In “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly” Jean-Dominique Bauby explains the alphabet he used to communicate with visitors after waking from a coma caused by a stroke, leaving him paralyzed with only the ability to blink his left eye. Visitors would recite the alphabet, in order from most popular letter to least, and Bauby would blink when they reached the letter he wished to use. According to the kind of personality each visitor possessed, he or she would interpret the language differently – some given to fits of frustrated emotion when they couldn’t decode his words, others committed to painstaking, meticulous transcription.
The recollection reminded me of 2010, when my Mother, after waking from a coma, was unable to communicate for a time. She couldn’t speak, but she could hear. I wasn’t with her, but I would call every morning so she could hear my voice. My Dad would hold the phone to her ear and I would talk for a few minutes – fill the empty space with frivolous words: first of love, then mundane details of my days, then more love. Sometimes Papa would pull the phone away and describe Momma’s reaction if she smiled or nodded and my voice, not knowing its direction, would fill empty space, never landing. Words like “love”, “hope”, “miss”, today” never reached a destination; are still floating in the atmosphere in a North Carolina hospital room.
As Momma’s voice returned, conversation resumed, but because it was a strain, she chose her words carefully, was her own editor, spoke only what was necessary. Now her words come rapid-fire, but still laboured, still interspersed by attempts at great gulps of air that never fill her lungs. That never deters her; she keeps going, keeps talking. She no longer edits, when we speak, she puts on me every detail of the events that transpired to make her day miserable; every word spoken by those who have wronged her. I try to slow her down when she coughs or gasps, but she speaks as if in a race, forces all the words trapped inside her and making her ache, out of her and onto me.
I rarely speak; I don’t attempt to fit my own words into the space between hers. I listen, mostly silent, a sympathetic tsk here, a confirmation that I’m still on the line there, but no words of my own reach her. Even if they did, she would let them float with nowhere to land, there’s no space for me, no time for my words. She speaks as if her breaths are numbered, and I understand how she must feel, surviving what she did, feeling as though death will fully grasp her around the throat one day soon and squeeze, finish the job it started when she felt its fingers brushing along her skin. I’ll absorb what she spills onto me, do what I can to keep her breath coming, but sometimes, at my most selfish, all I want is for her to smile as I describe my day.