On Losing One’s Letters and One’s Mind




My keyboard is dyng beneath my fingers. See that? The “i” is the latest to leave me. Not altogether, more like a disillusioned and petulant lover. It has to be in just the right mood to strike. The capital “I” of ego, however, refuses to go. Ironic, no? It will haunt me to my deathbed. Where I will not have access to exclamations. My girlish exclamation point, intended to show warm enthusiasm at every possible juncture, was the first to go. Its departure turned my keyboard’s malfunction into a metaphor for the cynical fatigue of aging.

The tab is iffy, too—mobility curtailed. And earlier this morning (I am hitting the “i” key a hundred times per “i” word just to tell you this), I lost the hyphen. As they do in age, the losses are compounding: by losing the hyphen, I also lost both the em-dash and the en-dash.

Losing the entire keyboard at once, perhaps in a puff of smoke, would have been easier. This gradual disintegration makes typing feel like One Hundred Years of Solitude, that great allegory of dementia in which people begin to forget words, so they stick notes on things, and then they forget how to read…. What will go next?

My masochistic shadow self wants to delay ordering a new keyboard and see just how maddened I will be, how many tricks I can devise to replace treasured punctuation marks or find synonyms that do not contain the letter “i.” But if I lose “e,” too? Or “t,” a personal favorite?

Loss forces ngenuity. We develop a shorthand, a set of workarounds. If we are stiff or creaky, we invent new physical gestures; if we are hoarse, we play charades; if we cannot hear so well, we guess a funnier remark than the one just made. For a while, we are ntrgued, stmulated, challenged.

And then it goes on a little too long, and we realize we are exhausted. You have no way of knowing this, Gentle Reader, but I was gone for a while just then. I removed all the key covers and dabbed alcohol and blew away crumbs and changed the batteries. The keyboard is now…worse than ever. I am reduced to cutting and pasting individual letters. The prospect of returning tomorrow and trying to whack out 1,000 words brings a long, defeated sigh. (And there goes the “1” key.)

I seem to lose stuff—possessions, functionality, my mind—in jags. Life will flow smoothly for weeks, even months. Then I drive off from the gas station with the pump still in the tank and wonder why a young man is running after me across a four-lane road. My current excuse is that I have lost my health to a cruddy two-week cold and lost my composure after driving a splinter into the sole of my foot. But the festering splinter does not explain the automatically opening kitchen trashcan that has turned surly, opening only half as wide as it used to for only half as long. Also I somehow lost my passport. And having admitted all this, I am losing credibility as well.

These are tiny disturbances of the domestic sphere, brief incursions of chaos. They remind me of the finite limits of our budget, my patience, and my life span. They also remind me how easy it is to decide you are dogged by gremlins or punished by karma. Somehow the default expectation is always that life will and should run smoothly, and whatever gave us that idea, I do not know. Each of us lives in our own little ecosystem, vulnerable to the fluctuations of a million intersecting variables. The surprise should be getting out of bed every morning.

At some point I will allow a doctor to dig out the splinter (under general anesthetic if I get my way), and the trash can will relearn its rhythm or be replaced. The new passport will arrive, rendering me a legal being, and I will Bluetooth the new keyboard. None of this matters.

But what will I do when the losses really are irreparable? When friends die, or if I lose my eyesight for some terrible reason, or our house burns down, or our savings runs out, or Andrew gets sick in some dire and permanent way? Chaos lurks around every corner. It always did, but the fears of my youth seem so silly now. I dreaded never finding someone to love, never finding the right job, falling apart if I lost my beloved mother. They were all real, valid, and utterly unnecessary fears, and they plagued me until life disproved them.

Is it only whiny self-absorption that makes me think my current fears better grounded? That disconcerting sense of the objects around me running amok, rebelling, and flouting my wishes can no longer be shrugged off as the funny catastrophes of blithe youth. Now these streaks of breakage, malfunction, and disappointment herald my own physical disintegration.

Or perhaps my festering splinter just has me in a mood.

A friend’s therapist informed him, when he turned forty, that life from then on would be a series of losses. I told my friend to find a new therapist. Twenty years later, stuck without even a working hyphen, I think that therapist was wise.

Fears change, over time. They shift from existential to practical. Money really can run out, if you retire and earn no more of it. All those possibilities, opportunities, and alternatives available to the young will run out, too. Hearing aids will never truly equal keen hearing. Plodding on a treadmill for cardio will be nothing like running hard for the sheer joy of sweat and wind and speed.

The fun part, I tell myself, will be getting creative. You will develop shorthand, playing guessing games when one or the other of you cannot remember the right word. You will do a little less but do it better. You will face down chaos not with the resilience of youth but with the wisdom of experience. And you will refuse to become fluttery and timid, as so many old people are, obsessed with their aches and pains, paranoid about being cheated, nervous about every eventuality. No, you will stay bold, turn it all into a grand adventure.

I nod briskly at my own little pep talk. That is the plan. But I am left with the real fear, the one I am putting off typing. Friends will die. We will die, one of us before the other. And we will stammer through our grief, stuck and frustrated and helpless, unable to express the depth of it.


Read more by Jeannette Cooperman here.

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