My grandmother needed to do this on her own. The doctor said, “How are you today? You look pretty, and your are sitting up like that!” My grandmother looked at me and I glanced toward the end of her bed toward the “Speak Slowly” card. She squared her shoulders and looked the young female doctor right in the eye and said, “I — want — a — CoCola.”

Those 5 words were a victory. The doctor looked surprised and said, “Well, if you ask me as well as that, I guess we will just have to get you one.” She went and got a Coke and brought it back and held it while my grandmother drank it with huge sighs of happiness.

For the child and for my grandmother, just a few words changed the their worlds. I have written nearly 100,000 words since our house burned. I am still searching for those few words to capture the change in our world. I suppose that I believe there are a few perfect words that will tell our story. What I know to be true is that a story takes as many words as it takes to tell it. I will continue to collect words to tell our story.

woman smiling with 90th birthday cake

My grandmother on her 90th birthday after she had found her words again.