My inner ear is not known for its cleverness in cars. On the ride from Burlington, VT back home to Marlboro, VT last night, I got spectacularly carsick (not unusual, sadly). I spent almost all of the ride slumped motionless in my seat, reminding myself which way was up and attempting to breathe. My poor parents kept trying to ask how I was doing, but all I could manage to do was mumble and wave my left hand in a feeble attempt at "thumbs up".
But even though my verbal communication was totally nonexistent, I was able to think about stuff during that car ride. We'd been in Burlington to visit my grandparents. My grandfather has both Parkinson's and Alzheimer's diseases. Both are very advanced. He's quite shaky, and sometimes he can't remember how to walk or sit up, so he spends most of his time lying on the couch. Two or three minutes of slow walking exhausts him. He still speaks a little bit, mostly in response to questions, and occasionally on his own. He doesn't recognize anybody except for my grandmother, and he only recognizes her 50% of the time these days. But in so many ways, he hasn't changed. His expressions and mannerisms, though displayed on a failing body, are totally recognizable. He can sing along to almost any hymn - including all of the words. And, most significantly, his pronounced sweet tooth and fondness for dessert has only been magnified as the disease has progressed. He may not remember how to read, but ice cream? He knows all about that.
While we were visiting, I took a walk downtown with my family. As we milled around, I remembered that Amanda Baggs lives in downtown Burlington and I wondered if I was anywhere near her apartment. I remembered
reading a post somewhere on her blog that said that anybody friendly was welcome to visit her, which I thought was an disarmingly generous offer. Of course, I never did find her apartment (though I must have been close). But if I had found it, and if I had actually summoned up the courage to knock on her door - an unlikely prospect, I know, but it's just imaginary - and she had been in a chatty mood, we would have had an unusual conversation. She probably would have used her speech synthesizer, and I probably would have spoken out loud.
I saw Amanda Baggs' video "In My Language" long before I found her blog. In her video, she explains that her native language is not really English, but a constant interaction with every part of the world around her. Though she does speak fluent English, it is taxing for her when she types it, and nearly impossible if she tries to speak out loud. (Similar, I think, to the way I have increasing difficulty speaking my second languages as I get more tired.) I took her video as a challenge never to assume that any living thing (human or animal) is unintelligent or unfeeling on the grounds that he, she, or it cannot communicate in my language. In some ways, that's obvious - I don't assume a Frenchman is an idiot just because he cannot speak English. And one reason I'm a vegetarian is because I'm not fluent in the language of chickens, cows or pigs, so they can't tell me that they'd like a chance to keep on living, and so I defer to the (reasonable, I think) assumption that living things want to keep living. Because it's silly to assume that somebody or something you can't communicate with is less worthy of life than you are. (Don't get all cheeky and tell me I shouldn't eat plants because I can't talk to them either. Philosophy only goes so far - I will, in fact, kill plants to ensure my own survival. I like living too.)
But what about Alzheimer's? Is there a language of Alzheimer's? Should I have learned it long ago? So often, people speak to my grandfather like he's just a shell of a person, with no consciousness at all. His attention to the present time and place does seem to fade in and out, but I doubt his mind is blank during those times. What must he be thinking about? As his brain melts away little by little, is he creating a new language?
So far, I only know one word in the my grandfather's new language: dessert. That's my main method of communication. Ice cream, brownies, chocolates, pie, whipped cream. The deliciousness of these things is a point of understanding. A good bite of dessert, and there's a twinkle in his eye, a knowing look, a little nod of the head. Good communicatin'.