Talking — it’s something that so many of us take for granted. But in my post-brain-surgery world, my efforts at speaking have become more frustrating, more infuriating, more heartbreaking. I forget words. Every day and every conversation.
When I tell my friends about this, they often dismiss my concerns. They might say, “Good grief, all of us are having a hard time with that! Didn’t you hear me blank on my best friend’s name yesterday?”
They’re right, of course. I’ve heard them struggle with finding the right word to say, and I’ll be the first to admit that I think some of my speaking challenges are a result of life in my 40s. But sometimes this word search is exceptionally challenging, more so than what your average 40-something experiences. Take for instance, one moment from class the other day.
“Ah,” I said, not knowing what word to say next and then only coming up with the wrong one, “the … the…not a cartoon….”
“Um,” my team teacher Chris paused, trying to think of what I meant to say. Finally, he answered, “Analysis!”
Later in the morning, as we were leaving class, Chris and I were talking about how the morning had gone. It went really well actually, but as I was trying to give him my assessments of the day, I found my hands going around and around in the air, trying to be expressive because I kept forgetting words. In fact, I began forgetting more than one word in a sentence. So many words were disappearing in my mind that it was impossible for him to understand what I was trying to say.
“Goddammit,” I finally told him. “I can’t do it. I’m exhausted. Let’s talk about this later.”
Chris wasn’t the slightest bit annoyed or worried. But for me, having such a difficult time communicating when I’m tired concerns me. It upsets me. It pisses me off.
I’m especially concerned when I say the wrong word and don’t know that I’ve said it. This seems to happen especially in the context of numbers.
When I had an MRI to see how the new chemotherapy was working, the nurse said, “Count back from 100 by 3.”
I said, “100, 97, 94, 91, 88, 82,” skipping over numbers.
The nurse stopped me. “Say it again,” she said.
I ran through the list again. She stopped me and said I didn’t need to repeat it.
“What happened?” I asked. “The math? I am terrible at math.”
“For every number in the 80s, you were speaking in the 30s. Both times. ’94, 91, 38, 32.'”
“Fuck,” I said. “I heard 30s, but I thought I was saying 80s? And I just couldn’t hear that difference?”
And it happens in other contexts, too, like in the middle of conversation with a student. After one such mistake, the student asked, “You mean ‘interviewing’?”
“Yeah. What did I say?”
The nurse, and later the doctor, assured me that this is what happens sometimes. They also told me it probably won’t keep happening. Just now. Ultimately my brain will relax, and I’ll have all the words once again. And if my brain doesn’t cooperate, then it’s something I can learn to work around. I have before.
Overall, my college classes are going well. Actually, they’re going more than just well. I’m thrilled. The conversations I have with my students are satisfying and exciting. They’re asking questions, and I’m eagerly trying to answer them. They’re looking at me and at each other, grappling with their readings and the contradictions they’re encountering. We’re all in conversation together.
I’m able to write. It takes me a little longer than it used to, but I can do it just as well as I ever have. And like teaching, it ties me to my professional joys.
I can make my way through this. I can continue to thrive as a teacher. I’m frightened. But hopeful.
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