Living with Aphasia

Michael's story
David's story

A Wise Move

Michael's story

Michael had a stroke during a dinner party at our home in February 2001. He had spent the day writing an educational policy document and I attributed his silence during the evening to tiredness. He fixed his eyes intently on each speaker, nodding and smiling appropriately,
but hardly saying a word. Afterwards, when I pressed him to talk to me he could only say “Couldn’t understand... fess... no... fezzer.”

Although Michael retained full mobility and feeling he was unable to talk, read or write and we were both frustrated and angry when successive doctors used the phrase
“You have only lost your speech.”

Only ?

Formerly, Michael had spoken five languages and, in retirement from his career in education as teacher, inspector then Chief Inspector for Southwark, he had had several writing projects in mind. Whilst in hospital the Education Minister wrote thanking him for his contribution to children’s literacy through his materials for the study of the Holocaust. His grief at his loss was profound. He would stand by his computer hitting his head with his palms sobbing, “Nothing’s here. No knowing.”

Michael’s path to academic success had been long and difficult. Born in Zimbabwe, then Southern Rhodesia, to a white father and black mother, he and his sister, at two and four years respectively, were placed in Driefontein, a mission school, when their parents’ marriage ended. Here, they were neglected and abused but, later, were moved to Stanley School for Asian and mixed race pupils in Gweru where hard work and good results were demanded and rewarded.

Both children were happy and achieved well there but, when their father died, they were left with no resources. The court granted money for one more year at school for Michael but Elizabeth had to begin a life of domestic service.

As there was no secondary education for coloured children in Rhodesia his headmaster encouraged Michael to present himself for the entrance examination at Zonnenbloem School in Capetown. Having passed it he was then alone with nowhere to stay but found work as a houseboy to the Geography master. Later, while at Trafalgar High School, Michael was taught by a brilliant and charismatic teacher, Ben Kies, who was dedicated to preparing his pupils for the time when, regardless of colour, they could play an equal part in their country’s affairs. From him, Michael learnt to reason, to question, to examine all the arguments and to spurn easy answers. Through links that Kies made with the Jewish community Michael obtained work in the evenings making up prescriptions in a Jewish pharmacy and, through a fellow pupil, he served on an Indian food stall. After graduating from Capetown University he returned to Southern Rhodesia to teach but had to flee to Nigeria after two years as he was involved in the growing political movement for a fairer society. He came to Britain in 1961. Now, nearly seven years after the stroke, Michael can read slowly and can usually make himself understood in English and in Shona. With the help of the speech therapists at St Peter’s, the TALK group and the London clinic CONNECT, as well as working with me at home, he has shown the same determination to learn and improve as he did as a boy. Elizabeth died three years ago but her children and grandchildren are always in touch, he has been much encouraged by his own family of four children and nine grandchildren and he is motivated by opportunities to help other stroke recoverers. Indeed, earlier this year, Michael completed another 10-mile sponsored walk to raise funds for TALK.