As a writer and storyteller, I have always had a love affair with words. My two favorite books are my dictionary and thesaurus, and I have been known to blissfully while away hours of free time working the Sunday New York Times crossword puzzle. Words... complete me. They are my companions when I am lonely, my inspiration when I despair, and my weapons when I rage.
But words are the tools of the brain, particularly the left hemisphere. And in their concrete and rational functioning, words are sometimes inadequate to express that which is intangible and deep -- like love. There are simply times, as in the story that follows, when brain-crafted words must bow down to the ineffable power of heart-spun love:
Imagine the frustration experienced by a stroke patient whose left-brain has been so damaged that she has lost the ability to use words for communication. Dorothy was one such stroke patient in the nursing home where I worked, who was unable to speak more than these three words: "yes," "no," and "okay."
While she could understand words that were spoken to her and could formulate a response in her mind, Dorothy's brain was unable to choose the appropriate words to convey that response. When Dorothy did try to speak she could produce only a meaningless stream of gibberish, punctuated with an occasional "yes" or "no" or "okay."
Yet somehow, Dorothy managed to cope with this tremendous challenge and function with a sense of humor. On our first visit together when I introduced myself as her new doctor, she frowned and kept repeating, "No, no, no." She reached for the notebook of pictures she relied upon to help her communicate and showed me the image labeled "doctor" -- a male figure in a white coat with a stethoscope around his neck. Again she repeated adamantly, "No, no, no."
I didn't understand what Dorothy was trying to tell me until our next visit. With eyes twinkling, she opened her notebook to the same page she had shown me before. There, she had used a pencil to draw some scribbles of long hair on the "doctor" image so it would look more like me -- a woman doctor. She laughed and squeezed my hand saying, "yes... okay, okay," and I recognized then just how well Dorothy's mind was functioning inside the wordless prison of her damaged brain. I also learned that deep connections can be formed even in the absence of words.
A few months later I was sitting at the nurses' station when James, a 46-year-old man with multiple sclerosis, wheeled his chair up to ask for something from the nurse. His MS was very advanced at that point and had affected the muscles of his face and mouth, making it difficult for him to speak clearly at times. On that day his speech was particularly garbled, and the nurse could not figure out what he was trying to say. She kept repeating "I don't understand you" while James tried over and over again, in a louder and louder voice, to tell her what he needed.
As his frustration became unbearable, James began to cry and pound his fist on the desk in a heartbreaking scene. At that moment, the toll of living for years with MS, watching his body deteriorate and become functionless while his mind remained whole, finally reached a tipping point. James poured out all his pain and sorrow as the nurse and I could only stand by helplessly, unable to understand or comfort him.
Then from around the corner Dorothy appeared, pushing the wheel of her chair with her one good arm. She came up alongside James and reached out to him, gently patting his arm and shoulder with her hand, saying softly, "Okay... okay... okay." Gradually James stopped crying and leaned his head against Dorothy, the one person in the entire nursing home who understood exactly how he felt at that moment.
As I watched that beautiful scene unfold, it became clear to me that words are often an inferior means of expressing the love that spontaneously emanates from the heart. Words, in fact, are like bandages we wrap around our brokenness, while genuine love, unaided by words, is the spark that initiates true healing.
As a writer and lover of words, it takes humility for me to recognize and deliver this message: My words are less important than the love I convey from my heart. And so may you, and whatever brokenness you nurture within, receive the spark that I am sending, hidden within this wrapping of words. Nothing more needs to be said except, perhaps, "Okay... okay... okay."
For more by Karen M. Wyatt, M.D., click here.
For more on love, click here.