Biographer Katharine Hepburn once noted the way aging generalizes everyone. The rich and famous were not spared.
The example he gave was of Hepburn in her old age, afraid of being caught by an unexpected visitor when the former star was having dinner at a Chinese table in front of the TV. This is how the world ends – not with a bang, but with a Chinese table, an assistant and a TV show.
Bruce Willis aphasia is at the sharp end of this deficiency. The statement that announced his condition did not indicate it. This is the terrible thing. It was made by his family, which indicates that the aphasia has already crossed the point of independent communication.
Even minor aphasia, as can occur after a blow to the head, leads to disability. A neurologist diagnosed me in the aftermath of a car accident, waved it away, and told me that a smart woman like me would find a way to deal with it. it did. I would call my husband. I’d like to ask him to play a CD for Diminished Fifth standing still, narrowing his eyes, before he guesses: Terrible straits?
When I couldn’t tell him what was wrong with the Christmas tree he gave for consideration, he would go through the options. Very long? too thin? Too incomplete? It doesn’t matter how long it took. His job, as he saw it, was to perform that job devoid of virtue or the condition of patience. This was just the thing that had to be done at that particular time.
Aphasia never goes away. So you could find yourself sitting in front of your only sister, knowing who she is but not what she’s called, mentally trying to use random names on her – Linda? Sarah? You might be lucky if your sister has a famous name, but if it’s Hilary or Anastasia, your chances of nailing you either by passing on the mental name are slim.
It’s the same in meetings with people you’ve known for 10 years. On the day of bad aphasia, look back on the day when you arguably know her well and have no idea how to address her, knowing that it would be weird to start calling her “my friend on the left” or “the art expert on the right.”
You can play around with a monosyllable name like Anne in the hope that if you misunderstand it, listeners will interpret it as a sign or phonetic filler, but you have a polysyllabic name. Applying “Francesca” to Una won’t cut it.
Training programs that claim to help do not, because no matter what system is applied to the missing words or nouns, the mental effort that system puts in means that you cannot pay proper attention to what is happening around you in real time.
Even a slight aphasia offers a grim look at what Bruce Willis has been through over the past two years. There is no doubt that the suffering was severe. It’s a mystery why he keeps working on the B films, which necessitates using an earphone to feed him the lines he can’t remember.
Perhaps the illusion of continuity was allowed. His increasing dementia may have eroded the actor’s ability to pick up unspoken verbal clues around him on set; Flashes and frequencies that indicate that others have found something incorrect.
At the onset of progressive aphasia, sufferers may rely on a family member or friend to interpret the world around them. This works until the sufferer withdraws into silence with a mind entangled with unspoken thoughts, like wire wool.
If the interpreter makes even the most clever of deals that I am not impatient with, the speaker will identify it and get angry, angry against the moribundity of his control.
Because that’s what it is. Regardless of being surrounded by love and service, the reality of dementia transgression rings the bell of independence, agency, and control, with the double terror of knowing what’s coming.
When John and Robert Kennedy’s father had a stroke that left him speechless, his wife Rose traveled the world, stopping only to visit him just before leaving on each flight to tell him, with some fun, exactly where she was going without him. This inflicted him with a furious rage, but without words, his anger could never find expression, making her cruelty – bare and scented as it was with holiness – even worse. Joe Kennedy, the cowardly, unfaithful bully who had dominated their married life, was now completely helpless and she didn’t hesitate to prove it to him.
It was exceptional. For the most part, when partners are silenced by an accident or illness, women come in with strength and generosity.
When Dean Martin was dying a wet death, his divorced wife came back to live with him and nursed him. Sarah Miles was unfaithful to writer Robert Bolt before their divorce, but when he later had a stroke, they remarried and took care of him perfectly until his death.
Bruce Willis has a wife, an ex-wife, and several daughters who love and will take care of him, constantly trying to remember him as he was, before this fatal handicap occurred.
It will be difficult for them and for him, because without the ability to communicate, we do not control anything. No concept can form in our heads without being able to frame it in a sentence. No overt verbal kindness can reach a dementia-stricken brain.
We choose and seduce using words. We relax and celebrate, similarly. We demonstrate courage and challenge. We demand and defend. We use words to distinguish and judge: as in the biblical story when a victorious army guarding a river asks anyone who wishes to pass to say “shepolith,” knowing that the men of a defeated army cannot pronounce the sound “SH” and slaughter, one by one, the unfortunate who offended understand it.
Even in the face of a sudden, brutal death, words matter.
After his leader, Napoleon, was defeated at the Battle of Waterloo, French Marshal Ney was sentenced to death for treason by the royalists he had betrayed to follow his former emperor. In front of the execution squad, he refused to wear the traditional headband.
More importantly, he insisted on calling the shots. That one word – shout and obey – showed a man in command.
His pride, his past, his position and his personality were expressed in one word. one word.