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Caring Citizen Story
A personal experience with another form of language

Beyond Silence 
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.


Saturday, November 2, 1996
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 accident.

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.

"Do you 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.

"Hi Denise!" 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.

"You're practicing 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 words.

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?

Photographers talk 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 sad.

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