My mother was my moral compass, unwavering until her last breath. She was smarter than me with a crystal intellect. I needed her approval and I so wanted to make her happy. During the last years of her long life, visits to a variety of doctors were frequent. I got into a pattern: I memorized all of her medicines, noted all of her symptoms, surreptitiously monitored her breathing and bathroom visits. I was so eager to keep her well and do a thorough job of it. That’s why I frequently spoke for her when doctors questioned her.
Speaking for her had the disconcerting effect of taking the focus off of her. Doctors began addressing their comments to me, as though she were not in the room. I was nonplussed. Didn’t this doctor realize that my mother was eminently capable of handling her own affairs? I know it undermined her dignity and I felt ashamed, but I couldn’t seem to shut up and let her handle things.
That is, until the day her internist, a geriatric specialist, gave me the most effective and non-judgmental scolding I ever received, because it chided me and solved my dilemma at the same time. It only took a second, and she never said a word. She did it silently with sign language.
In the moment before my mother could answer a question while the geriatrician was focused only on her, I rushed to give the answer. Before I could finish the geriatrician reached out her hand--never taking her eyes off my mother’s face and smiling bemusedly--and jiggled her thumb and index finger first toward my mother and then toward herself in a silent smack down that toldme, “this is between her and me--but you can play with us later.” It was a monumentally small gesture that demonstrated her respect for my mother and her commitment to her care, but also acknowledged my eagerness to help.
That tiny moment in the relentless eddy of my mother’s decline was surely a defining one for me, and perhaps for my mother, who looked quite satisfied to be afforded such attention. I was relieved that someone had given my mother back her power, even though it meant taking it away from me.
A sign language instead of acoustically conveyed sound patterns, uses manual communication and body language to convey meaning. This can involve simultaneously combining hand shapes. Orientation and movement of the hands, arms or body, and facial expressions to fluidly express a speaker's thoughts.
...or a listener's thoughts.
Adapted from Wikipedia