October 21, 2019

The language of pleading eyes: A Mother’s Day story

“The music of his life suddenly stopped.” So reads a line in Chaim Nachman Bialik’s powerful poem, “After My Death.” 

My mother’s music suddenly stopped 30 years ago, but she is still alive.

At the age of 53, Elaine Wolpe, a university administrator, fundraiser and — most taxing — mother of four boys, suffered a stroke, a cerebral hemorrhage. Since that time, she has been almost unable to speak.  

Before her stroke, my mother was the emotional center of a voluble and intellectual family. A president of the local Hadassah, active in a variety of community events, a rebbetzin in a large synagogue, her most adroit diplomacy was mealtime management. At our table, especially when we had others over to dinner, we (the four boys and my moderating father) would quip, argue, try to outdo each other, make heroic efforts to make the others laugh (special points if their mouths were full), and my mother would remind us to be kind to the hapless guests. Trained as a teacher, she taught each of us to read when we were small, and she made our dinner herself, despite volunteer commitments, every single night.  

This is not to say she was never sharp-tongued herself. Once my older brother Paul brought a girlfriend home from college. In the middle of dinner, he reminded my mother that she had promised to get him an electric blanket for the cold Philadelphia winter nights. Arching her eyebrow (my mother had eloquent eyebrows) she looked at my brother’s girlfriend and asked, “Do you want dual controls on that?”

I was in rabbinical school when everything changed. My mother screamed out my father’s name, collapsed and was rushed to the hospital. She spent weeks in a coma, then awoke. After an extended vigil in intensive care, she was periodically alert.  Her right side was immobile, and although she could make sounds, she could not really speak. It was as if her spirit was in there, trying to emerge, yet unable to force its way through. Her soul kept bumping up against walls it could not see, like a firefly in a glass jar. 

In time, we brought her home. Progress was slow. There were other effects of her stroke: emotionality that resulted in tremendous rage; the bewilderment of being betrayed by her own body. But those agonies were small compared to her inability to explain what she felt, to give voice to what was going on inside. Expressive aphasia impairs or destroys the ability to speak and process language. Syntax is garbled, the wrong words present themselves, simple expressions are mislaid in the mind and cannot be retrieved.

Occasionally, a word would emerge to explain the horror of her condition. Early on, after a good deal of struggle, she managed to pronounce something she had been trying to say for some time: “Prison.” She repeated it again and again with a sort of mantric regularity. Prison. Prison. Prison. 

Prison alternated with a nonsense word, a common symptom among victims of expressive aphasia. For almost a year, “kisskove” served as the catch-all for anything she wished to say. In moments of tenderness or fury, when words are just whips we use to lash or the cords we use to draw close, kisskove served as well as any other.

From left:  Gerald; Elaine, holding baby Danny, Paul; Steve; and David in a Wolpe family portrait. circa 1965.

Realizing at times just how wearying it could be on everyone to hear the same sound, my mother herself would make fun of it, raising and lowering her voice, wringing a few laughs from a situation at once tragic and absolutely ludicrous.  Gradually, over time, the word became less frequent, and then disappeared altogether.

Isolation became etched into my mother’s expression. Surrounded by those she loved, she was alone.  Hers is the language of pleading eyes. So often, we simply could not understand. The words of Rabbi Hama Ben Hanina in the Talmud proved apt: “God’s gift of the power of speech was as important as the creation of the world.” 

Decades have passed since the moment my mother’s words were stolen from her. Five years ago, my father died.  Not only did we all lose a wonderful, warm and eloquent man, but my mother lost the one who could give voice to her memories. My father knew more and shared more than anyone else; although he was frequently wrong, he was the likeliest to guess correctly what she intended to say. When he left, she not only lost her life mate, but her conduit to the world.  

Where is the mother’s voice in our history? In the Torah, we have moments when we hear the voices of our matriarchs and of Hannah and Naomi. But those moments are few; the voices of our female ancestors have been largely lost to us because their insights and ideas were not written down as were those of prominent men. Mothers determined much of our history in the way they raised children and in the influence they had on their husbands and communities, yet all too little was recorded of their teachings. The great Baruch Epstein, author of “Torah Temimah,” writes of his mother’s frustration in being barred from learning and teaching Torah. I have experienced the voice of my own mother disappearing, not through neglect or bias, but from tragedy.

The ability to follow a conversation, to read, to form clear opinions — all of these abilities were victims of my mother’s stroke as well.  Sometimes, even today, my mother is sharp as can be, nodding in agreement to a point, or vigorously disagreeing with a “No!” At other times, she cannot follow what is happening and lapses into resigned silence.

When I am with her, I recount what she has done for me in the past. In my mind, as in the memory of my brothers, my mother still stands, eyes covered, illuminated by Shabbat candles. She is spreading a white tablecloth, carrying a plate.  She is laboring over the Sunday Times crossword puzzle. My mother is the one who tried to get four boys to dress for synagogue (my father, the rabbi, left early to lead the service), and somehow got us there. 

Not always easy. Once, sitting next to her in synagogue, I saw on her face a look of amused despair. “What?” I asked. “Look down,” she said. I looked at my shoes. “I understand wearing two different socks, but David, this is the first time I have seen someone wear two different shoes!” One was black and one was brown. I weakly protested that I got dressed when it was barely light out. She, um, didn’t buy it.

Elaine Wolpe, March 2014.

Once, when I was in high school, I asked her if she deprived herself of anything for us. She pointed to my oldest brother, “This is my fur coat.” My second brother, “Here are my diamonds.” To me, “You are my precious gems.” And my younger brother, “And this is my fancy car.” She instructed us that she was so tired of hearing “Mom” all day long, that after 6 p.m., we were to call her “Matilda.”

My brothers and I all have memories of sitting next to her in synagogue, playing with her jewelry, asking for candy to keep us quiet, sitting at attention when my father spoke. My mother was very solicitous of my father’s dignity. If someone whispered while he was speaking, they had to endure a glare that would derail a freight train. Dress inappropriately, run in shul or fail to honor the rabbi and you would endure the full — and considerable — weight of my mother’s disdain. 

Each year, as Mother’s Day approaches, my brothers and I think anew about all she once was, and how much we lost when she was so grievously diminished. But certain moments remind us that the stroke did not steal her soul.

A few years ago, after my father died, the four of us gathered in Philadelphia for her birthday. We took my mother out to dinner in a local restaurant. After the meal, my brothers and I pulled out our credit cards. My mother looked at us with scorn, and loudly said, “No!”

We were shocked. Surely she didn’t think that we would let her pay for us? Dutifully, we put our cards away. She looked at us again, and crowed triumphantly, “Dessert!”

The Talmud speaks of honoring parents as the most difficult mitzvah. It can be burdensome; as comedian Roseanne Barr memorably reminded us, parents can push our buttons because they installed them. Some find it challenging, because parents can be unkind, heedlessly invasive, bruising in one way or another to their children. But it is also difficult to be near the sadness at the end of life, to share in the grief of a parent unable to fend for herself, a parent whose pain is palpable at each moment, in each look, with every unspoken word.

I could cry when I realize how hazy my memories have become of her speaking. Still, without speech, a lot of extraneous communication is burned away. My mother cannot relate many of the specifics of her day, and she grasps and remembers only a bit of what we tell her of ours. For all the essential tragedy of the second half of her life, however, she has given us the blessings of a Jewish mother — worried, warm, involved, emotionally intense, filled with expectations and standards and fire and dreams.  

And in return, through the quiet and pain of her life, her children and grandchildren never fail to tell her how much we love her.

David Wolpe is the rabbi of Sinai Temple. You can follow his teachings at facebook.com/RabbiWolpe.