Words for Flowers: a story about Aphasia.

August 2, 2008
By Linda Wang, Cupertino, CA

i. lilacs.

When Hannah comes back after the accident, everyone in the neighborhood knows that something has changed, but not precisely what. Elizabeth suggests that her parents are keeping her home for the trauma, but Lucy Chang insists that if the trauma isn’t crime-related, there is no reason to keep her from fresh air.

Ivy isn’t sure what to think. For weeks, she just does what everyone else does, which is to clutch her sweater tightly around herself and hurry past the somber white house, noting nothing.
Today, though, Ivy passes a shop selling lilacs in the city. She peeks in and savors their merciful white hue.

Lilacs had always been Hannah’s favorite.

Just once, Ivy thinks, it couldn’t hurt to do something different. So she buys a bundle of the branches and leaves it on Hannah’s doorstep. When she passes the house on the way to school the next morning, the flowers are gone.

ii. daffodils
By January, Hannah is a phantom. It is always easy to forget things that can’t be seen. That’s unfortunate, Ivy thinks, the same way contest debaters abandon causes with their podiums. Lost causes are romantic, but there are reasons why they stay lost.

By March, Ivy doesn’t expect to see Hannah again, and that is why she shrieks when she rounds the corner to see Hannah clipping daffodils from their stems.

Ashamed of her reaction, Ivy immediately covers her mouth. Startled, Hannah drops the daffodils onto the ground, where they throw rays of sunny warmth onto the surrounding shades of frosty gray grass.

“Hello,” Ivy says as soon as she catches her breath. Hannah flushes quickly and her mouth opens slightly before clamping shut into a grimace of defeat. Then she runs away.

When Hannah’s gone, Ivy lingers for what seems like hours, bending down to gather the daffodils and leaving them at Hannah’s doorstep. She hopes Hannah won’t mind that a few petals are bent. She had straightened them as best she could.

iii. ferns
Before the accident, Ivy remembers, Hannah was always so popular. Her eyes had an eternal quality of flirtation in them that delivered hearts into her hands. Ivy envied those golden curls and rosebud lips, so like something wild grown out of Eden.

Hannah is still beautiful, Ivy thinks, but in a different way. She wonders why Hannah’s parents would want to hide her away, in that cold white house on the corner. Ivy returns to the flower shop and buys a fern. Ferns are tenacious, and Ivy thinks Hannah might like such a constant companion.

iv. red carnations
Ivy waits for Hannah’s parents to leave the house and rings the doorbell at promptly ten in the morning. When no one answers, she knocks. She keeps knocking for a minute or two. Then, the door opens.

Hannah nods—her eyes won’t flirt anymore, Ivy can tell. Now, there is a certain heaviness to her limbs, and shadows stain her skin.

“Good morning, Hannah,” Ivy says politely, “I found this in the shop today, and I thought you might like it.”

Hannah stares at the fern. She looks frightened. Ivy smiles determinedly.

“It’s a fern, so it doesn’t require much watering.” She knows she’s babbling, but it helps fill the space. “Just a few pinches of fertilizer now and then should make it grow bigger, since it looks so scrawny.”

“…Thank…you,” Hannah says.

Her voice is hoarse from disuse.

“You’re welcome,” Ivy says.

“May I come in?”

When Hannah doesn’t protest, Ivy crosses the threshold. The halls are long and filled with the strange silence. It is all neat and orderly, except for one corner at the back of the living room. There, notecards litter the floor in frustration, screaming words like DOG, SPOON, and CEREAL.

“Hannah? What are these?”

There are no tears in Hannah’s eyes when she speaks. Or, rather, doesn’t.

That is when Ivy realizes what is wrong.

v. blue bells
“I apologize, Mr. Salsworth. I didn’t mean to upset Hannah or disrupt your family.”

“I understand, Ivy. You’re a very nice girl and we understand that. It’s just…well, things aren’t the same anymore. Not for Hannah and not for the rest of us. Not since she’s had aphasia.”

“I understand, Mr. Salsworth.”

“It might…sometimes I think it might’ve been better for her even…”

“It’s not that she doesn’t understand things. She hears them, I know she does. I look at my little girl and…she understands. She just…she can no longer tell us. It’s like her head’s cut off, and we can’t understand. It’s—”

“…I understand.”

“No, you can’t. We just…can’t.”

“Thank you, Mr. Salsworth. I’ll be sure to keep that in mind next time I visit.”


“Thank you for your advice, Mr. Salsworth. But I need to go. The bluebells need watering.”

vi. grass
Five days a week Ivy visits Hannah. The world is oddly quiet when they sit together on the lawn, while Ivy chatters about flowers and books and Hannah knots the grass into little human sculptures. Though at first she stays sullenly silent, more and more Hannah responds to Ivy’s efforts to get her to talk. But still she’s afraid and Ivy thinks perhaps silence distracts Hannah from the grim immensity of her fate.

vii. water lily
“What is it, Hannah?”

“It…always…lake…ducks and horn…”

“Is it the water lilies?”

“No…jokes…beach and…a-and…roses…”

“Do you like them? These are blooming a bit early…”


“…I know. Thank you, too.”

viii. willow
Ivy reads, writes, speaks, and even thinks fluently in both French and English, but she rarely confuses the two—except first thing in the morning. Then, she’s more likely to say bonjour than hello.

It’s because Ivy often dreams about her mother.

She dreams of French pastries eaten under the willow tree and walks to the bird market on bright summer mornings. She dreams of clinging to her mother through dark nights in the hospital, and though her mother always said that Ivy had grown up too fast, that her illness had made Ivy over-aware of life’s transience and that their time together was shortened, she never minded Ivy’s insistence on squeezing every last morsel of happiness she could out of the time they’d been given. Not even when she died.

Since meeting Hannah, though, Ivy dreams less and less. One day she wakes up and instead of speaking French, reverts instantly into English. The same flawless, unaccented English her mother speaks in her dreams.

For the next hour she ignores her father’s groans as she scours the house for her flower book. Fingering the delicately dried petals, she feels confused.

If it isn’t her flower book, what has she lost?

ix. cactus
The first time Hannah asks her a question, Ivy’s so startled she almost misses the meaning.

“Water…you…in many…”

Hannah’s unusually talkative today. It’s probably because of the sunshine, as it’s been overcast for weeks and Hannah doesn’t like that.

She shakes her head and tries again.
“Deep…puddles…dinner and…three…”

“My family? My…feelings?” Ivy knows she’s avoiding the question, but she can’t help but try. Hannah nods vigorously.

“If you’re asking about my mother,” Ivy says quietly, “There isn’t much to say.”

Hannah shakes her head again.

“You…know you snoodles harbored in I wanted after care.”

“You don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“Rod care golden I you there.”

“Just shut up and leave it alone!”

The next day, they spend the day inside, with Hannah refusing to talk and Ivy watering the cacti.

x. hawthorn
“I gave her a single flower every day for 548 days,” Ivy says finally, a moment before twilight. They’re sitting in Hannah’s favorite spot, the top of the hill that overlooks the garden. There are no flowers around, and yet there is always something to see, even if it is only the changing color of the sky.
Tonight, it is tinged in inky blues that give way to a dusting of lavender just above the horizon.

“Hibiscuses, golden rods, daisies, camellias, anemones, laurels, larkspurs…548 different kinds and colors.”

Hannah is silent again. Ivy wonders if Hannah realizes how much she says without words. If Hannah knows that her troubles show in the lines on her face, in the ways her hands burrow deeper into her pockets, or in how close she sits to Ivy on the lawn.
Maybe, Ivy thinks, instead of trying so hard to get people to understand Hannah…maybe those around her just need to learn how to listen differently.

Suddenly, Hannah smiles and flips onto her side. Before Ivy blinks she has pushed herself off the hill and rolls laughing down its side. The sound is pure and unaltered.
For that frozen moment in time it seems to Ivy as if both Hannah and the sun spiral away from their corner of the Earth and leave Ivy in darkness. Somehow, she is not afraid.

Hannah crashes lightly into the hedge of hawthorn, shouting something unintelligible.

Hannah is waiting.

Her smile says everything.

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