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Mom’s Sweet Words

There was nothing sweeter than the sound of delight in my mom’s voice when she said my name, especially when I might surprise her at work (she was a school custodian until she was eighty) or give her an unexpected gift.  She would have a big smile on her face and her eyes twinkled, then she would say one of several variations of my name – Glen-da, Glennie, or Sweet Glenda.

But all that changed after her stroke. Even though her mobility was going to be fine, her speech was affected the most. Mom could form her sentences, but quickly coming up with the words eluded her. Another result was the impossible task of pronouncing the “gl” sound in Glenda. “I guess I’ll just have to come up with other words to use,” Mom joked. It was good to know that she still had her sense of humor.

My brother and I found a rehabilitation facility near Mom’s home in Missouri. Mike lived nearby and would take care of Mom’s two dogs, Walker and Molly. I would get Mom settled into the facility the first week. After that, I would travel back to my home in Indiana where I taught school. The plan was for me to return during the third week, which would be Mom’s last week of therapy. I would help Mom get settled back in her house.

Physical therapy was easy for Mom. She didn’t mind participating in the strength and balance exercises. The therapists became acquainted with her fun-loving personality. Speech therapy was not such a good experience. Mom had difficulty thinking of simple words for objects and names of family members. She became frustrated with herself. “I can’t think of nothing,” she said. The unusual effect of the stroke was Mom could still write, but trying to jot down the word she wanted to say was tedious.

Mom kept asking about her dogs, but she couldn’t think of their names. She wanted to know about other family members, but she couldn’t come up with their names either. She was able to pronounce my brother’s name, but she couldn’t say mine. I desperately wanted a solution to help her cope with communication. I had zero experience with speech therapy, but I taught reading to young children. My students responded best when I used pictures associated with the words.

That day I purchased a photo album called a brag book. From Mom’s albums at her house, I took out photos of familiar family members. Mom had an entire photo album dedicated to her dogs. So I chose several dog photos. I placed each photo on a page in the brag book. Since Mom could still read, I made labels with the names of the family members and their relationships to Mom. Using colorful letter stickers, I personalized the front cover with Mom’s name. The next morning I visited Mom and she said, “How are…the dogs?” She couldn’t think of their names.

That is when I presented the brag book to her. She didn’t stop smiling the whole time she flipped through the pages. But I knew which photos she wanted to see. She bypassed all the family photos until she found the ones she missed the most. “How are Walker and Molly?” she was able to say.

The brag book was small enough for Mom to carry with her to therapy, the cafeteria, and outside on our walks. Photos were shown to all the staff and the other residents. Mom’s dogs were the subject of most of her bragging. By the time I left at the end of the week, Mom’s brag book was her permanent traveling companion. It was like she had a little bit of family with her. I felt better leaving her until I returned the following week.

While I was back in Indiana, my brother kept me informed about Mom’s therapy. I thought Mom may be too stressed attempting to communicate on the phone. So I called the staff for updates in the evenings. When I identified myself, the nurses said, “I know you from your mom’s photo book. She is always showing us your picture.”

When I returned for Mom’s final week, Mom was using the photos in speech therapy. Mostly she talked about her dogs. Mom told me who had visited. She pointed and read the names of her sister, her nephews, and other family. But Mom still can’t pronounce my name. I immediately regretted having those thoughts. After all, she was still the same sweet and positive Mom I loved dearly.

That evening, as I got ready to go back to Mom’s house, I told her I would see her in the morning. I ended our day with the phrase I always said, “I love, love, love you.”

Mom said, “Goodnight, my sweet angel.”

I didn’t mind if she still couldn’t say my name.

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