In Sickness and in Health: The real power of speech

Not being understood is one of Nick's biggest frustrations - but his croaky voice is my favourite sound

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Last year, Rebecca's husband Nick was hit by a car and seriously injured. Here, in one of a series of columns, she writes about the aftermath of his accident

Today, I'd like to talk about speaking. Or speak about talking. You see, when I recount things that Nick has said, to friends, to family, to readers, I have usually translated them from Nick into English. Sometimes Nick's speech is clear, sometimes it's incomprehensible to everyone except me or my stepmum (because she is a hero and visits him twice a week when I'm not with him). Sometimes even I'm flummoxed. His voice is growly and his words can come out slurred. No one seems to be sure whether the culprit was the tracheostomy, now just a silver line at the case of his throat, around which his chest hair has grown back and where toast crumbs gather, or the five months of disordered consciousness (for those not in the trade, think coma-with-eyes-open) in which his throat muscles were dormant and subsequently atrophied. Or a combination of the two.

Not being understood is one of Nick's biggest frustrations. And when he's frustrated, he shouts. Which makes him even more difficult to decipher, as well as quite scary. On occasion, when he’s repeated something a few times, at my request, and I’m still not getting it, he shuts his eyes in weariness. “Forget it”. It’s too much effort to try and make me understand, but whenever it happens, I feel terrible. It’s particularly bad when he comes out with something completely off topic, like asking me about something he wants from our flat when we’ve been talking about Game of Thrones, so I’m going in cold without any clues as to what he’s on about.

One strategy Nick that uses is to spell things out. It’s not foolproof, partly because of his dodgy diction, and partly because of his dodgy spelling. Last week he was trying to tell me that he wanted something. “Tips? Tricks? Spell it out for me, poppet.” “T…W…I…T…S” Ah! A Twix. When we spoke on the phone the other day, it took me a moment to realise how he greeted me. “Did you just call me mummy?” “Sorry my lovely”. I should think so too!

It must drive him nuts when we’re talking to people and I repeat what’s he’s saying, as he says it, to make sure that they understand. It certainly drives me nuts when they reply to me, not him, but I can see why they do it. When he spoken to someone on the phone and I’m there, he tells them that he’ll pass them to me. Then I check that they’ve got the gist of the conversation. Still, he’s come so far. Recently I showed him the video that I took of him saying his second string of post-accident words. It was an eye-opener for us both – him because he couldn’t remember it, me because I’d forgotten how bad he was back then.

Nick longs for his old voice, although not enough, I suspect, to do his speech therapy as assiduously as he claims too. When I make him, he races through the chewing techniques and the mouth opening, and doesn’t pay much heed to me correcting the sentences that he repeats. But to hear his creaky, croaky voice telling me that he loves me, or wants a chocolate bar, or that he’s determined to walk again but no one believes him, is, apart from when he’s nagging me, is one of the best sounds I can hear.

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