At the age of 65, my mother had to learn how to read again.
Shortly before suffering a mild stroke a few months ago, she had breezed through David McCullough's thousand-page biography of Harry S. Truman. After the stroke, she could hardly finish a simple newspaper article.
She had always been able to finish the Sunday New York Times crossword puzzle in a half-hour, but it became an ordeal that would take several days. She'd come back to it in repeated short bursts that sapped her energy. Basically, her doctors said, my mother couldn't process information the way she used to.
Progress came slowly: When I visited her in North Carolina in mid-October, 2 1/2 weeks after she became ill, she could not read get-well cards or dial a phone. "I see the words, but I just don't know what to do with them," she told me plaintively. It was unclear, no matter how much effort this very determined woman put into it, just how much of her capacity to read would be recovered.
We all suffer losses in skills and capabilities as we age, but this latest development was especially cruel to someone who has loved books and reading as much as my mother has. Her health was not good before the stroke; she suffers from lupus and has had several major back operations. Getting from one room to another often was a chore. Such mundane tasks as writing checks and answering correspondence would send her straight to her bed for the rest of the day.
Yet the mind stayed keen and alive. A former journalist, she'd devour any out-of-town papers that her seven children would send to her home. I'd send her clippings of my stories, and she was always my most discerning and demanding critic. She'd ask: Why did you start the story that way? You took too long to get to the point. More than once I'd get exasperated when she'd offer that my profile of a writer had never captured the essence of the subject. But when she liked a piece, I knew that her praise was both sincere and hard-won.
She was always reading a book, and usually juggled two or three at a time. One was often a mystery, but Mom especially loved long nonfiction books. As a preacher's kid, a former religion editor and the spouse of a minister, she was happiest reading books on religion and theology -- the more challenging the better. When a spate of books on the Dead Sea Scrolls was published a few years ago, she gobbled up each one like candy. History, biography, politics -- she read them all to the last page, and discussed them eagerly and knowledgeably the next time I'd call.
This was only natural for, primarily because of her example, we were a family of readers for as long as I can remember. Go into the dining room of the Warren household in the early '60s at breakfast time and you could find five or six of us reading something, anything. We'd have big battles over the rights to a section of the newspaper or the back of a Wheaties box. (To this day it's impossible for me to have a bowl of cereal without an accompanying printed text.)
We learned early on to respect and treasure the written word, which can explain why three of my mother's children went into journalism. When I became book editor of The Sun in 1987, I think she was as happy to have someone to talk books with as she was that I had gotten a job I wanted.
Just this summer, as health problems were slowing her down, I asked how she was able to keep going. My mother has faced a lot of adversity in her life: getting polio as a young woman, my father's dying when she was 37 and leaving her to raise seven teen-agers by herself, and lately numerous physical problems. She's naturally tough and resilient, with a strong religious faith. Still I wondered how she could make it through the day.
Part of it, she explained, was that though she was limited to a routine of depressingly limited possibilities, she could still read. "You just don't know how much books mean to me," she told me. "I can't imagine what it would be like without them." And she recalled how her own mother, a strong, independent woman who had been an accomplished poet, had been devastated to learn in her late 80s that she could no longer read.
A few months later, the stroke made such a life a distinct possibility for Mom. She faced this square on. She might have despaired in her private moments, but in talking to me she was both candid in assessing her situation and resolute about trying to resume reading. She agreed that recorded books could fill some of the void, but I knew without her saying that she hoped that would be a last resort.
For in reading, one is the active participant. A person holds the book while reading, giving a sense of power and control. (No wonder, perhaps, that a favorite reviewer's word of praise is "gripping.") If my mother had to be read to, books would take on more passive implications. I knew how terrifying it was for her to consider a life without being able to read. It was one of those times in which sympathy and encouragement seemed superfluous, for reading had become her sustenance and life support.
All of this has happened when I was helping my older son learn to read. Matthew is in first grade, and every night we get out a bookor two. The words come slowly to him, but he labors to sound them out, putting the consonants and vowels and diphthongs together. It's draining for him and for me, and after a half-hour our minds have gone blank from exhaustion.
But he is improving week by week, and you can feel his excitement as he comes closer to cracking the code.
Learning to read has become an obsession. When we go out, he likes to read words on signs; he'll even give the back of a cereal box a try. Those incomprehensible symbols have become letters that, when pieced together, have given him a power of almost unlimited potential.
For many years to come, Matthew will be able to pick up a book when he's sad or lonely, when he's curious to know about other worlds, when he's ready to be entertained or moved by someone else's vision.
Yet, as I saw Matthew's confidence and pride in his reading increase, I felt reluctant to share this with my mother. It seemed so cruel to tell her that Matthew was gaining in an area in which she had lost so much. In a couple of conversations I skipped over the topic entirely, though normally it would have merited 20 minutes of discussion.
Ultimately, though, I concluded that she would want to know. Learning about her grandchildren's achievements and lives has become another source of sustenance for her. Information about my two children has become prime material in our mother-son conversations; there is always idle chatter about what went on in school or family trips to the museum or what basketball player is Matthew's favorite now. If I could tell her about how he had lost his first tooth, how could I not tell her that he was reading?
I began giving Mom updates on Matthew's progress. Naturally, she was delighted, and she wanted to know all the details -- what new words he has learned, which books he can read to the end. I never detected any self-pity in my mother's voice, only joy that yet another grandchild will be picking up books and losing himself in them for decades to come. Now my reservations seem foolish, for if anyone should know how precious a gift reading is, it's my mother.
All of us in the family hoped and prayed that she would in time be able to read as she did before, for in our hearts we knew that she would never be the same person if she could not. If she couldn't, she would make the best of her situation, of course, for that is her nature. But we wanted the mother we've always known, a woman of intelligence and intellect -- for our own selfish reasons as well as for her own good. Certainly her own mother suffered a marked loss in spirit when her ability to read was gone.
We hadn't heard too much encouraging news the past few months, but I did get a call from Mom last week. After a few minutes of conversation, she told me off-handedly that she was reading a book on the PTL Club I had sent. Her progress was slow, but she felt she could finish it. I could hear the pride and excitement in her voice, and also relief, for this time, at least, she does not have to confront the unthinkable.
Indeed, she's made remarkable progress in less than three months. One doctor thinks that in another few months she might be close to reading at the level she had before the stroke, though she may never again have the endurance to read the long books she loves.
Then Mom asked for some more books. I sent some out that afternoon.
4 Tim Warren is book editor for The Baltimore Sun.