You Can Call Me Betty by Allison Wehrle

*Featured Art: “Abstract Woman” by Angela Lam

As we said our goodbyes on that sunny, late summer day, I think we both knew they would be our last. The light breeze was stark in contrast to my heavy heart, and the afternoon visit – while pleasant – had been bittersweet. He was weary. I was thirty-one. When it was time to go, I hugged him and kissed him lightly on the cheek. But before I could turn away, he grabbed my arm and pulled me close, and I couldn’t help but smile.

My Grandpa, Rollin, suffered a massive stroke in his early fifties when I was just four. It left him completely paralyzed on the right side and severely impaired his ability to speak. For someone who loved to talk as much as he did, the resulting aphasia (the technical term for his language loss) was even more debilitating than the paralysis. I grew up using a mixture of charades and twenty questions to communicate with Grandpa, which never seemed all that strange. I instinctively picked up on his vocal inflection and non-verbal cues without realizing that, for most, these are learned listening skills.

It would be easy to use that one awful event to categorize Grandpa’s life – pre- and post-stroke – because, in a sense, everything changed. His beloved tools grew rusty in the garage, and his stock holdings – that were heavily invested in typewriters and asbestos – remained unchanged. His personality, though, didn’t belong in the past tense; the stroke didn’t change who he was, it just changed our ability to understand him.

As the oldest of six grandchildren, I am the only one who has any memory of Grandpa before his stroke. I’m not sure whether they are actually my memories, or if I’ve pieced them together from the stories I’ve heard about the way Grandpa “used to be”. Grandpa was charming and could talk to anybody. He was a flirt; the ladies loved him, and he loved the ladies, especially those who kept their hair short and their wardrobe sharp, like my grandma. And he was strong. These things I know because I was told, and because he gave one-armed bear hugs with a near bone-crushing zeal.

I do remember going to visit shortly after the stroke. As a preschooler, and through no great accomplishment of my own, I was suddenly more articulate than the patriarch of my family; even at that age, the unfairness of this role reversal was not lost on me. Perched atop the tan leather ottoman that matched the overstuffed chair in which Grandpa liked to sit, I tried reading to him while the grownups talked in the kitchen. Sounding out the words I knew, I asked if he could say things like “dog” and “apple”. He smiled but sat silently, shaking his head with the patience that only a grandparent can muster.

The only name Grandpa was able to recover was that of my grandmother, Betty. He used her name to address everyone, regardless of gender. He could count aloud up to three or four and retained some basic phrases – like “you, too” or “it’s alright” – that require little forethought when used in casual conversation. While he sometimes managed to say other words here and there, they were often garbled and rarely repeated. He suddenly favored the letter “b”, and this phoneme preceded words that it never had before.

After a fair amount of trial-and-error, conversations with Grandpa began to resemble the format of TV’s best primetime dramas: formulaic, but with enough twists and variables to keep us guessing until the very end, when all the clues and subtle references introduced at the start suddenly became clear.

To get our attention, he would address whoever was nearest to him: “Betty?” followed by his default phrase, “bide de bide de bide”, which replaced the words that just wouldn’t form on his tongue. He would repeat the “de bide” portion until he was satisfied with his explanation; whether this phrase was a statement or question was always our first clue. Sometimes he elaborated by pointing, gesturing, or counting.

Unlike those made-for-TV dramas, the conclusions didn’t always come as readily as we hoped. The answers – while sometimes obvious – were usually elusive. When even our best guesses fell short, frustrations ran high, and occasionally tempers flared. There was no “To Be Continued” or commercial break to provide us respite; we couldn’t even change the channel when we’d had our fill. Grandpa was persnickety, persuasive, and persistent, and we had no choice but to persevere.

Because traveling was difficult, Grandpa came for extended visits, and he sometimes had the house to himself during the day. In middle school, I was often the first to get home, which meant I “had to guess stuff” without assistance. I got off easy most days, quickly determining what he wanted or needed by using questions from the now-standard repertoire: “Are you cold?” “Are you hungry?” “Do you want a magazine?” Other times, his default phrase was nothing more than a “Hi. How was your day?”

I came home one afternoon to find Grandpa quite agitated. He was on the couch, pointing toward the back of the house. I asked all the usual questions, including some others that seemed pertinent. As each of my queries was shot down with increasing urgency – “Betty, no!” – I started to panic. How should I know what he needed? Couldn’t he wait and tell a grown-up? Didn’t he know I couldn’t understand him?

When I ran out of guesses, I asked, somewhat hopefully, “Do you want me to go to my room?”

“NO!” he roared.

I was near tears, but Grandpa was relentless. The exchange continued until I finally saw the object of his fury. A little black bug, no bigger than the tip of a pen, was slowly making its way up the living room wall. I had no idea how he could even see it! If it bothered him that much, why didn’t he kill it, instead of waiting for me to come home? That would have required much less effort, at least on my part.

When I asked if he wanted me to kill it, I got such a resounding “yes!” that, shaking, I made my way over to the insect intruder and folded it into a tissue. Once I had thrown it away, Grandpa was all praises and gratitude, blowing kisses and gesturing for a hug, but I wanted no part of it. Still trembling, I ran to my room and slammed the door.

Like most aphasics, Grandpa could answer simple “yes” or “no” questions. He also answered compound questions definitively, but to us, his response always sounded the same – “bide”. These factors, combined with his difficulties communicating over background noise, turned dinners out into a stressful ordeal.

We almost always had an over-attentive (though well-intentioned) waitress, and in the rush to help Grandpa choose an entrée, we abandoned our tried-and-true system. Once questions entered unfamiliar territory, the conversation quickly devolved:

“Do you want milk or Coke?”


“Well, which is it? And do you want spaghetti or lasagna?”

“Yes… and no!”

What do you want!?!”


That’s usually when the cursing began. While the higher-functioning cerebral cortex regulates everyday language, the brain’s limbic system (that controls baser functions such as instinct and emotion) handles profanities. I guess that even the stroke-causing clot knew better than to mess with Grandpa’s ability to swear.

The waitress had usually returned by this point, pen poised in midair, with an uncertain smile frozen on her face that never quite masked the look of horror in her eyes. The dining room would fall silent as people turned to observe the sudden commotion, and I would sink into the vinyl-covered chair, willing myself to disappear.

They say that Grandpa never met a stranger. Yet even with his magnetic personality, people occasionally reacted to his language limitations like he was a deaf foreigner, slowly shouting over-enunciated words as if it would somehow enable him to respond in kind. He UNDERSTANDS you! I’d want to scream, but Grandpa came to recognize their discomfort and learned to respond graciously: “I know it. It’s all right.”

Mostly though, he was warmly received by friends and strangers alike. Upon learning that he couldn’t speak, Millie, a wise housemate he met in his later years replied, “What’s that? You can’t talk? Well, I can’t hear. So how ‘bout I do the talking and you do the listening?” She pondered this arrangement, deciding that: “Yep. You and I are gonna get along just fine.”

Grandpa moved to an assisted living facility in my hometown just before my senior year in college. Some of our best times together were in the years that followed. At my mother’s suggestion, I took him out for ice cream one summer afternoon. However, she failed to mention which of the 31 flavors was his favorite. So, we sat in the parking lot, car idling, air blasting, while I asked:

“Do you like vanilla?”


“What about chocolate?”




We finally settled on strawberry.

Shortly after the move, I dragged Grandpa to his building’s Bingo event. “I don’t know…” he protested, but I insisted. A room full of sour-faced women, hunched protectively over their Bingo cards, eyed us suspiciously as we walked in late. “Oh, boy”, Grandpa groaned, looking over at me and rolling his eyes. I was thinking the same but said nothing. I sat him down and collected two cards from the caller.

Less than 10 minutes later, Grandpa had a Bingo. “Oh, boy!” he exclaimed loudly, causing everyone in the room to crack a smile. Before I knew it, the Bingo Betties had crowded around him, congratulating him on his “big win” and fighting for the chance to make his acquaintance. He graciously let me keep his winnings that day – all 50 cents worth.

As the residual effects of the stroke joined forces with the onset of old age, Grandpa became less insistent about talking and more content to just listen. Because he was more easily fatigued, and because I was not blessed with his (former) gift of gab, my one-on-one visits with him became shorter.

One afternoon, after I had recounted my recent life events, put away his laundry, and made sure his remote and tissues were within reach, he stopped me as I turned to leave. “Betty?” he started slowly. “Bide de bide… de bide?” I paused, eyebrows raised, and waited for the clarifier which – when it came – may as well have been spoken in perfect English.

“Bun”, he said, pointing at my sister’s wedding photo.

“Two”, he continued, pointing at a picture from my cousin’s honeymoon.

Then he pointed at me and shrugged. I couldn’t believe it! I told him, “I’ll get married just as soon as I find the right guy!” He laughed at that then settled back in his chair and focused once again on the television overhead.

After the fall that landed Grandpa in the hospital for the final time, doctors diagnosed him with a host of illnesses and infections on top of his injuries. An alert mind trapped in a failing body, he was still cognizant of his situation and his surroundings, yet after more than a quarter century, the stroke had finally won, and he lost the strength to surface above his physical limitations. The booming voice, charming antics, and infectious laugh would remain forever submerged within the shell of the man tucked neatly under a sterile hospital blanket.

I didn’t go to see Grandpa in the hospital; we said our goodbyes on a sunny, late summer day a few weeks before. I took him for a stroll outside, then found a bench in the shade. As we sat, a light breeze rustled the leaves overhead. I talked and he smiled, content to visit until the need for sleep overcame him.

When it was time to go, I bent down and gave him a one-armed hug, bracing my weight against the back of the wheelchair so as not to jostle his frail body, and kissed his cheek. As I stood back up, he grabbed my arm and pulled me close. I couldn’t help but smile because – for once – I knew exactly what he was going to say. And so, I waited as he slowly articulated the only words he still made a regular effort to say aloud: “I. Love. You.”


Allison Wehrle is a former editor, professional oboist, and aspiring essay writer. She was an associate editor at The Instrumentalist Magazine before becoming a full-time freelance musician. As a writer, Allison is particularly drawn to essay and creative nonfiction. She lives in Chicago with her husband and their two small children.

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