In the Aldrich household, words are precious. Some are too muddled and warped to understand. They fall, unanswered, on the thick gray carpet. Ten of their words in an enigmatic newspaper ad were enough to draw me down the highway to the small town of Newport. Its welcome sign announces its existence without fanfare, its reverse simply reading: Please come back.
The ad had been equally plain: More yarn: from the lady who can no longer knit. I called, and a male voice answered.
‘‘You’re too late,’’ Nelson had told me gruffly. ‘‘Already sold all of it, all five hundred pounds.’’ But he invited me to their home anyway, telling me that I could talk to the lady herself, bringing my questions about their yarn-filled attic, their past lives as teachers, and the stroke that had paralyzed the right side of Sandra’s body.
I find their house, white, with a happy purple roof. He opens the door when I am only halfway up the wheelchair ramp—white, with purple rails.
‘‘We thought we heard someone. Can I interest you in a grilled cheese sandwich?’’ They are having lunch together in their living room, at a small wooden table neatly set for two. A Kleenex box, a Santa salt shaker, and a bottle of water on a Red Sox coaster sit between their plates; I spot the pepper—shaped like a red and green present—on the wooden bureau next to her. Sandra is concentrating on her sandwich and doesn’t return my hello as I sit. Her right arm is tucked beneath a pilling blanket, the fabric wrapped loosely around her and folded down at her waist. It’s printed with squares of flowers, interspersed with idioms that are half-lost in the folds. The top of one says "It takes a long time."
We sit in silence for a few moments, adjusting to each other and the way the room has shifted to accommodate me. Shelves are built into the walls, filled with blue-patterned china and thick-stemmed wine glasses. A child’s note hangs from a wooden edge: Dear grandma, Hope u get well soon. Love Ashley. Nelson returns to his half-eaten sandwich. He uses only his left hand, leaving the right in his lap. Hunching over his plate, he eats more messily than she, baloney spilling over the crusts. Her fingers fidget around a bottle cap, endlessly rotating it.
They were both math teachers, and Nelson gives me the numbers first, ticking them off on his fingers. ‘‘We’ve lived in Newport for, let’s see, forty-two-three-four-five, forty-five years.’’ He pauses, sipping grape juice out of a plastic cup. ‘‘Seventeen years teaching at Newport School. And I did nine at Sunapee High. She never got out of the seventh grade though.’’ This ribbing feels familiar, and she laughs. It’s the first sound she has made in my presence. As he speaks, she finishes her sandwich and takes a can of honey roasted salted peanuts from the bureau beside her. The cap isn’t screwed on, so she can place it on the table in front of her. Methodically, she shakes peanuts into the lid as Nelson tells me about their son, who lives in Germany. A framed picture of him hangs above the mantle, next to his diploma. He played baseball for Dartmouth: pitcher, number twelve, mustache. Finishing the nuts, she starts on graham crackers while he tells me about their granddaughter. The plastic packaging crinkles, and she hums quietly. He gets up, clearing the table.
‘‘Ask her your questions,’’ he tells me. She continues to chew, the final cracker just a macerated pulp. She watches me reproachfully as I try to justify my presence in her living room. ‘‘Well, I saw the ad in the paper... And I wanted to come down and ask you some questions. But it doesn’t have to be about knitting, it could be about anything.’’ She shrugs, staring at me through wire-rimmed glasses. ‘‘Do you not want to talk? We don’t have to talk.’’ She looks at her watch, shaking her head at me.
‘‘I-gan too.’’ The sounds escape from her between her lips, tripping over themselves as they run from her mouth. Her voice is creaky and strained. ‘‘I can’talk. I can’talyou.’’ Nelson comes back.
‘‘What’s the question?’’
I look around the room, grasping for a subject less intrusive than her wheelchair. My eyes land on a six pointed star in blue glass, suspended by a wire from the window frame.
‘‘Are you guys Jewish?’’ I blurt.
‘‘Jewish? What makes you ask that?’’ I point to the star. ‘‘Oh, that? I’m pretty sure that’s not the Jewish star. Someone gave that to her because she likes things in blue.’’
‘‘Dey-dey,’’ she says, nodding toward the shelves filled with blue glassware. ‘‘Is blue your favorite color?’’ I ask. She looks at Nelson, unsure.
‘‘Red? No-no-no.’’ She is already shaking her head, knowing that the hue in her mind got lost on the way to her mouth. Nelson grabs her hand, which has returned to the bottle cap.
‘‘Blue,’’ he whispers to her. She shakes her head, despairing.
‘‘I can’t say it. You tell’er.’’
‘‘Say it.’’ His voice is bracing, the same one he must’ve used with his long-grown students.
‘‘Blue!’’ Her voice is louder than she intends, an unruly outburst. He presses down on her hand, smiling. ‘‘See? You can say words,’’ he says, reassuring them both. He turns back to me. ‘‘She hears what you say, but I don’t.’’ He takes out his hearing aid and I watch as he twiddles the wire and replaces the battery. The earpiece crackles as he puts it back in, and he sighs heavily, the responsibility of translation returning with the sound. ‘‘Do you know what aphasia is?’’ he asks. ‘‘A-P-H-R... Well, you’re the English major, you should be able to spell it. All her words are up there, but she just can’t find the network of them.’’ I ask if her speech has improved since the stroke. She shakes her head feebly. ‘‘No,’’ she whispers.
He looks at her, whispering, back, ‘‘Tiny bit.’’ He holds up his hand, leaving a gap between his thumb and pointer finger, a measure of the progress they’ve made in reawakening her limbs. ‘‘She couldn’t say anything. Now, you know, she says some things... Good at swearing.’’ They laugh, but his eyes are watering.
‘‘How long ago was the stroke?’’
He responds without hesitation: ‘‘December 5, 2012. It’s been two years, and so many months. You know, she gets down in the dumps. She’s upset that she can’t go where she wants to go, do what she wants to do.’’ He exhales, pushing air out to fill the space where his wife’s words used to be. ‘‘She could be doing a lot better, with her walking, if she had a little drive.’’ He drags the last word out, filling it with frustration. ‘‘‘I don’t care,’ she says, ‘I don’t care.’ I have to get after her.’’ I try to change the subject to something safe, and ask for their names again.
‘‘Nelson. N-E-L, S-O-N. And Sandra.’’ Nelson spells clearly and emphatically.
‘‘But! A.’’ She pauses, trying to trap her thoughts and force the right words out. ‘‘Torr-ite. A. N-K... I-N... Oh, come on.’’
‘‘A-L-D.’’ Nelson says loudly, willing the letters to her. ‘‘R-I-C-H.’’
‘‘No! One, Two, Three, Four, Five.’’ She is holding up fingers to emphasize each word.
‘‘How you mine?’’
‘‘Sandra.’’ His voice is firm and almost stern, like a parent warning a child.
‘‘No-no-no. HOW. You don-tay i’ right.’’ She slows down , using her own teacher voice, begging him to understand. ‘‘Try-N-K-at-Y.’’
Nelson turns to the bureau and sifts through some papers. He retrieves a cardboard lid, perhaps the top to a box of children’s shoes. She sees the box coming, already resisting.
‘‘NO,’’ she says. The lid is filled with Scrabble pieces.
‘‘Aphasia,’’ he says, softly. ‘‘Five hundred times. Her name. Hale is her maiden name. Aldrich. Nelson. At least five hundred times, before she could do it correctly. And I don’t think she can do it correctly today, because we haven’t done it for two or three weeks, but—Can you do it?’’
She is babbling, distressed, but she begins to push letters around in the box.
‘‘But, if you were a friend of hers, she’d know when your birthday is. There’s things in there that I don’t remember, she remembers ‘em.’’ She looks up at him, close to crying. She is pointing to the letters, arranged in a feeble line spelling sand. He places a patient finger where the next letter belongs.
‘‘Go! T. I-one-E. E.’’ She points to the same spot, and stares back at him, a stand-off mediated by aphasia.
‘‘Sandra. You want your name.’’
‘‘I don-wanna. I don-wanna.’’
‘‘You don’t want your name?’’ Now he is close to breaking too, tired of playing hangman every day for the past two years.
‘‘Y?’’ I guess. She looks at me, grateful for this brief moment of understanding, this second of escape from herself.
‘‘Sandy. People call you Sandy,’’ I say. She is nodding, gratified. Nelson is relieved too.
‘‘Some do, yes. I guess her friends... We need to get a Y then, huh? Can you do your middle name too? Hale? How ‘bout your last name?’’
‘‘No-no-no! I don-wanna.’’ But she pushes the pieces around with her pointer finger. Silently, she assembles a testament to their daily fight against the wheelchair, her left lobe, and December 5, 2012.
‘‘You’re taking the challenge, huh?’’ he asks, encouragingly. She begins to cry, turning her head to the side, the rest of her body unable to follow. He puts his hand on her shoulder. ‘‘It’s okay! Look, look! Where’s the one that goes there?’’ Together they add his name, and then the one they share.
He smiles at her, and she looks to her watch again. It’s time for me to go. I thank her, and she immediately shoves back from the table, like a child released for recess. She propels herself ten feet and faces the blank T.V. screen. Nelson and I are left at the table to share a moment of stillness with the last three words she knows.