Monday, September 22, 2008


Harry is one of those people who has inspired my hope as well as my writing. Fond as he was of universities, I suspect he would have been pleased to know that McMaster University Press has published a story about him as part of an anthology from the Writing Down Our Years Series. The book is:

This Little Light of Mine: Stories and Poetry from Family Caregivers
Kathleen M. Banchoff, Editor
Illustrated with the photography of Richard and Eleanore Kosydar.

The book can be purchased for $15.00 online from McMaster

My contribution, one of many in the book, appears here in its entirety, my tribute to Harry’s courage and persistence.

Wendy Edey

It is a good thing old age comes so late in life. It gives you the time to develop the resources to deal with it. There is a lot of noise in Harry’s room—too much noise really—given that this is a hospital and the official beginning of visiting hours is still an hour away. There is a lot of noise, but not quite enough to cover the sound of the too-loud voices coming from the hallway.

It is the morning after the stroke, the morning after the big one, the whopper, the cataclysmic stroke of all strokes, the stroke that stilled his good right arm and turned his leg to jelly. It is the morning after the cat got Harry’s tongue.

Harry’s room is a double room shared with a stranger. Harry would like to share the bathroom. For the moment that is out of the question because he is trapped in his bed. But Harry is not a man to be trifled with, and already he is having an influence, holding court from a horizontal perspective, using every muscle that moves, conducting the family through a modified game of charades.

“Bed pan,” cries a son. Bedpan is, on that morning, a guess of enormous importance, a guess you would want to make in case there wasn’t much time.

“No!” shouts Harry. It is a firm no, a definite no, the kind of no a three-year-old shouts when you try to put his shoes on. But it is music to the ears of the family. Maybe the cat that got his tongue has left some important words for Harry.

“Water jug!” cries a granddaughter. Thirst might be the problem.

“No!” shouts Harry.

More guesses. “Close these curtains!”


“A tissue for your nose?”

“No!” And then Harry says, “There!” A sigh from the family. Another word left by the cat.

He says it again. “There!”

But where? We try again. “Pull up the blanket?”


“Crank up the bed?”

“No!. A breath. “No! No! No! No!” And then, a flash of anger hot as fire, ”Damn it all!”

Shocked silence from the family. Can Harry really have said that? The cat who took the words must have a sense of humour. Harry has never been a man to swear. But then, communication has never been so difficult before, so promising and so daunting at the same time.

We pause to collect our thoughts. But silence will not do. It is noise we need now, noise. Make more noise! If we make more noise it might be impossible for Harry to hear, for us to hear the too-loud voice of the young doctor echoing in the hallway just beyond Harry’s door. Only a moment ago that man came right into the room and said, “If Harry’s wife is here I would like to speak to her about a do-not-resuscitate order. We don’t have one on the chart.”

Not a word did he speak to Harry. Presumably he was in a hurry. He wanted to get a do-not-resuscitate order on the chart. In his hand was a clipboard, and he would likely have had the full conversation then and there had one of Harry’s sons not risen to guide his mother to the door. There might have been a quiet room in soft pastels where Harry’s wife might have sat to discuss this difficult issue. But just outside the door the doctor stopped abruptly, turning back to continue the conversation, addressing himself to Harry’s wife.

Harry’s wife was tired, but she was not a woman to be trifled with. “Harry made a living will,” she said, getting the upper hand. “We brought it with us last night when we came in the ambulance. Maybe they still have it down in Emergency. He didn’t want to be a vegetable.”

The doctor was unimpressed. The word ‘vegetable’ was not on any of his forms. But that was the word Harry had used. What did he mean by that anyway? He meant he did not want to be passive, so passive he could be thrown into a pot and boiled up, so passive that others would have to tend him, keep his basic systems going. He wanted to be active, interactive, involved in the rhythm of daily life like a human being would be involved.

Inside Harry’s room there is no sign of vegetablehood right now. Harry is definitely not passive, not even close. He is, in fact, the centre of attention. It isn’t even visiting hours yet, and there are already a lot of people in Harry’s room, two patients, seven visitors. In the who-can-have-the-most-visitors competition, Harry has a definite lead, five visitors for him, two for the other guy. It is a difficult situation in some ways. Hospitals never quite know what to do about visitors. Visitors are good for the patients, but too many visitors can be too much of a good thing. Visiting hours keep things organized, but patients need their families in times of crisis. If the cat’s got your tongue your family can speak for you—sort of.

The too-loud conversation in the hahll is very short, as impromptu standing-up conversations among strangers tend to be. A granddaughter rises to make a chair available to Harry’s wife as she comes back in. One way to control the number of visitors is to control the number of chairs. Harry’s room has only four chairs, but we don’t mind standing. Things are pretty active anyway, what with Harry trying to give us a message we can’t understand, and all the guessing going on.

There is a better chance of solving the puzzle now that Harry’s wife is in the game. She ought to be exhausted, having spent last evening and most of the night in the emergency ward. This does not seem like a good time to discuss the too-loud hallway conversation, so we ask instead for her help with the game. We have exhausted all possibilities, made a hundred guesses. We have surveyed the ceiling, surveyed the floor, and still Harry persists. Whatever it is he wants to say, it must be very important.

“There!” he cries in agitation, the way an ignored messenger of war might cry when bringing news of an impending attack. “There!”

Harry’s wife has been his wife for 55 years. She knows him pretty well, well enough to predict that he will not give up until we have finally understood whatever it is that he wants to communicate. He has never been a man to give up. Anyone who knows him will tell you that. This is the man who insisted on finishing high school at a time when farm boys were not offered a full education. This is the man who went to war, cleaned guns, fell in love with a Welsh nurse, sacrificed his wedding day for D. Day in France and later married her in his army boots because he had no other shoes.

“He is looking at your chair,” she says to a daughter. It is not twelve hours since the cat got his tongue and already she is developing a skill in telepathy. “He is looking at your chair. Stand up will you?”

This is definitely going to be a challenge. Yesterday he could marshal 60,000 words. Today he is limited to five, including no, there and damn it all. It’s quite a loss when you consider it, 59,995 words wiped away in a single night, gone, but not forgotten. He has not forgotten them. She can see it in his eyes, know it from his history. Once they lost a daughter, a happy, laughing, bouncing daughter. One moment she was swimming in the river and the next moment she was gone. And there was nothing left to do but pull her lifeless body from the weeds where it was tangled. There was grieving, unfathomable grieving. There was heartbreak so deep that tears could still pour out forty years later. What is the loss of 59,995 words and a good right side compared with the loss of a daughter? Can a mere stroke be expected to vanquish a man who has lost a daughter and still not given up?

He has not given up on whatever it is he is after. Now, if his wife is guessing correctly, he is deeply concerned about a chair, the chair where another daughter is sitting. At her mother’s command she stands, and he smiles. They are making progress. But he is not finished yet.

This is a farm boy who started university at 43, survived a major heart attack at 58, studied French at 75. He taught math to bank tellers, computer science to students of business. This is a man who crossed the U.S.S.R., cruised the Amazon. He is a historian, a genealogist. His thoughts are not always simple.

His daughter is standing and he is smiling and still the puzzle is not solved. Is it something about her? No, it seems to be something about the chair. No, not about the chair, but about the bed next to his. No, not about the bed next to his, something about the visitors to the man in the bed next to his. What can it be?

And then suddenly the puzzle is solved. It is the chair. The visitors of the other patient only have one chair, and we have three. We have their other chair. We took their other chair and we need to give it back to them. So we give it back to them. Now both of his visitors have a chair. Two chairs for them and two for us. It is the thing Harry would have told us to do in the days when he had the words. We are cheering now, cheering the way we would be cheering if one of us had won ten thousand dollars on a TV game show.

Harry is not a vegetable. He is involved. We do not know it yet, but in the face of his new life, Harry will be more resolute, more resilient, more resourceful than we ever imagined he could be. We do not know it on this morning, but he has six more years, six more years of laughing at family parties, winning at cards and crying occasionally for his lost daughter. More words will be reconnected, names of people, names of objects. He will proudly display newspaper articles and army medals. He will give to charity, attend church, go to the bank, sign his name with his left hand, walk, fall and walk again.

On this difficult morning, when he knows there are still some things he can do, he chooses to hope there will be more things he can do as time goes on. He has always been a learner. Just this morning he began learning how it feels to be disregarded, as if he were invisible, invisible because he does not speak a language that can be understood by people in a hurry. And so he begins to take charge, to rally his family and friends. To us he will not be invisible. It will take more people to solve a problem. It will take longer than it used to. But we will do the best we can. This is not the only game of charades we will play. It is the first of a thousand enactments, enactments leading to guesses, guesses to fill the spaces, millions of spaces left by the thousands of words the cat took.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Hi Wendy: This is Judy Danielson Taylor from Sedgewick and now Carstairs: Wonderful story about overcoming, Wendy!! Thank you for your insights. We have a daughter-in-law who works with stroke victims trying to help them regain "the words the cat took". Julie Greidanus Taylor worked at the Speech School last year by the UofA, and now she is in New Zealand for a year working as Speech Pathologist out of two Auckland hospitals while our son Lowell does his Masters in Psych. online. I am going to pass on your blog site to them; I'm sure they will enjoy it.
Happy Thanksgiving to you and yours. Keep on giving others hope.
Honored to know you,