Off North Road : Stuck on course
One of my favorite columnists in the Boston Globe is Dr. Elissa Ely, MD, psychiatrist, who works at the Massachusetts General Hospital, Boston. She writes regularly for the Globe with elegance and sensitivity for the less fortunate patients in the hospital who have suffered severe emotional disease or have lost in some important way the road map for life.
Particularly touching is the frequent isolation in which these people find themselves either in hospital or clinic or in their aimless, homeless day-to-day existence. They retain little ability to make significant contact with others, even their doctors. Dr. Ely tells of her efforts to reach them, often with limited success and often enough with poignant failure.
I am reminded of an elderly woman in our community who is well cared for in one of our community's assisted living homes. A close friend of mine, another physician, shared the same alcove with the elderly woman I saw and spoke with while visiting my friend. My friend had begun to forget exactly who I was but always raised up from his couch to say hello and shake my hand. We had little conversation in these times after many years of his failing vision and losing understanding of the exact circumstances of life.
My efforts to talk with my friend's co-patient brought forward broad smiles and attempts by her to sit up more erectly in order to face me head-on: "Golly, gee-whiz" - the words spouted forth in succession. After lapsing back onto her recliner, she repeated the same words, adding a few more as they came to her, "Wow! My goodness, What a day! My gosh!
Her face creased with smiles and her body language seemed to say she wished she could stand up to shake my hand or come closer to me. "Golly, golly, golly," and again she would rest back into her chair.
She seemed stuck with a curious and boring half dozen old expressions, more common in the era of the 1930s than our current time. However, they are expletives I myself use, embedded as they are in my ancient language of those previous years.
I hear myself now saying her words and smiling to myself at the one language connection we seemed to have made. I didn't know her name, her family, or any other thing about her, but I returned several times to talk and listen. I no longer see her and I am left thinking how such simple things as our expletives change, the expressions we use when excited, either from fear, anger, happiness, impatience, the whole range of human emotion in a second or two.
We of the current era have a richer assortment of expletives, richer or poorer depending on one's reference. Nowadays they are more apt to be expressions of anger or taking the name of the Lord in vain, unmentionable sexual commandments or non-verbal expletives with which most of us are familiar.
Purists will say that swearing in expletives limit the possibilities of language and vivid expression. Some would say the language is enriched, tracing from the ancient Anglo-Saxon traditions. In any case, being stuck with a few of the innocent expletives we used as children is rather amusing but cruel in the context of failing health and mental decline.
I have terrible trouble myself these days finding peoples' names when I greet them on the street. Nouns in particular cause me to stumble. My wife and I continually expect each other to supply the missing word and often miss the mark, only to increase the exasperation of both of us.
My brother tells a funny story on one of his four golf companions. One particularly straight-laced gentleman is very particular with his swing and putting, and takes his game quite seriously. One day he made a miserable shot, driving a huge cut of the turf, and looked around with more anger than embarrassment, "Oh, heck!" he shouted, and then stood mute. His companions had all they could do from breaking into laughter. The gentleness of his swear, so out of touch with his rage, was all the more humorous and a cultural marker for the age in which we all now live.