Today my son turns 16. His first couple years he struggled with some serious health problems that left scarring, huge medical bills and some residual long term effects.
Many days felt like hell, especially when his survival was in question. Regardless, he has turned out to be a pillar and model of strength in our family.
He has his quirky preferences, as evidence in his choices for birthday gifts, which included a copy of War and Peace and a collector edition of Dante’s Inferno.
We spent the morning opening gifts, having waffles and preparing for a fun day out with the family. I cracked open Dante’s Inferno with curiosity as to when it was first published. Instead, I thumbed to the page with the translators notes.
Immediately I was fascinated. The author spoke of the differences in a violin and piano attempting to play the same piece of music, how it could be assimilated but will never be the same. He continued to say that as long as the intention behind both players of each instrument was wholehearted, the song would be interpreted as the such.
The same is true in communication, as no two languages are the same and therefore, any attempt at “word for word” translation would be futile at best.
Could this be true for our attempts at communicating with those with dementia? Are they speaking a beautiful language with only four strings, like a violin, where we are playing the piano with 88 keys? Often we feel that communication can be hell because we simply don’t understand each other, but four strings don’t necessarily limit the ability to create beauty. A violin solo is beautiful in itself and can make our heart sing.
A piano can play the same notes back, create just as much beauty, but the sound is different. When played together with a wholehearted intention of both players, a wonderful duet can be created.
Can we create an engaging duet with those we care for with dementia. “Word for word” translation is not possible, as we are not speaking the same language. We may create endless purgatory when we remain unwilling to fully listen. However when our intention is to create a beautiful melody of memories and understanding, we can hear each other’s solos with confidence.
My son often speaks a different language than me. Sometimes fueled by urban dictionary lingo only a teenager can understand. At other times it is the by product of a life long struggle with less than perfect health. Regardless we have learned how to understand each other.
I may have to change the notes I play and I may struggle when I attempt to hear his elaborate piano solo through the ears of a violin player, but I make adjustments. I have to in order to connect. I have to stop myself from forcing him to hear my piece when he is clearly in a place that he can’t.
At times I cannot hear him clearly, attempting at “word for word”, note for note translation, when that is just not possible. I can create my own hell when I don’t stop, slow down, and fully listen.
I bought him Dante’s Inferno because, as strange as that may seem to me, and as different as he is from other 16 year old’s, it is a passion he has and a love language I must learn to speak.
He is not demented with Alzheimer’s disease like the patients I advocate for, but in many ways I see similarities. Both understand language differently, express it differently and need wholehearted intentionality to create connection. It may not always be easy, but it is possible.
Jack’s early days were difficult and may have played a role in how he creates and comprehends language, but his piano solos are a unique gift that have provided insight and inspiration to his entire family. We have learned the intricacies of the piano in the past 16 years, and it has made each of us better listeners and communicators.
Communication with those we love, those who play a different instrument, perhaps march to a different drum, may be hard at times…we may finds ourselves in a level of Dante’s Inferno we cannot escape, but through intentional listening and wholehearted attempts at connection, it is possible and can be beautiful.
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