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Why I Must Teach My Mom to Read

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The neurologist does not cushion his words. He tells us how it is.

She won't read again.

I am standing behind mum. I daren't say anything; my words would spill as snot and sorrow. I swallow hard, my hand upon mum's shoulder; I feel her stiffen.

We do not talk of this revelation for days -- I daren't, for fear of mum's reaction -- and when we do, we do it in sunshine privacy in the garden of the rehab facility where she is incarcerated. Mum's stroke has scattered her memory, but she has not forgotten she will apparently not read again.

'I was shocked by what the doctor said', she confides.

Me too.

Do you believe him? she asks me.

No - I am emphatic - I don't.

Mum smiles,' me neither'.

But my faith falters when I sit in on mum's rehabilitation sessions. Jane, her Speech and Language therapist holds up a card, the word 'stove', typed blackly in capitals. Oven, says Mum, firmly. No, says Jane kindly, 'have another go'. Mum's shoulders slump, just a little, 'look at the letters', Jane encourages, 'one by one'. Mum sets her jaw, screws up her eyes in concentration. She can see the card perfectly; she just can't make sense of it. We have several abortive attempts where the s is a c and the v an n. Mum draws the letters on her palm with a finger. Finally she gives up, 'sorry, I can't get this one'.


'Oh I should have known that, oh how stupid. How stupid I am!'

My beautiful, clever, broken mum.

Because the damage wreaked by mum's stroke leaked across her brain, it set up roadblocks so that the cerebral circuit board fizzes and pops uselessly, messages no longer neatly pass from a to b. 'I thought they'd learn to go via d', I tell the neuro, 'or w, isn't that what's supposed to happen post stroke, messages re-route?'

'Unlikely. In your mother's case'.

And memory is imperative in reading; if mum did not remember that an s was not a c today, how will she remember tomorrow?

I am moving house, as I unpack crates of books I remember that almost every one came from mum - mine, my children's, the set of encyclopaedia, almost all my cookery volumes. My mother collects books like some women collect shoes; the walls of the homes I grew up in were title-lined. I hold a child's book in my hand, wipe the dust from its cover with my sleeve, open it. I cannot decipher the words - tears blur the writing - but I can hear mum's voice as she reads the story to a rapt five year old, his small face tilts up to watch his grandmother's expression then returns to the page to help her find the duckling that hides within the illustrations. He only knows to look for it because granny has read that he must.

Some mornings I arrive on ward to find mum puzzling over the newspaper. 'I can't read a word', she says, horrified. As if she has forgotten she cannot. 'Let's try the headline', I suggest,' that and pictures might reveal the story'. We do, my finger under each letter as we go, but it's not the same; it's not the same as losing yourself in leaves of news-sheet, skimming the by-lines, prioritizing your favorite columnists.

Stronger, my siblings and I take her out to a restaurant for lunch. We guide her carefully, she is frail, her clothes hang loose on her waifish frame. Inside we describe the menu to her, several times; it's never the same if you can't peruse it yourself, especially if you can't remember whether the lamb comes with pea puree or roast vegetables. Settled on our decisions, we call the waiter. What will you have madam? He addresses mum. She bows her head over her menu. I notice she has kept her finger beneath her choice since she asked me to point it out on her copy. 'I'll have the ...' she falters, looks up, 'that's the lamb with pureed peas is it madam?' Mum smiles, relieved, 'yes', she says. I want to weep. But I also want to hug our waiter for making this journey a little easier.

Strokes manifest in myriad cruel ways. Victims lose mobility, speech. Mum's has robbed her of the ability to read, acquired alexia. But - bizarrely - she can still write; her beautiful measured hand articulates what she wants to say, we urge her to keep a diary. She cannot read back her thoughts but we can, and do. Sometimes they make us - and her - laugh. Sometimes they lend insight into her needs. 'The children are getting me an I - whatsit, to help with my reading'. She means an iPad and we do, encouraged that she is keen, not just buckling to our ambition.

I speak to her on Skype, on The i-Whatsit. How are you mum ? I am very well, she says. Then, an afterthought,' but I don't sleep well, I wake too early'. Oh, I commiserate, what do you do? I drink tea. And I read. She stops, hesitates, 'well, I don't read because I can't read you see, but I listen to my book on The i-Whatsit'. I smile.

Her neuro is not encouraging of her bid to learn to read nor my determination that she will. He has presented his warnings to me as polite, oblique emails about being 'careful your mother is not demoralised'.

But reading does not mean you must conquer Finnegan's Wake. Reading doesn't even have to mean a novel.

Reading can mean being able to navigate your way to a talking book on your iPad; read the brief shopping list you have written; understand a text from your daughter, 'get on the i-whatsit Ma, so we can chat.'

Reading so you can leisurely - independently - study a menu.

Anthea Rowan describes her African life at Reluctant Memsahib