He had been in Mexico when it happened, in a house he had built on the Baja Peninsula. My sister and I went to care for him, totally unprepared for what we found. He lay in bed, fidgeting constantly, trying to pull off the various devices and sensors he was hooked up to. He couldn't focus; in fact, he completely ignored anything on the right side of his field of vision.
And he mumbled continually, full of gibberish. Every now and then he'd perk up with a few coherent words, generally louder than the background nonsense, and my sister and I would jump and draw closer, anxious for meaningful communication. Sadly, none materialized: "Zhiva muje derded WHATEVER HAPPENED TO ruzha misha mumma..."
We brought him to Denver for long-term treatment. He had to learn how to chew and swallow. He had to learn how to use a wheelchair and take a few halting steps. And he had to learn how to talk again. The stroke had left him with severe aphasia, the same neurological disorder Bruce Willis has been diagnosed with.
I don’t know anything about Bruce’s condition. But for my dad, aphasia manifested itself in a few different ways.
Sometimes, he would just say the completely wrong word: Instead of “sneaker,” he might say “newspaper.”
Sometimes, he would start a word correctly but finish it incorrectly. Perhaps he wanted to say “difficult,” but what came out was “diplomatic.”
And sometimes, he would use a related word. Once he left me a voice message: “This is your son, this is your son.”
Think about what was going on there. He knows he’s a relative. He knows he’s a male relative. He knows it’s a parent-child relationship. It’s just that last little bit -- whether he’s the parent or the child -- that he’s got backwards.
My father eventually recovered enough to engage in conversation, enjoy his grandchildren, and move around with the aid of a walker. We were blessed with six more wonderful years with him. And those six years showed me, continually, how absolutely incredible it is that we can communicate with each other at all.
We live in a world in which we can video-call someone anywhere on the planet for free. A world in which ordinary people can send tweets or post updates that get seen by millions -- and the rules of communication are being rewritten every day.
But it's also a world in which the underlying idea of communication can be easily taken for granted. The fact that I can make mouth-sounds that fly into your ear-holes and resolve in your brain for us to arrive at a shared meaning is thoroughly mind-boggling. The fact that I can mash at a keyboard and produce squiggles on a screen that get absorbed by your eyeballs to even approximate my original intention is an utter miracle.
My father was an actor -- not an A-list actor like Bruce, but a character actor who had bit parts in almost every '70s sitcom ever made. Communication was his career and his calling. When I was a child, he taught me how to present on stage, how to enunciate and project from the diaphragm.
Those early lessons taught me how to communicate. But his aphasia taught me to respect communication: the breath-taking complexity of it, the astonishing fragility of it, the precious and sacred gift of it.
For 40 years, in more than a hundred movies, Bruce Willis has given us the gift of his communication. Now, he and his family are navigating a new communication terrain. I wish them love and grace on that journey. It may be a difficult one, but it is full of beauty.