My mother’s music suddenly stopped 30 years ago, but she is still alive. At the age of 53, Elaine Wolpe, a university administrator, fundraiser and — most taxing — mother of four boys, suffered a stroke, a cerebral hemorrhage. Since that time, she has been almost unable to speak.

Before her stroke, my mother was the emotional center of a voluble and intellectual family. A president of the local Hadassah, active in a variety of community events, a rebbetzin in a large synagogue, her most adroit diplomacy was mealtime management. At our table, especially when we had others over to dinner, we (the four boys and my moderating father) would quip, argue, try to outdo each other, make heroic efforts to make the others laugh (special points if their mouths were full), and my mother would remind us to be kind to the hapless guests. Trained as a teacher, she taught each of us to read when we were small, and she made our dinner herself, despite volunteer commitments, every single night.  

This is not to say she was never sharp-tongued herself. Once my older brother Paul brought a girlfriend home from college. In the middle of dinner, he reminded my mother that she had promised to get him an electric blanket for the cold Philadelphia winter nights. Arching her eyebrow (my mother had eloquent eyebrows) she looked at my brother’s girlfriend and asked, “Do you want dual controls on that?”

I was in rabbinical school when everything changed. My mother screamed out my father’s name, collapsed and was rushed to the hospital. She spent weeks in a coma, then awoke. After an extended vigil in intensive care, she was periodically alert.  Her right side was immobile, and although she could make sounds, she could not really speak. It was as if her spirit was in there, trying to emerge, yet unable to force its way through. Her soul kept bumping up against walls it could not see, like a firefly in a glass jar. 

In time, we brought her home. Progress was slow. There were other effects of her stroke: emotionality that resulted in tremendous rage; the bewilderment of being betrayed by her own body. But those agonies were small compared to her inability to explain what she felt, to give voice to what was going on inside. Expressive aphasia impairs or destroys the ability to speak and process language. Syntax is garbled, the wrong words present themselves, simple expressions are mislaid in the mind and cannot be retrieved.

Occasionally, a word would emerge to explain the horror of her condition. Early on, after a good deal of struggle, she managed to pronounce something she had been trying to say for some time: “Prison.” She repeated it again and again with a sort of mantric regularity. Prison. Prison. Prison. 

Prison alternated with a nonsense word, a common symptom among victims of expressive aphasia. For almost a year, “kisskove” served as the catch-all for anything she wished to say. In moments of tenderness or fury, when words are just whips we use to lash or the cords we use to draw close, kisskove served as well as any other.

Realizing at times just how wearying it could be on everyone to hear the same sound, my mother herself would make fun of it, raising and lowering her voice, wringing a few laughs from a situation at once tragic and absolutely ludicrous.  Gradually, over time, the word became less frequent, and then disappeared altogether.

David Wolpe,  Rabbi of Sinai Temple.

 

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