Words hurt, especially when you can’t find them

Joan Didion called it the “vortex effect,” the sudden overwhelming grief triggered by a memory.  After ten years that feeling is more memory than grief, but it still hurts, however fleetingly.  It happened again to me yesterday while watching Counterpart Season 2 Episode 1. 

Emily Silk has come home from the hospital after being in a months-long coma brought on when when she was hit by a car.  She is a highly competent, professional woman, an accomplished spy who hid that even from her husband for decades.  Now she has aphasia from the brain trauma.  She even has to ask her husband to read a letter from her mother.

The situation struck me because it was so similar to what brain cancer did to Laura.  A lawyer and a Ph.D. in literature, but aphasia robbed her of the words that were her life.  It wasn’t simply that the situation was parallel.  No, we experienced Emily suffering the frustration of not recognizing even the most basic words, like “hair,” after having just read them with a prompt.  So did Laura, but unlike Emily she just kept going over and over the same words all day.  Emily lashed out at Howard, her husband, for seeming to be insensitive to her problem, even seeming to correct her when he was just trying to help.  So did Laura.  Like Howard, I sometimes got angry, too.  In these scenes I lived again those moments of pain, for Laura more than me, but for me, too.  Emily’s anger brought back the reasons I held back from asking Laura to clarify something very hurtful she said to me.  I like to think she was just using the wrong words, but I didn’t dare ask her what she meant because she would have taken it as calling her stupid.  Just like Emily.

Fortunately, as I said at the beginning, what happened between Laura and me happened more than ten years ago.  With the passage of time I am able to observe my pain more than get caught up in it.  But I still regret that Laura’s life was cut short so she never could get to let time become the longest distance between two events, between the occurrence and the memory.  As Emmanuel Levinas says, in the enigmatic passage I explored at the beginning of this blog:

Le mourir est angoisse, parce que l’être en mourant ne se termine pas tout en se terminant.

Dying is agony because in dying a being does not come to an end while coming to an end.


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