My Child’s Grasp Of Language Exploded As My Mother Lost Hers
Parkinson’s meant my mother’s words were slipping out of her mind just as my toddler was starting to speak in sentences. "Uh-oh, Nana."
I used to keep a list of the words my toddler could say: pickle / pineapple / paci / phone / Mama / Dada / Jeanie / baby / ball / berry / uh-oh / Nana. I stopped keeping track when the list hit 100, but even now, at age 3, I’m amazed by how quickly she absorbs new words. After I turned 30, I started feeling like my brain had lost the capacity to retain new information that wasn’t related to Bravo cast members. It was that same year that my mother was diagnosed with Parkinson’s. I assumed the disease would make her hands and her voice shake, but instead it has taken her sense and her calm and her words. And so, just as my toddler was starting to combine hers into sentences, my mother’s words were slipping out of her mind, like pacifiers through the rungs of a crib. "Uh-oh, Nana."
There is something of the sublime in watching a kid learn language — the idea of the sublime that obsessed the Romantic poets — a terror in the majesty of this brand new brain, all capacity and potential. I watch my daughter and think of all the languages I might have learned, if only I had started early enough. Which naturally leads to the question of whether I should search for a bilingual au pair — not that there’s anywhere for her to stay, not in this house. Maybe that's what watching my daughter learn language is like: like looking at the Zillow listings for very expensive and meticulously staged houses from my own more sporadically decorated and too-small home.
My mother would have loved that paragraph. Even before she became a therapist in her 40s, she was fascinated by the human brain. Though she herself was not pretentious, she loved anything that might be considered pretentious — marathon theatrical productions, esoteric foreign films, tofu in the 80s. And she loved words. She wasn’t a natural bragger, not about her own accomplishments or her children’s, but when I got into the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, she told everyone. She read every poem I wrote there, and every book I mentioned, even glancingly. She was always brilliant at big talk but hopeless at small talk.
Now, I ask her what she’s eating and if it's raining where she is and feel grateful when she can answer at all. The last time I tried to talk to her about anything larger than dinner, it sent her into a days-long panic. I'd cried and told her I missed her, that I was overwhelmed. When we hung up, she told her aide over and over and over that something terrible was happening to me, that I was in grave danger. I’d forgotten that I have to watch what I say with her, that anything can weave itself into the fabric of her paranoia.
We were all thinking multi-generational households and ground-floor bedrooms with zero-entry showers, not picturing ourselves cajoling both a parent and a child to please please please just get dressed please.
My mother’s fears are persistent and consuming, like my those of my kid, who was so terrified by a book about a lonely spinster ghost that I had to hide it at the top of our closet. She still calls it the witch book, and still worries that it’s lurking on the shelf somewhere. Let’s go home, I say when I pick her up from school. Is the witch book there? she’ll ask. It’s been months. Meanwhile, my mother worries that the child traffickers from an NPR story about child trafficking conspiracy theories are coming for her grandchildren. We all worry about what comes next. Probably: my child will learn which fears she can release as my mother hoards more and more of them, like the envelopes and scraps of paper she refuses to throw away.
After our mother’s diagnosis almost a decade ago, my siblings and I thought we understood the struggles that awaited us. We hadn’t yet heard the phrase “sandwich generation” — but then we weren’t sandwiched, yet. When my sister volunteered herself as caretaker, our kids were all still theoretical — plans or maybes. We were all thinking multi-generational households and ground-floor bedrooms with zero-entry showers, not picturing ourselves cajoling both a parent and a child to please please please just get dressed please. What I try to repeat, now, to everyone in the sandwich:
The truth: none of us are, not really.
The holophrastic stage of language acquisition refers to the time when children use one-word utterances that convey greater meaning: milk for I would like a drink of, or I’ve spilled it on the floor. The idea is that the child has understanding beyond the language they can express. Sometimes, when I’m talking to my mother, I can see that she knows exactly what she wants to say, but even a single word is just out of reach. When I have patience, I try to grapple toward meaning with her. We were talking about lunch, is it something about lunch? Cooking? Hungers? The past? The future? An illness? A mess? When I don’t have patience, I blame a child’s needs and hang up and feel guilty all day.
When my kid started to talk, I felt both that I knew her better and that a new, even less fathomable place had opened inside her. There was so much my kid could say to me now, and so much she wouldn’t. I ask her so many questions. Even when she doesn’t answer them, I get the feeling that she could if she wanted to. My mama wrote a book! She used every letter, she said when my first novel came out this summer. When someone reminded her how proud she must be of me, she responded with a quiet yes or wow. At 3, her responses are now more linguistically complex, and more satisfying, than my mother’s.
It’s not my daughter’s responsibility to tell me she’s proud of me, to make me feel cherished and safe. That’s what I need to do for her. It’s what my mother did for me — beautifully, for as long as she had the words.
This comparison feels terribly wrong, though — it’s not my daughter’s responsibility to tell me she’s proud of me, to make me feel cherished and safe. That’s what I need to do for her. It’s what my mother did for me — beautifully, for as long as she had the words. She would have hated the dynamic between us now. She would have articulated with precision the exact ways in which our current situation is awful. She might have added some slightly off-kilter example, possibly pulled from deep recess of her studies, which would stay with me forever, like when she told me that maybe the guy I liked had ghosted me because I reminded him of an aunt that died by suicide. You can’t really know what’s going on inside anyone’s head.
A few months ago, we were visiting my sister and her family. Our mother is in assisted living nearby now, but we bring her over when we’re all at my sister’s house. My sister keeps having to remind our mother to sit in the same room with us. Go spend time with your grandchildren, she’ll say, and our mother, who once believed she would be an excellent grandmother, lurches into the living room silently as our kids create their own worlds around her.
This is a monster but it’s a nice monster and he just wants a bowl of chocolate chips but his mom said no not yet not until you eat three peppers and there are MOSQUITOES EVERYWHERE but spiders eat mosquitoes did you know that? My kid and her cousin interrupt each other, or carry on parallel conversations with the air. They spill over with words, and my mother is unreachable.
During that visit, when my sister went to the store, my kid asked nonchalantly, “Where’s Aunt Caroline? Did she die?” She had, of course, just seen The Lion King, which can prepare you for death as a sudden not-here-ness. Not so much for death as a very slow slipping, a loss of language and reason and memory and agency and presence in every way that matters.
The worst moments with my mother are when I can tell that she knows exactly what she’s losing, what she’s already lost. The kid doesn’t know what’s ahead, and what any of it will feel like. My mother and my child can’t walk past each other on their linguistic journeys. There’s no meeting in the middle. Still, it is a fitting consolation to watch my kid as she realizes she’s unlocked something big. She pumps her fists up and down like she’s shaking up two cans and gasps when she spots the first letter of her name. When she makes a good joke, we pass it back and forth like a water balloon, and I try not to dwell on its fragility.
Jessie Gaynor is the author of the novel The Glow. She's a senior editor at Literary Hub and has written for The New Yorker, McSweeney's, and Dirt, among others. You can find more of her work at jessiegaynor.com.
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