Reclaiming My Language

First-person account of a Georgia journalist who learns to speak and write again after a stroke.

On a Sunday in November 2016, I found it difficult to read the words jumping around on my cellphone screen. I cleaned my eyeglasses and tried it again and again, but nothing came into focus.

I shrugged it off. I went back to sleep for a few hours and did chores before driving to a luncheon with friends. When I arrived, I was disoriented. My voice was garbled. A friend knew the signs and called 911.

Immediately, the doctors diagnosed what had happened. I had a stroke. An irregular heartbeat made it hard for blood to flow smoothly, and a blood clot crashed into the left hemisphere of my brain. It normally would have destroyed my ability to walk and speak, but I was born left-handed. My brain stores memories of motor skills and language in the right hemisphere. Though I experienced brain damage, I could relearn to speak, write, read and a few bars of music with the help of my speech therapist, Janet Everly, and my tenacity to recover my love of language.

I didn’t fully grasp the diagnoses until Dr. Mihaela Saler, my neurologist, showed me a photograph of the left side of my brain. It was blackened with the exception of two grayish images the size of quarters. “What about the gray areas?” I enthusiastically asked. “They’re dead,” Saler answered.

I couldn’t hear my speech disorders, aphasia and apraxia, until I asked for a “Spanish therapy” or “spinach therapy” and my mother, Cecelia Williams, started laughing. (I call my mother “Mommy.”) She pushed me like she had done when I fumbled over the alphabet song when I was five or six years old.

“Try again.”

My brother, Randy, and I were born a year apart—both in December—and when we were too young to go to school, we created our own play-school. We took out the pots and pans and created instruments. Then, we lined them up on the white and black linoleum tiles like a game board.

“Line them up by size,” Mommy instructed—a big and small pot for greens and snap beans; a cornbread pan and a big black skillet for frying chicken legs and fish, baloney, and thick burger patties. “Now, count them. One, two, three, four, five. Faster! One, two, three, four, five.”

One weekday, Mommy told us to get dressed in our Sunday clothes, and we got on the bus to go to the county welfare office. “I came here because I want to go to school,’’ Mommy told the social worker.

When we got home, Mommy sat us down at the kitchen table and told us that things were changing. She was going to work and to college.

Mommy placed paper plates and pencils in front of us and helped us to draw numbers and alphabets.

She introduced sounds to us by singing the alphabet song. She sped through it: abcdefghijklmnopqrstuvwxyz.

She charged through the letters again and again. Mommy was a tough teacher who learned her first lessons from her grandmother, Eva Beatrice Colvin Maddox, Momma. My great-grandmother stopped attending school in Alexander City, Ala. in the eighth grade. She migrated to Cleveland, Ohio with her husband, Rev. Hiram Maddox, and they adopted Mommy. Momma had no patience for wandering students. If Mommy drifted off thinking about the cow in the garage, party-lines telephone gossip and the hobos begging for sandwiches, Momma would hit her for not paying attention.

I couldn’t wait to get home to play school with Randy and Mommy.

Now, Mommy looked serious as she packed us up with our crayons and paper for another bus trip. We arrived at Cuyahoga Community College, and Mommy put us in a big people’s desk in the classroom. A teacher asked Mommy why we were there. “I don’t have a babysitter,” she said. “They can stay, or they can go to the library,” the teacher said.


» RELATED: What causes a stroke?


Mommy’s new friend Rev. DeForest Brown Jr. spent a lot of time around the apartment, and he regularly looked at the newspapers: The Call & Posts, Cleveland Press and The Plain Dealer. He showed me his name and pictures in the newspaper. He was involved in Carl Stokes’ run for mayor.

Rev. Brown looked like a black Santa with a long bushy beard and a big round stomach. He ate with us and joked around with us, and even let us bounce around his big beach ball stomach on the floor. “What should I call you?” I asked. “What do you want to call me?” I said “fat man” and “fat daddy.” None of those words meant much to me until Mommy told us that we were packing and moving with Rev. Brown to a big house in Cleveland’s Hough neighborhood, one of two that burned during the 1966 riots. Before long, I was calling him “Daddy.”

Daddy told me I’d get my own room and a shelf for my books, a library. I asked for a cassette tape recorder so I record my voice and practice my stories like the reporters on TV.

When I was in the fourth grade at Rockefeller Elementary, my teacher Shirley Whitaker asked my class to write about an imaginary trip from Cleveland to Philadelphia to visit the Liberty Bell for the bicentennial.

I pondered what the principle of liberty meant to my family and me. I knew I had to draw some conclusions about what I’d heard and witnessed after the riots in my new neighborhood.

I crafted a story about what the crack in the Liberty Bell meant to a little black girl, one of the few whose parents in Hough could afford to make the trip. That crack symbolized the need for the United States of America to live up to its promise of liberty to all of its citizens.

Mrs. Whitaker walked up from behind and whispered life-changing words into my ear: “You’re going to be a writer.”

My teacher birthed a dream within me. I graduated from Southern University in Louisiana and worked as a newspaper writer and an author for nearly 30 years when I was accepted in a graduate writing program at the University of Georgia.

Now I faced the consequences of a stroke. My neurologist, Dr. Saler, proclaimed after my first three months that I’d improved “remarkably.” Yet, she encouraged me to get disability insurance and to continue with my therapists and my journalism professors. She told me to focus on my speech by going back to work part time. That way, I’d speak face to face with others; otherwise, I might lose my ability to converse.

I went back to work full time because I couldn’t afford a pay cut.

I can’t have a conversation when I get angry and uncomfortable. I forget how to articulate words.

I cheat sometimes by pointing to things, spell words aloud and use synonyms to communicate my points.

Some friends correct me when I select an incorrect word. Others share a ha-ha moment when I use slang like “home cooking” instead of “home training.” Patient friends wait until I find the right words.

I initially thought I only had to worry about my speech. I picked up a copy of Maya Angelou’s poetry from my personal library for inspiration.

Only, I couldn’t keep the words together.

They jumped off the page and fell apart. I couldn’t concentrate on words silently, so I read aloud.

Not every stroke survivor is so lucky. I began visiting Savannah’s RiteCare Center for Communication Disorders, a teaching center where graduate students work with patients with long-term communication disabilities.

On one Thursday morning, I was reading aloud when a man sat down in the lobby at the Rite Center. “I hope I’m not disturbing you,” I said.

“I can’t read,” he said, explaining that he’d lost his ability to read when he had a stroke nine years ago.

“Betty, she can read!” said the man, Matthew, to another patient. “I can’t read since I had a stroke five years ago,” she said. They looked at me in amazement. “Why aren’t you coming to the stroke meeting?” Betty said.

I decided to try to squeeze in another hour a week for a stroke support meeting. Two graduate students encouraged eight patients to play board games and speak out the answers for “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire,” music from the 1970s, and synonyms or antonyms. Everyone spoke with new cadence, and I heard myself sound like I was speaking in a tunnel. I learned immediately that I had audio deficiency.

“Why you speak like you do?” one woman challenged. “I work every day to improve my speech,” I said.

I don’t think they believed me until I announced that I’d need a heart procedure to stop my heart from beating too fast. Everyone there had experienced similar heart problems before their strokes.

I worked to nurture my brain by coloring and sleeping when I’m not working or studying. Now almost a year later, I’m still trying to be a voracious reader and writer albeit with new limitations.

I used audio and print editions of books for schoolwork. I listened to the sound of the voice while I’m reading simultaneously. It speeds up my reading. I graduated from UGA in August 2018 with a Master of Fine Arts in narrative media writing.

For the first six months after the stroke, every morning before I spoke to anyone, I called up pairs of words to pronounce.

Sometimes, I have trouble: “book-took, bash-sash and bell-tell.”

Others feel like twisters: “thin-shin, pal-path and mill-myth.” I thought I’d beat it, but recently I realized that this might be a lifetime exercise.

My doctors say I qualify for full disability, but my application was denied twice. That’s a sign to keep pushing forward.

I’ve been an achiever since I was 18 years old when I first paid my rent. Now, I’m 56. I like living independently. I think I have more to say as a journalist.

My new cardiologist gave me the news last fall that my heart was beating too fast. I needed a procedure to slow it down before I had another stroke. I decided to have the surgery on the anniversary of my stroke, Nov. 20, 2017.

I was under anesthesia for three hours. I awoke, and I immediately knew I had to go back to speech therapy. I’d say July when I say wanted to January. I might say “three pounds away” rather than three miles.

I laugh because I choose not to cry.

I must reclaim my love of language. These words won’t be my last.

BY THE NUMBERS:

140,000: Approximately 140,000 Americans die from a stroke each year, according to the CDC.

40: The CDC says someone in the United States has a stroke every 40 seconds.

11: According to the Heart Attack & Stroke Prevention Center, Georgia is part of 11 states known as The Stroke Belt where the risk for a stroke is 34 percent higher than in the rest of the U.S. The majority of those states are in the Southeast.

4: Stroke is the fourth leading cause of death in Georgia.

65: The majority of strokes occur in people over 65 years old. However, the CDC reports an increasing percentage of younger strokes victims, with nearly a quarter of strokes occurring in people under 65.

87 percent: According to the CDC, 87 percent of strokes are ischemic, which occur when the artery to the brain becomes blocked.

33 percent: While high blood pressure, high cholesterol, smoking, obesity and diabetes are common causes of stroke, a third of ischemic strokes are considered non-specific, meaning the cause is unknown.

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