The Secret Language of Patients and Caregivers

Patients with tender caregivers often speak a little language of their own devising. It’s not unusual for people dealing with illness to use quirky dialects and inside jokes to attempt to maintain a sense of connection with their intimates or to revive unextinguished emotions. Upon returning home from an operation for ovarian cancer a few years ago, I relied on this sort of shared allusion when I repeatedly asked my husband, Don, “What watch, Liebchen?” It was a coded way of asking if it was time for my next dose of pain medication. I knew he’d understand that I was channeling the couple in “Casablanca” at Rick’s Moroccan cafe, practicing fractured English in the hope that they could reach America. They used the term “what watch” for “what time is it?” Don shared my sense of our being immigrants in the world of cancer. Fearful of time running out, we wanted above all else to find safe passage. Of course, perfectly healthy companions frequently cultivate a private lexicon. Before the philosopher Iris Murdoch experienced the onset of Alzheimer’s, her husband, John Bayley, has explained, he and his wife shared “a whole infantile language of our own.” After she became […]

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