Chuck Gaston


On the way home from church we stopped at Oregon Dairy, as we often do in the warmer months, for an ice cream lunch. I pulled the wheelchair from the back of the car and helped my wife Linda into it. Her stroke had seriously weakened her right side, so she could not walk very far. I pushed her onto the tree-shaded deck outside the shop, and up to one of the brightly colored metal tables. The table closest to their menu board was occupied, so we had to sit further away than usual. Linda could not read the list of thirty-two ice cream flavors they always seemed to have. I asked her if she knew what flavor she wanted.

To understand the ensuing twenty-minute conversation, you need to know that the stroke affected Linda’s speech even more than her mobility. As I often put it, the stroke destroyed her “noun linker.” She can think about nouns, but generally can’t say them. Furthermore, what she hears is not necessarily what was said. Once we had a lengthy conversation that I thought was about our piano. Eventually I learned that she was talking about the grandfather clock beside the piano. Another example is that she often gives a hasty response based on what she is thinking rather than what I actually said. I have learned to ask the same question multiple times to be sure. Often, what I consider a yes/no question is answered with neither.

Conversational difficulties can be extremely frustrating for both of us, but we just have to laugh about it. She may say something equivalent to, “Get the thing from the thing and put it on the thing in the other thing.” Then we start the twenty-questions routine. Multiple times she has said, “I don’t know where it is,” and I’m forced to reply, “I don’t know what it is.”

Her speech difficulties extend beyond nouns. Any color she tries to name is likely to come out “blue.” Male and female pronouns are interchangeable. When she says, “your girl,” she might mean any older or younger relative of mine, of either gender, or maybe even a friend or pet. Often she can speak entire sentences clearly enough for anyone to understand, but sometimes, especially when she is tired, I can’t even make out any words. Writing isn’t any better. She was right-handed, but now rarely uses that hand for writing anything other than a crude signature. Once when I was about to go shopping, she wrote two legible words: “FIST” and “COMET.” With extended questioning, I learned that the first thing she wanted me to get was fish. Not bad; just one letter off. I don’t remember what “COMET” represented, but it definitely wasn’t the cleaning powder, and wasn’t even anything close to that word.

Linda sometimes finds ways around her disability. Earlier on the Sunday I’m talking about, she asked the pastor about a person who is “always, always here,” but was not on that particular morning. Neither the pastor nor I could figure out who she was thinking of. I went away to lock some doors. Before I returned, Linda had pantomimed organ-playing and somehow communicated to the pastor that the organist’s mother was the one absent that day.

Now let’s return to the conversation between Linda and me at the ice cream shop. I’ll try to reconstruct the meaningful parts, using quotes where possible, and general impressions otherwise. What you’ll read is necessarily much abbreviated. I often asked whether she was still talking about flavors, or talking about one of the other topics that came up.

Me: “Do you know what flavor you want?”

Her: “Yes. Maybe not have.”

Me: “Is it one of the flavors you usually get?”

Her: “Can’t see.”

Me: “I can read them off. Is it Black Raspberry?” I named the half-dozen flavors she had picked on previous visits. She said no to all.

Me: “Should I read the entire list?”

Her: “Can’t follow.” She started making motions with her hands that I interpreted as a reference to the size of the treat she would be getting. For years we both enjoyed the single-large-dip size this place called the “calf.” For the past couple of weeks, in the interest of weight control, I had bought her the smaller “cow lick” size.

Me: “Are you talking about size?”

Her: “Yes.”

Me: “I’m planning to get you a cow lick.”

She said something I couldn’t interpret.

Me: “Are you still talking about size?”

Her: “No.”

Me: “Are you talking about flavors?”

Her: “Where we lived before.”

Me: “Peach House?” That’s what we called our previous house because when we bought it, the red brick coloring seeping through the yellow paint in various places had given it a peachy complexion.

Her: “No. Back.”

Me: “Poughkeepsie?”

Her: “No. Way back.”

I decided to start where we lived right after getting married.

Me: “California?”

Her: “No.”

Me: “Indiana?”

Her: “No.” She said something further that was hard to interpret, but included the word “she.”

Me: “Are you now talking about a person?”

Her: “Yes.”

Me: “One of our relatives?”

Her: “No.”

Me: “Somebody from church?”

Her: “No.”

Me: “We’ve talked about flavors, sizes, houses and people, but I haven’t been able to pin down any one of them. Could we concentrate on just one?”

Her: “Where we lived.”

Me: “California?”

Her: “No. Later.”

Me: “New York?”

Her: “Before.”

Me: “Maryland?”

Her: “Yes.”

Me: “Columbia?”

Her: “No.”

Me: “Wheaton?”

Her: “No.”

Me: “Spencer Road?”

Her: “Yes. In front.”

Finally, several things connected for me, including the round shape she had made with her hands that I thought was related to size.

Me: “The peach tree! You want peach ice cream?”

Her: “Yes.”

Me: “They’ve never had peach.”

Early in the conversation Linda had figured out a way to communicate “peach,” but was concentrating on her solution so strongly that she completely overlooked my mention of Peach House.

A few days later I did find peach ice cream for her in a supermarket.

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About the Author

Chuck Gaston is an engineer, scientist, professor, and inventor, who fortunately retired a few months before his wife had a stroke. He now focuses creative energies largely on devices to make their lives easier and on writings that are not technical or pedagogical papers. He and his wife have lived in six different states, and have visited all fifty, plus four other countries. In his writings, Chuck sometimes visits worlds that do not exist.