When I was born my dad was in seminary, which meant he was studying Greek and Latin (and maybe a little Aramaic?) along with theology. For years, whenever I asked Dad what a word meant, he gave me the Latin root first. I rolled my eyes, but despite myself I fell hopelessly in love with language. I had a brief affair with Latin, got married to French, and begged Shakespeare to adopt me into his extended family. He did, and I became an actor.
Language introduced me to my friend Denise, a fellow bilingual performer. We both do voice-over work for an international company (Denise is fluent in Spanish and English). She and I were talking the other day about our moms, both of whom have some form of dementia. We love our moms, and hate watching them slip farther into the disease. It helps to have a friend to commiserate with.
Now, as my father would be quick to note, the word “commiserate” comes from the same Latin source as “misery.” It implies wretchedness, deep distress, and pity. We don’t use it this way most of the time, but that’s the etymology.
Do I really want to think of my mom’s condition – and my relationship with her – as misery? Do the words I use to describe her situation make a difference?
I think they do. I recently had to turn off auto-complete in my word processor, because every time I tried to type the words “hearing aid” in a post about Mom, it gave me “heartbreaking”. Believe me, when a mostly-deaf woman loses her hearing aid for the forty-seventh time, it is heartbreaking, but I don’t want my computer reminding me of that. I want to choose my words.
Life with dementia does have its share of misery and heartbreak. But so does life without dementia.
I believe that, without denying the painful truth, I can find less painful words to describe this chapter of our lives.
For instance: humor. Mom and I were singing goofy songs in the car Sunday morning on the way to church, and she started to laugh.
Mom: Crazy people!
Me: Are you calling me crazy?
Me: Well, thank you.
Mom: You’re welcome. It’s a compliment.
We both dissolved in giggles. This is fun, dammit! This is exactly the way I want to spend time with the people I love – laughing, playing, seizing the moment. So what if I also have to spend time reassuring, comforting, and serving this woman? She’s my mother and, more important, my friend . Wouldn’t I do that for any friend?
I’ve been compiling a list of words to explore in future blog posts: words that might open conversations about life with dementia. They aren’t all happy words; I do have to acknowledge that this is hard. They are simply truthful words, ways of talking about my experience and inviting you to talk about yours, if you’re so inclined. Words like Anger. Compassion. Grief. Creativity. Fear. Companionship. Joy.
My friend Denise suggested Guilt (that’s a big one!) and Balance. Lovely choices, don’t you think? I’ll be diving into the dictionary in the coming weeks to see what I can find. I hope you’ll join me.