The surgeon who intended to repair my aortic valve late in 1997 advised me to stop my Coumadin intake five days before the procedure. On the fourth day, a stroke occurred. The stroke spared my limbs but left me with an active case of aphasia. The surgeon, who is a decent fellow, said that “We dodged a bullet.” He does not have aphasia. But in any case his statement came out as “We dodged a bullet.”

While I was still in the hospital recovering from the stroke, two women came by and told me that they were going to help me with my aphasia problem. They left sheets of paper and told me on one occasion to write down every vegetable that I could think of on this one sheet. The next day they came by and told me to write the name of every automobile I could think of. Then they said that in a day or two they would return and I would be asked to repeat, for example, the names of 20 automobiles in, say, 20 seconds and the same would apply to the vegetables. It turns out that those two women were hoping to establish a business to help aphasia sufferers. As soon as I could leave the hospital, I returned the papers and my wife contacted the Kessler Rehabilitation Institute.

After a few sessions, the speech therapist advised me to start writing essays as a means of restoring some of the loss in my brain. It so happened that the first essay was due on December 8, 1997. It also so happens that in 1943 my airplane was shot down on December 8th over Northern Italy. Furthermore, ten years later on December 8th in Chicago it was our good fortune to adopt a two-and-a-half-month old baby girl. And finally, on December 8, 1956, her sister was born. And so my first essay had to do with those events.

While we dodged bullets, as I freely concede, aphasia has hung around for all of the ten years since the stroke. Even today, I cannot name the stationary bicycle that I ride in our gym in the basement without first recalling the Seagal Stationery Store in Summit. I cannot pronounce the word persimmon without thinking first of the Simmons Mattress Company. And the word Bacitracin will not come to my lips until I think of my parents saying that Herbert Hoover was going after things bass-ackwards. Beyond that, there are word substitutions. For example, when my wife went to mail our income tax to the Internal Revenue Service, I asked her if she had mailed our umbrella. To the extent that I can do it, I find these lapses into aphasia humorous.

While the speech pathologist got me to start writing essays, I have not quit. As I dictate this little article, to my right are ten three-inch binders holding essays that I have produced over the past ten years. My estimate is that 200 or more have been written as a means of dealing with aphasia. There are people who ask how I think of subjects to write about. My grandson says that the essays are memoirs of my long life. I find that when I am engaged in my bathroom, subjects come to me almost automatically. I write about people I have known, humorous events during my service in the United States Army, my family who had religious quirks, and dozens of other subjects.

As the son of Irish antecedents, I find the British monarchy hilarious beyond belief and a splendid source for my essays. For example when the Prince of Wales decided to share quarters with Camilla Parker-Bowles before they were married, Queen Elizabeth insisted that he construct another bedroom next to his official residence at Clarence House. The Queen politely ignored the fact that they had been lovers for at least 30 years during their marriages to other people. But the Queen was determined to preserve British dignity at any cost.

Clearly, there are many cases of aphasia that are much more severe than the one I have. My recovery from aphasia was not helped by the onset of glaucoma, which blinded me totally at the end of October, 2005. When I could read and write, I could absorb information from the written page. Now I must rely entirely on my ability to hear. But the essays have not stopped. I now have a recording device into which I am dictating this article. The cassettes from the device are transcribed by a lovely lady who lives about eight miles from here, who then sends the finished product back by email. At that point, my wife Judy and I go to work correcting and polishing the essays. It may seem like a cumbersome procedure, but it works.

In the previous paragraph, I had difficulty trying to recall the word glaucoma. I know that word inside and out because glaucoma blinded my father as it did my elder brother. Yet due to aphasia, there are many instances where the name glaucoma either will not come to my mind or refuses to be pronounced.

I am not a physician or a psychologist or a member of any of the professions that treat aphasia in a clinical manner. I am simply an 85-year-old geezer who worked for AT&T for 43 years and who found the time to volunteer for the United States Army Air Corps when World War II started. If I had any advice to offer to other aphasia sufferers, it would be for you to consider writing essays. My essays are distributed to about 25 or 30 people, who from time to time encourage me by their responses. When I fail to write essays, my vocabulary shrinks.

So you see, it is important for me to keep on writing essays. Not everyone considers them literary gems, but when it comes to battling aphasia, they seem to get the job done. Aphasia may have closed one door in my life, but it opened another one involving essays. In the final analysis, every person must play the hand he is dealt, even though he may have to dodge some bullets while doing so.

January 16, 2008
Essay 284
Kevin’s commentary: I’m always a fan of these meta essays. Also, as I go back in time, I realize that Pop has been using the umbrella example to demonstrate his affliction for a long time. This would indicate to me either that it was the most egregious word substitution or there simply aren’t that many to choose from in the last few years — each option of course being very good news to me. I hope that 2014 brings at another crop of new essays.

Honestly I think I’m incredibly lucky to have access to this large of a body of work regarding my grandfather. I live a long way from New Jersey and our chances to have conversations in person are somewhat limited. Essays are of course not a perfect substitute for that but this is a way for me to have at least a short conversation, even if it’s one way sometimes, with Pop every day. Kinda cool!

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