Some days the words spill. As if beads are being poured into my cupped hands and I can’t keep a hold of them all so that they slip away before I can thread them.

Those are good days.

Most days, though, words are like hen’s teeth. I have to hunt for them. 

I know scrolling through Instagram won’t help – but I do it anyway and then feel cross that I haven’t done more.


My son says, on a Zoom call, ‘I really have no words – nothing to say’.  He looks upset. As if its his fault that conversation has run dry.  

‘I’d better let you go’, and he sounds apologetic.

I text him later, ‘nobody has any words Benj, because everybody’s life’s on hold’.

And I think that life at the moment is a pregnant pause, an unclosed parenthesis, a semicolon: we’re all waiting, what next?


My mum, who frequently needs reminding who I am when I call and always needs a nudge as to where I live and where she lives, tells me that she has run out of nguvu. The words means ‘strength’ in Swahili. A language which she spoke when she lived in Africa. A place she left in 1985 when my father died. How odd, I think, that she cannot remember my name sometimes but can instinctively drop a foreign word into our conversation.


I am still trying, remotely, to encourage her to read – I am her virtual bully, ‘read ma, read!’ I urge.   But it’s hard for her to find the right book (short enough? Easy enough to comprehend? Short enough words and phrases?). I’m uncertain what to do so I contact Professor Leff at the National Hospital For Neurology and Neurosurgery, in London’s Queen Square.  I harangued him often immediately after mum’s stroke, he was always so kind. He and his team have developed a clever app for people like mum, with Pure Alexia.

I’m writing about mum’s condition at the moment and wanted an accessible explanation as to why mum can still write but cannot read.  He gives me a practical exercise to illustrate his point:

‘Close your eyes, Anthea, and write your name. Now close them and read a line on a page …’

4 Responses to “Words”

  1. haitiruth Says:

    I love the nguvu story. Read this today about someone who has lost memory: https://www.theatlantic.com/family/archive/2021/01/friends-who-high-five-every-week/617775/

    Ruth, thereisnosuchthingasagodforsakentown.blogspot.com

  2. cmshingle Says:

    I left Nairobi in 1996 after 15 years living there and I immediately knew “nguvu”. Wish it were as easy to remember what I did last week in this dreadful time of COVID! I love to read your posts; Africa is still in my heart.

  3. Pollylou Says:

    It is wonderful that your mother had the perseverance l to learn to read. I remember speaking to my dad who had memory loss when we lived overseas. When we were in Holland he asked how things were in East Berlin. When we were next in Brazil the weather was always the best subject as as I knew the view he looking at on the river in Portland, Oregon. When this brilliant man could no longer concentrate long enough to read the newspaper it was so sad for both of us.

    • reluctantmemsahib Says:

      That’s so sad, Pollylou. I’m so sorry. It is sad – when these brilliant minds become potholed with memory loss. My erudite, clever mum. I keep trying to find common ground. To remain present because I’m not in her past anymore. X

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