The Talking Cure Dijkgraaf

Illustration by Charlotte Dijkgraaf.

Our eldest son, who was visiting my 90-year-old mom, called me to tell me that Oma was not her usual self.

“All of a sudden, she cannot talk,” he said. “She seems to search for words, yet they don’t come out of her mouth.”

“Call an ambulance,” I said.

“Are you sure?” he asked. “She is tired and wants to sleep.”

“Yes,” I said. “Call immediately. Gramma is suffering a stroke.”

He called back a few minutes later. “Help is on its way,” he said.

He stayed on the phone with me, as I listened to an ambulance arriving at the house in the Netherlands, thousands of miles away, where I grew up. I stayed as calm as I could manage and told my son he was the bravest kid ever.

Then I heard a man ask my mom where she was born. She gave the right answer. She also knew the year, and the name of our prime minister, when they asked her. I felt a sigh of relief.

“I’ll accompany her to the hospital for tests,” our son said and hung up the phone.

“She has had a mini stroke,” he texted me hours later. “But she seems to be much better now.”

“It was so scary to watch her being unable to talk,” my son said when I spoke to him the next day. “She was frightened. But in the hospital, something strange happened. Oma started talking again, and then she could not stop. To the nurses, to the doctors, to the technicians who performed the tests, the pharmacist who gave her blood thinners. And in the middle of the night, while waiting for the results, she kept talking to me.”

She talked about her first job at a pharmacy, how young she was, and how much she had to learn. The house in Amsterdam where she had lived as a child, and of the last year of the war, the cold winter of 1944 when she ate tulip bulbs to survive.

All completely coherent, in great detail, and in a rather compelling way.

“That was the strangest thing,” my son said. “As if a vein was opened, and the words just kept coming out of her.”

Maybe this was a physiological after-effect of a mini-stroke. Or maybe that was just her, feeling lucky to have recovered her speech so quickly.

But it also crossed my mind it had to do with COVID. This past year kept many of us in isolation, alone or in small groups. We missed out on family visits, dinners, parties. All sorts of opportunities to tell each other stories, the most human of human characteristics.

My mom had not seen many people, including me and our son, for more than a year. Suddenly facing something scary, maybe even death, she wanted everyone around her to know who she was. She was not just an old woman lying helplessly in the ambulance, suffering a stroke. She was a barrel filled with stories gathered in the 90 years she walked the earth.

Covid had locked up not only her social life, but the sense of self that words give you. She was trying to get it back.

“So many stories,” my son said with a sigh. “What an interesting life she had. And you know what? She is actually quite funny.”

Pia de Jong is a Dutch writer who lives in Princeton. She can be contacted at pdejong@ias.edu.