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Summer 2006

Language, Loss, and Metaphor

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Ellen Hawley

My mother died in June 2005 at the age of ninety-three. For some time —and it's hard to say how long because I can't draw a line and say it began here—a series of small strokes had been chipping away at who she'd once been. I called her one day, six months or a year before she died, and the woman who took care of her told me she hadn't gotten out of bed for two days. Maybe I could convince her to.

I doubted it, but when my mother took the phone I asked why she wouldn't get out of bed.

"I can't explain it," she said, meaning not that it was beyond the reach of my understanding and not necessarily that she didn't understand it herself but that she had no words for it anymore. They were gone, dissolved, out of reach. I'm reaching for metaphors here because I have no other way to express what was happening, but none of them bring me any closer to understanding the way language had unraveled inside her head. I'm writing about the loss of language and what do I have to work with other than language? I can't know what it was like for her and she couldn't tell me. It's as fitting as it is ironic that I'm pushed toward metaphor—that rarefied literary game—because as words became harder for her to get hold of she occasionally spoke in unwilling metaphors.

I taught writing for some years, and when I talked to my students about metaphor I tried to present it not as a literary device—some arcane trick they had to master if they hoped to pass in literary society—but as something the human brain creates naturally. When I look back on what I said, I don't think I was wrong, but that doesn't mean I knew the first thing about it either. All I had in mind was the power that objects and processes can take on when our emotions overflow their ordinary channels, the way saying something relatively safe can open the possibility of communicating something unsafe, the way one thought can enlarge another thought that seems to be unrelated until suddenly and stunningly it doesn't. I was thinking, in other words, of the undamaged brain. If I talked at all about saying the unsayable-and I can't remember whether I actually used that phrase—I meant it (in the weakest sense of the word) metaphorically. I had never spent twelve seconds of my life wrestling with what unsayable means in its literal and most physical sense: not what we're afraid to say, not what we're forbidden to say, not even what we haven't yet put words to and so allowed ourselves to think about clearly, but the physical impossibility of putting something into words and communicating it to another human being.

When my mother was younger, she was a tenant organizer in New York and a fine public speaker. Someone who worked with her told me once, with only minor exaggeration, that if you woke her up in the middle of the night, stuck a microphone in her hand, and told her to make a speech, she could not only do it but do it well. She was one of only two people in New York that the real estate mogul Harry Helmsley refused to debate on a radio program.

And now she couldn't explain why she wouldn't get out of bed.

"Are you in pain?" I asked.

No, she wasn't in pain.

"Discouraged?"

The word I wanted was depressed but I couldn't get myself to say it.

"I don't understand," she said.

I should have tried synonyms but I was only too happy to run away from the question.

"Tired?"

She said something I couldn't make out, something longer than yes or no.

I was fairly sure I should keep offering words but I didn't. The question-and-answer format felt condescending—to me, if not to her—and, short of ending the conversation, I couldn't see a way to change that. I told her that if we were voting I voted for her to get out of bed. She said something else I couldn't catch, then said she loved me. I said I loved her. We said this to each other a lot as words became less useful and our conversations narrowed down. Almost everything that made my life interesting had become too complicated to tell her about. So many things had moved out of bounds that I might as well have been leading a secret life. To keep her on the line an extra few seconds, I'd sometimes tell her that it was raining, it was snowing, the weather had been gorgeous all week and the crabapple tree was in bloom. My partner was fine, I was fine, the dogs and the cats were fine. Every so often I got lonely enough to admit that one of us was sick, although when she'd been fully herself I kept that sort of information to myself if I could. She and my father worried about us out of all proportion to whatever passing illnesses we had. But with conversation hard to sustain, a head cold gave us a moment of connection. If everyone on my end of the line was healthy, we were left with the blandest reassurances. We said "I love you" in every conversation because it was one of the things we could still say. We said it to make up for everything that was closed to us.

It never crossed my mind to ask her how she felt, trapped with such a sparse collection of words. I don't know whether she would have understood the question or whether she could have answered it if she had. I shied away from acknowledging what we both knew was happening as if somehow she might not have noticed it, although she'd been reporting unflinchingly on the process for years.

This time when she said she loved me she gave her voice an unusual intensity, as if she expected it to be the last time we talked and she wanted me to remember it. She had so little left that she could give me but she was still my mother and still struggling to give.

It wasn't the last time we talked, though. I called the next day and she'd gotten up, taken a shower, and gone back to bed. A few days later she got up again, and sometime after that I went to visit. I live in Minnesota and she was living in California, two blocks from my brother.

We had a few more final goodbyes, usually on the last night of one of my visits. She saw me to the door once, a tiny, white-haired woman standing inside the frame of a junior-size walker.

"The next time you see me," she said, and paused.

I waited while she searched for words.

"I won't be here."

I couldn't help it. My mind snagged on the idea of seeing her even though she wouldn't be there and I laughed. She laughed. It seemed like a natural enough thing to do. For some years she'd been telling us she wanted to die. She'd been too active, too competent, too focused to be satisfied with a life whose whole purpose was to sleep, get dressed, eat, read the paper, and sleep again. She'd been an organizer. She'd been a Communist—part of the generation that joined during the Depression, and she remained a member until sometime after the American Communist Party took a position against Gorbachev's reforms, when she finally resigned. She could be a formidable political opponent—I heard that from someone else she worked with, who was still fuming about a battle he'd lost to her—but her commitment to the people whose rights she fought for was as genuine and as deep as any I've known. When my brother and I were young, she talked to us about trying to make the world a better place. It was a simplified explanation of the life she and my father had committed themselves to long before we were born, but it was also exactly what she meant. Now she could no longer try to make the world a better place, so what was the purpose of her life? Especially since she had to wait out her final years without my father, who died ten years before she finally did.

So I had learned from her to talk comfortably about death, and to accept her longing for it. I don't remember what I said once we stopped laughing. Something about hoping she was wrong, probably. Something about knowing she wanted that. Something about how much I'd miss her, although I had no idea how deep the missing would run. It doesn't matter what I said. I'd been saying the same things for years, in one form or another. They didn't change a thing but I said them anyway. They were an attempt at connection, a form of acceptance.

The next time you see me I won't be here. As words slipped out of her reach, she sometimes came at ideas slantwise, from directions that surprised me. The ideas inside her head were richer than the poverty of her speech allowed her to express, although I doubt her thoughts were as varied or as deep as they once had been. She spent an entire evening once trying to explain an insight she'd had into her family. What she needed to put together was a single longish sentence, and the first time she tried she got part of the way through, telling me she'd been thinking about her mother and it had occurred to her—. And there she stopped, as completely as if she'd run into a wall. In my arrogance, in my loneliness for the person she used to be, I didn't expect whatever this was to be a new thought, although I was prepared to act as if it were. It had been a long time since we'd talked about anything new and I assumed her thoughts had narrowed down as much as her language.

She tried the sentence again and stopped in the same place. She was frustrated. I was frustrated. She gave up but came back to it later, starting in the same place—she'd been thinking about her mother-and pushed a few words past the place where she'd stopped the first times through, until finally, about the time I was saying goodnight, she crashed through the barrier and found the rest of the sentence: She'd been thinking about the twelve-year gap between her older sister and herself and it had occurred to her that her mother might well have had a miscarriage, or several miscarriages, between them, and that she was precisely the kind of Victorian lady who would have kept that a secret.

That thought, so laboriously set in words, made more of a connection between us than we'd had in years. My mother was still in there. Her mind was working: in near-silence, in isolation, without the back and forth that, as I think of it, keeps us human, but it was still working.

I don't know if that was a cause for hope or for despair.

The last time I saw her other than in the hospital where she died, we had another final goodbye. By then I also thought it might be final. It was again the last night of my visit and for some time she'd been telling me to go home—back to my brother's house, where I was staying. Even then she remembered that I went to bed earlier than she did and that I was running on Midwestern time. Even then she was trying to take care of me. I kept saying I'd leave soon, I wasn't tired yet.

When I finally started to say goodnight, she said, "Stay put."

She didn't mean don't go—that much was clear from the context, from her gestures. It was one of those slantwise approaches.

"Stay put?" I said.

She waved one hand through the air in a vague and uncharacteristic gesture.

"In an anarchist sort of way," she said.

For a split and disorienting second I thought the century-long hostility between the anarchists and the Communists had been resolved. Then I took the phrase to mean metaphorically speaking, although I'll never know entirely if I was right. We said goodnight. We said "I love you" all over again. I searched for some way to tell her how much I meant that and couldn't, any more than she'd been able to find the words she wanted. Less, because I didn't find any slant from which to approach my meaning. I kissed her and she was impossibly tiny, impossibly frail. The next time I saw her, she was dying.

Her last advice—her last demand—draws me back regularly: Stay put, in an anarchist sort of way. My partner thinks she was telling me to keep on being who I am, that she was saying she approved of me, and of course I like that interpretation. It's the meaning I hold closest. But what she actually said is richer than that, and less certain. It's full of resonances and echoes, of contradictions and possibilities, of meanings beyond any single meaning. It's metaphor: a multilayered message exploding at me out of near-silence.


Ellen Hawley’s novel Trip Sheets won a Writer’s Voice Capricorn Award. She works as a freelance editor in Minneapolis.
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