Manzano Mountain Review is an online New Mexico literary journal affiliated with UNM-Valencia.

For My Mother*

by Jami Huntsinger

When you asked what language could include, the only answer I could think of was sound.
Children’s books, oral stories, facial expressions, and prayers. I couldn’t answer because I still
cry when I think of my mother, who left us some ten years ago, long outliving the time they gave her when she got sick.

My mom had PIC’s, a form of rapidly onsetting Alzheimer’s, which usually attacks younger
people. At 58, because of the disease, my mom lost language, trapped in a world of sounds only she understood. When I visited her, our time was spent with my carrying on a conversation I didn’t fully understand. “How are you, Mom?” I would ask each time I came to the nursing home. She would respond in a series of sounds, a language all her own. I listened for hours; there seems to be a pattern to the sounds, but there I was, a PhD in English, a woman who knew Latin and French, a little Spanish, completely and frustratingly unable to find the key to her sounds. I could hear patterns to her “words,” soft vowel sounds when she seemed to be telling me about her day, hard guttural sounds when she seemed to be upset by someone or something. And in those sounds, a repetition of unknown words. After our usual polite greetings -- how was your day? -- She would answer, and I would try to answer with “Really?” Or “No, you’re kidding me, “or “That’s interesting,” all based on patterns of soft or hard sounds.

The doctors told us she was not speaking, just agitated; there was really no point in our talking to her. We really should allow them to drug her. Dad always said no to their “requests.” He wanted her to be as real as she could be. The nurses, overworked and understaffed, at the home seemed to believe the same as the doctors did – actually, they saw her as a nuisance, a problem patient, someone they always spoke baby talk to, as if her loss of words made her less human. She hated the baby talk, I could tell, because her chirping would become hard and fast, as if she were scolding them for speaking to her in that way. She had language. I just knew it, just not one I could ever understand.

Because the nursing home identified her as a problem patient, the state finally declared her
mentally insane, and she sentenced to live in Yankton, a place that “housed” the criminally or
mentally insane. Dad tried endlessly to get the courts to release her, but it never happened. In the end, my father just gave up and chose instead to visit her every day, driving 150 miles each way to see the woman he had loved for years. To see her, he stood patiently as the guards searched him each time he visited, always silently complying when they asked him to remove his watch, his cowboy boots, his belt, his wedding ring. Mom and Dad’s relationship became gentle moments of holding hands and of my father telling stories. She seemed to recognize him, as she did no one else. She would pull him to the closet, pointing at books, and he would pull out the pile of children’s books, some I bought, others Dad found from my childhood store of mementoes. Sometimes I sat in the corner of the room, watching the ritual of storytelling that existed between the two of them.

Dad would sit gently on the bed next to my mom, reading her stories. Her chattering would
cease as she listened intently, sometimes pointing at pictures, other times looking at the invisible words that came from my Dad’s mouth. The Velveteen Rabbit, Daniel and the Lion's Den, Winnie the Pooh – all became the language they shared. She was most happy when Dad would lay the book down and tell his own stories, as he does so well, about life on the ranch, adventures on the reservation, her parents, his parents, stories of memoires they shared. The one she loved best was a story about Dad and Freddie LeBeau. “You remember Freddie,” Dad would say, less of a question and more just about the ritual of the story he told. “Remember the time we went to the Moose in Mobridge? Ronnie had asked me to come hear his band play.” Mom listened intently, waiting sometimes impatiently for the story to continue. “You stayed in the car with the kids and Freddie and I walked to the front door. A big white guy barred our way. ‘Not allowed in,’ he said, pointing to the sign at the door that read ‘No drunken Injuns allowed.’ There was Freddie and me, cowboy hats on our heads and boots on our feet.” She loved the details like that, and smiled as he continued. “Well, we argued a while. Finally, I grabbed that big bastard by the tie and cocked my arm to hit him.” She grabbed his arm, worried that the story would somehow end differently this time, that someone would get hurt. “And be damned if he didn’t have on a clip-on. I flew back, hit the ground, his tie still in my grasped tightly in my hands. I still remember Freddie laughing at me.” She clapped her hands, happy with the ending that never changed. “The only thing that got hit that night was the ground.”

She giggled a bit. Dad continued, “You always knew who I was, that I was too quick to anger.
But you never cared about those things, did you sweetheart.” I never knew if he meant that he was mixed blood or sometimes got into fight. I guess they knew; it didn’t matter if I did. She would turn to him, frown, as if to complete the story as she always had before: “Oh, Jim.” But her words were no longer there, only the frown.

She also loved the Catholic prayers – Dad was Catholic, she was not, but she loved the ritual
sounds anyway. They spent hours together as he said the Rosary or read from his tattered daily book of prayers. She loved Psalms the best, the gentle flow of words, and to those prayers she would finally fall asleep. Dad would lay her down, lovingly cover her with the one blanket they allowed her, kiss her gently on the forehead, and leave to drive those 150 miles home once again. And so their once loving marriage evolved into a ritual of visits and storytelling.

She also responded to birds, the only animals allowed in that wretched place. I watched as she stood before the aviary, talking to the birds, who were also trapped. Seeing her image before the birds made me recall her in younger days. When I was little she seemed to talk to animals in a way none of us could, even when she had the recognized human form of speech. I remember that she could call to the ducks, who waddled to her and then dutifully climbed into the back seat of her car. She would drive them to the pond, drop them off for the day, and return with sundown. The ducks would, one-by-one, waddle to the car to be driven back to their shed where they spent the night. Now, years later, she stood in front of the bird cage, “speaking” softly to the birds, who would fly down to greet her, talking to her as she did to them. She was the only one they ever seemed to recognize or greet. They were the only creatures that seemed to understand her new language.

Another person she responded to was a Mexican girl who worked at the State Home for the
Mentally and Criminally Insane. I caught a brief interaction once. The young girl came in.
“Hola, Marilyn,” she said, and my mom responded lovingly to her, with looks she used to give
me as a child and soft greetings of sounds. The young girl continued in Spanish, not in baby talk like the other nurses who spoke to my mom, but with stories of Mexico, her family. The
beautiful sounds of Spanish filled the room. As I listened, I wondered if these were words my
mom recognized from childhood; her grandmother was Spanish, the woman from whom she had inherited her beautiful dark auburn hair. “Hola,” I said from the corner chair, where I had sat unnoticed. The girl turned white. “Please, please don’t tell anyone I speak Spanish. They will fire me, surely. It is against the rules. But your mom seems to love it so when she hears my language.” I reassured her I wouldn’t, horrified that she too lived in a type of silence each day when she went to work.

As the end drew near, Mom continued to chatter her language of sounds. The priest started
coming, praying a ritual prayers with her, lovingly uttering the Sacrament of the Ill, ending with the Lord’s Prayer. My mother, whose body was wracked with constant motion, would suddenly lie still as the priest gently pressed the fragrant oil in her hand, his prayers softly and lovingly filling the room. Her ridged muscles would slowly relax, her lids would lower. She would drift to sleep, a sacred moment of peace.

Dad earnestly asked each time the priest came, “Can she be Catholic?” The priest always
answered, “I’m sorry, Jim. She has no genuine intention.” It bothered my father who desperately wanted to find her in the afterlife. During one of the last visits the priest made, as he read the prayers, my mom sat up from her bed. The last “real” words she ever spoke were these: “I want to be Catholic.” And then, she laid back down, returning to the language of sounds no one but she could understand. Inside, language was there. I had known it all along, but in that one small sentence she was able to speak in English, my suspicions were confirmed. She had been inside herself all these years, trapped by her inability to form recognized words in English. The priest confirmed her as Catholic, and very shortly after, she died.

So, my answer to you was this. Yes, there is language outside recognized words, in the sounds animals make, in the rhythm of stories and prayers, and in the chattering my Mom made. It is just, sometimes beyond our reach to really hear, understand, or learn -- a pattern of gentle chirps and agitated chattering. Of soft loving sounds, of hard angry sounds. Rhythms and rituals of stories and prayers. The gentle touch of a hand. Language is sometimes not as we might immediately think to define it. 

* We discussed language one night. N. Scott Momaday asked: How do you know language resides outside of words? I couldn't answer it in class, so I sent him this.

Dr. Jami L. Huntsinger is a Professor of English at The University of New Mexico at Valencia Campus where she teaches Native American Literature, Traditional Grammar, and composition. She has published several articles on Willa Cather, Native American literature, and teaching introductory composition and literature. Currently, she is working on an anthology in Native American Literature. In 1997, Dr. Huntsinger graduated from The University of New Mexico with a degree in English, focusing in Modernist American and British Literatures and Native American Literature.