Bruce Willis, my father Rod, and the miracle of communication
20 years ago, my father, Rod Colbin, had a major stroke that left him, in its immediate aftermath, disoriented, visually impaired, and unable to form even simple sentences.
He had been in Mexico when it happened, in a house he had built on the Baja Peninsula. My sister and I went to care for him, totally unprepared for what we found. He lay in bed, fidgeting constantly, trying to pull off the various devices and sensors he was hooked up to. He couldn’t focus; in fact, he completely ignored anything on the right side of his field of vision.
And he mumbled continually, full of gibberish. Every now and then he’d perk up with a few coherent words, generally louder than the background nonsense, and my sister and I would jump and draw closer, anxious for meaningful communication. Sadly, none materialized: “Zhiva muje derded WHATEVER HAPPENED TO ruzha misha mumma…”
We brought him to Denver for long-term treatment. He had to learn how to chew and swallow. He had to learn how to use a wheelchair and take a few halting steps. And he had to learn how to talk again. The stroke had left him with severe aphasia, the same neurological disorder Bruce Willis has been diagnosed with.
I don’t know anything about Bruce’s condition. But for my dad, aphasia manifested itself in a few different ways.
Sometimes, he would just say the completely wrong word: Instead of “sneaker,” he might say “newspaper.”
Sometimes, he would start a word correctly but finish it incorrectly. Perhaps he wanted to say “difficult,” but what came out was “diplomatic.”
And sometimes, he would use a related word. Once he left me a voice message: “This is your son, this is your son.”
Think about what was going on there:
He knows he’s a relative.
He knows he’s a male relative.
He knows it’s a parent-child relationship.
It’s just that last little bit — whether he’s the parent or the child — that he’s got backwards.
My father eventually recovered enough to engage in conversation, enjoy his grandchildren, and move around with the aid of a walker. We were blessed with six…