Caring Citizen —
A personal experience
with another form of language
The art of wordless conversation
An accident robbed Denise
Aman of the ability to move or speak, but her eyes and a breathy
laugh communicate volumes. With one hell of a stare, she enrolls
others in private language lessons.
BY SANDRA SHIELDS
Special to The Globe and Mail
Calgary -- SHE'S spelling sentences now," Gary said as he fed
her lunch. Denise interrupted with a loud gurgle. It's the sound of
progress: When we first met, a breathy laugh was her entire
vocabulary. Not that she didn't put it to good use. She could spread
laughter like contagion. Everyone says she was like this before the
It happened at
Christmastime seven years ago on an icy road in her hometown of
Medicine Hat. A skidding Bronco changed Denise from a leggy blonde
into a full-on trauma case. She was 22. Now she lives behind a door
marked Denise Aman at the Dr. Vernon Fanning Centre, along with
three storeys of other broken people.
Her mother introduced
us in these antiseptic hallways. Rose Lucas kept a vigil at Denise's
bedside throughout her daughter's three-week coma. When Denise
opened her eyes, she showed only the slightest signs of awareness.
Undaunted, her mother began limbering rigid limbs with massage and
exercise. For three years, her full-time job was Denise.
Denise's full-time job
was -- and remains -- remembering how to move. Her arms
and legs swung in big swift gestures, like a marionette without
hinges at the elbows or knees. The years of therapy have helped
rebuild the links between body and brain. Both are working; there is
just a bad connection where they plug in. The short circuit extends
to her voice as well.
Unable to speak, unable
to sign, able to spell, but only slowly (a sentence
can take 20 minutes of finding the appropriate letters on an
alphabet board), Denise has a one-sided relationship with words. She
hears them but she never says them. At parties, this makes her a
curve ball in the early innings of social small talk.
"Hi Denise, nice
to meet you." The new arrival bends to wheelchair height and
Denise's eyes shine. Her arms fly out and her entire face explodes
into a smile, but she doesn't say a thing.
Silence is a
conversational minefield. People meeting Denise for the first time
either rush into it, mindlessly exposing themselves, or back off
fast. Early in the evening, people usually retreat. Later,
emboldened by a few drinks, some return for a foray into the
uncharted territory of conversation with the wordless.
It is a lost art, one
that Denise has been tutoring me in since we met three years ago
when I was writing a story about brain injury for a local Calgary
magazine. Rose went to buy coffee, leaving Denise and me alone for
the first time. Using one hell of a stare, she enrolled me in
private language lessons.
The hallway of the
hospital stretched bleak around us. I was tongue-tied. People limped
by or wheeled past, hanging from their chairs at impossible angles.
Denise's eyes went suddenly sharp and challenging. The communication
was clear: "I am in here. Don't you dare not see me."
She spoke in a language
that I remembered dimly from a time before I converted to words. A
language in which children are fluent. When we are young our eyes
strike up conversations with cats, they tell trees about
wonder, they seduce our mothers. Then we learn words and we trade
the clean speech of our eyes for the endless corridors of English.
As we grow up our eyes
shut down. Their vocabulary narrows until they speak only the
simplest sentences -- those of love and hate. Even then we generally
reserve these visual declarations only for those closest to us.
But here was a
stranger, telling me with her eyes that she was, despite her
speechless immobility, a cognitive creature. More than that, she
wanted a response.
Speaking seemed wrong,
yet an answer was needed. The force and precision of her gaze told
me that if I wanted to be part of her life, I had to look at her,
had to acknowledge that in that motionless flesh sits a person who
sees, thinks and understands.
My eyes were wildly out
of practice. I concentrated, hoping they might remember how to talk.
It was the answering look in Denise's eyes that told me I had indeed
spoken without speaking. I left, strangely shaken, and have never
stopped coming back. The conversation is too interesting.
Gary Reich thinks so
too. He dated Denise before the accident and has been with her
since. Through a complex calligraphy of eyes and hands, basic
spelling and male monologues, they have twined together a romance.
fight?" I asked once. They both laughed, and Gary explained
they have disagreements just like any other couple: "You don't
need words to fight," he said. Denise agreed with her eyes.
But mostly they laugh.
Her silence is a stage upon which his hidden talents as a comedian
have come to light. Daily, he gives her jokes as a gift and she
offers a breathy gurgle in return. The irony of dumb blonde jokes
told deadpan to a brain-injured woman with yellow hair never fails
to initiate her spreading yawn of a laugh.
It's a trademark. She
uses it to greet those she likes -- family, friends, cute men.
People get addicted to this laugh.
staff and volunteers call out. Other patients edge their wheelchairs
up to hers so they can hang out with her.
Through the slow space
of years, we have watched Denise fight for inches. Since I met her
she has learned to hold her head up, to roll over and, recently, to
make these guttural gurgles that are interrupting my talk with Gary.
sounds, aren't you?" I ask Denise, struck by the parallel
between her gurgles and the cooing of a baby. "This is like
finding your vocal chords, isn't it?"
She beams and raises
the volume; raising, at the same time, our hopes that one day she
will talk. It's a theme we all return to: "Damn it, Denise, I'm
looking forward to having a conversation with you." Although
her eyes are talking at top speed, we crave the reassurance of
We are unsure of eyes.
We read them poorly, tentatively, then stumble over believing what
we see there. The power of eyes lies uncomfortably beyond easy
explanation. When a man stares at me across a crowded bar, why can I
feel his gaze? What is coming out of his eyes and reaching through
space to touch me, to make me turn around and stare back?
about it. Catching people unaware is difficult, they say. People
feel the camera, the photographer's eye, and respond to it. Eyes, it
seems, are a language grounded in the electricity of living things.
They project presence. Denise uses them brilliantly: To get our
attention, pull us close, give us a mainline hit of emotion.
She tells intimate
tales with her eyes, but they are tales from which a thousand
defining details have been edited. For those, we need words to plug
us into the present, connecting us with the minutiae that cannot be
projected, unspoken, through the air. "I asked Denise if there
was anything she wanted," Rose says. Her daughter spelled
"Hawaii" and "fur."
Humour comes off Denise
in waves. When it comes out in words, however, it has a wry and
witty edge. Asked what she wanted to drink at a party, Denise
spelled "paralyzer." I haven't asked Denise for many
words. She strains to spell; her disobedient fingers bypass letters,
slip off the alphabet board, come back to try again. But as she
gurgled and grinned her way through lunch, I asked for a sentence.
Denise, I said, I don't
have to ask if you're happy. I can see that. What I want to know is
why you're happy.
She grinned. Yes, she
would spell me an answer.
We took her to bed,
where she has better control of her fingers. After 20 minutes of
concentration we were in possession of four words: Better than being
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