CULTURE

What happens when your ability to verbally express love gets taken away?

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Aphasia is an injury to the brain that impairs language. While others with the disorder experience these cruel effects temporarily, my lola’s inability to talk, write, and type coherently was here to stay. Illustration by CNN PHILIPPINES LIFE STAFF

I was at school, having a laugh with my friends and secretly snacking on siomai rice along the corridors, when my mom called me up to break the bad news: My Lola Conch had suffered a major stroke. My cousin noticed she hadn’t gone on one of her early morning walks and pried her door open to see what the matter was. She was found kneeling in front of her bed, unable to speak or raise her hand. Once she was rushed to the emergency room, her condition became so alarming the doctor had actually advised my tito that if worse comes to worst, he’d have to decide whether to have her cremated or buried.

Obviously, the family’s general consensus was to drop everything and fly to where she was. While she was already resting at home by the time we arrived in Los Angeles, none of us knew what her exact condition was and what to expect. I imagined her walking towards me with an evident limp, half of her face drooping down, a lazy eye flitting from one corner of the room to another. But instead, when I saw her again, she looked normal as ever, except for a tight smile on her face. The silence in the air grew heavy as she spit out a word a minute. “‘Di … ako ... makapagsalita.”

**

As a result of losing the genetic lottery, Lola was no stranger to the side effects that came with a stroke. One time, it sent her down a depressive spiral; on another instance, she had a couple of tests and was discharged on the same day. But this time, she was diagnosed with aphasia, an injury to the brain that impairs language. While others with the disorder experience these cruel effects temporarily, her inability to talk, write, and type coherently was here to stay. “She can understand what’s being said to her but when she replies, what comes out of her mouth is completely different from what’s in her head,” my tito explained to us. “It’s total gibberish.”

For the entire duration of our trip, I was at a total loss. Prior to our visit, my mom had begged me to suppress any negative feelings that may untowardly affect Lola’s disposition. So I tried my hardest to fill in the blanks whenever she spoke without reaching my breaking point. I sought out context clues and interpreted her hand gestures, like an endless game of charades. Sometimes, I’d look at where she was pointing and try to conjure a story out of the items in that direction. But it’s most difficult on my part every time she fixates on a random word and repeats it over and over, even if it’s totally unrelated to what she wants to talk about.

One day, she sat beside me as I was watching TV in the living room. “Nasa kusina,” Lola said rather defiantly. Sadly, that was all I had to work with.

“Why, Lola? What’s in the kitchen?” I asked, searching her eyes for answers.

“Nandito... Sa kusina.”

“Do you want anything to eat? To drink?” I scrambled my mind but struggled to find possible alternatives. “Do you want to watch TV in the kitchen?”

“Sa kusina?”

“Opo?”

“Mmm mm.” She shook her head and looked up at the ceiling, almost desperate. I could tell that while I was overcompensating in an attempt to understand her, I was only rubbing it in that our conversations will never be restored to their former glory. In the end, she gave me a faint smile that broke my heart — a polite sign for me to stop trying — then headed back to her room.

A few hours later, she would find me in the exact same spot and tell me she meant to ask if I wanted to reheat last night’s leftovers and have them for breakfast in the kitchen. She just couldn’t string the words together.

I sought out context clues and interpreted her hand gestures, like an endless game of charades. Sometimes, I’d look at where she was pointing and try to conjure a story out of the items in that direction. But it’s most difficult on my part every time she fixates on a random word and repeats it over and over, even if it’s totally unrelated to what she wants to talk about.

**

Aside from the generosity she bestows upon me as the favorite grandchild, Lola’s most distinct characteristic has always been her gift of gab. I grew up listening to her animated storytelling, complete with vocal impersonations, minute observations, and the occasional slap on the back that came with a punchline. She could humanize even unfamiliar family members and paint “MMK”-worthy moments from her past in accurate detail, like how she often stayed up until the wee hours of the morning to sell puto sulot outside her house and ended up blacking out in the middle of a class presentation.

In return, I would talk to her about my latest blog posts or the people who would pick fights with me in school. When she’d come to Manila and live with us for a couple of weeks, we’d lie down side-by-side on her bed, where she would give me a comprehensive tutorial on the basics of online Solitaire, or dissect the unrealistic plot twists of the latest Kapamilya soap opera. She’s chatty and bubbly, approachable and friendly, with a face no one can say no to — and I admire how these traits have gotten her farther in life than I could have ever imagined.

Lola was the second child and eldest daughter of a poor family living in Navotas in the ‘50s, an era when the only career opportunities available to young girls were homemaker, wife, and mother. She was married off at the age of 18 to a man whom she didn’t expect to be so unprepared and irresponsible. Armed with a thousand pesos she borrowed from a friend, she took matters into her own hands and set up her own small store in the neighborhood palengke to provide for her family. Unsurprisingly, the Malabon Public Market was lined with several other stalls of the sort. But like the true Gemini-Cancer cusp she is, she had no trouble standing out.

Despite not having the formal schooling that would have given her a solid foundation in the fields of sales and marketing, she reeled customers in by going beyond transactional conversations. She was invested in everyone who dropped by and bought from her, to the point where some of her most loyal suki ended up as the godmother of her children, which forged the path for lifelong friendship. This isn’t hard to believe: don’t we all come with an intrinsic need to be seen, to be remembered?

Without meaning to, this strategy of hers sent her four kids to college, built her two-storey dream house, and got her family a sparkling green station wagon — things she never would have gotten to do if she agreed to spend her days cooped up at home. Sadly, these great feats have become a reminder of what she could no longer achieve after the devastating loss of her speech.

**

After her last stroke, Lola was prescribed a whole new range of maintenance medicines, as well as some speech and language therapy sessions. My tito also bought her a device she had to wear around her neck and press if she was at the onset of another episode. It was a good time to be a citizen, as she was granted access to the comprehensive health benefits afforded to first-world countries. Occasionally, we wonder what would have become of her, had she stayed here in Manila. But after a long and extensive search, there were no Filipino-speaking specialists in her area to help with her condition.

As the entire ordeal grew harder to bear, the dynamic of our relationship had to shift and rely more heavily on actions and gestures. I found comfort in the fact that simply holding her hand in mine or resting my head on her shoulder could instantly convey everything I want to say and then some. But these crucial facets of nonverbal communication have been severely compromised, now that COVID travel restrictions and physical distancing protocols are keen on keeping us apart. Is it possible to break down genuine human emotions into millions of tiny pixels and still feel the same warmth and intensity? I’m not entirely sure. But we try anyway.

Over the past few months, I’ve tried messaging Lola everything from concise updates of my life to videos of my dogs fighting over a stress ball. My mom exchanges recipes with her in bullet points and sends her photos of the finished product, since cooking is a topic that both of them don’t mind rambling on for hours. Experts point to the need for two things to keep connections alive given our current circumstances: clear intention and constant innovation. That means leaving no room for misinterpretation, and keeping things as exciting as the virtual setting permits.

But of course, nothing can fully replicate the feeling of hearing Lola’s updates in person and sharing some of my own as well, and giving her a kiss on the cheek without the fear of getting her sick. Sadly, my parents and I are not confident enough to travel overseas unless we are fully vaccinated and even if we are, we’d still have to meet the stringent quarantine regulations of the American government before we can get through to her.

Lola already turns 74 this June (which also happens to be Aphasia Awareness Month, like her fate was cruelly written in the stars). If anything happens to her in the period of time that we’re apart, I would never be able to forgive myself.

I dream of the day I get to spend time with her the way we do best: through teleserye highlights and shared meals and spontaneous trips to discount stores, through attempts at flowing conversations and the reassuring hugs that follow afterwards. But, for now, I guess Messenger bubbles and audio messages can do the trick. While she can no longer respond to texts as fast as she used to, I forever treasure every “Ang cute naman niyan!”, “Ang galing mo talaga!”, and “Miss na miss na kita!” that she sends my way.