An Avid Book-Lover Who Had to Learn to Read Again

December 19, 1993|By TIM WARREN

At the age of 65, my mother had to learn how to read again.

Shortly before suffering a mild stroke a few months ago, she had breezed through David McCullough's thousand-page biography of Harry S. Truman. After the stroke, she could hardly finish a simple newspaper article.

She had always been able to finish the Sunday New York Times crossword puzzle in a half-hour, but it became an ordeal that would take several days. She'd come back to it in repeated short bursts that sapped her energy. Basically, her doctors said, my mother couldn't process information the way she used to.

Progress came slowly: When I visited her in North Carolina in mid-October, 2 1/2 weeks after she became ill, she could not read get-well cards or dial a phone. "I see the words, but I just don't know what to do with them," she told me plaintively. It was unclear, no matter how much effort this very determined woman put into it, just how much of her capacity to read would be recovered.

We all suffer losses in skills and capabilities as we age, but this latest development was especially cruel to someone who has loved books and reading as much as my mother has. Her health was not good before the stroke; she suffers from lupus and has had several major back operations. Getting from one room to another often was a chore. Such mundane tasks as writing checks and answering correspondence would send her straight to her bed for the rest of the day.

Yet the mind stayed keen and alive. A former journalist, she'd devour any out-of-town papers that her seven children would send to her home. I'd send her clippings of my stories, and she was always my most discerning and demanding critic. She'd ask: Why did you start the story that way? You took too long to get to the point. More than once I'd get exasperated when she'd offer that my profile of a writer had never captured the essence of the subject. But when she liked a piece, I knew that her praise was both sincere and hard-won.

She was always reading a book, and usually juggled two or three at a time. One was often a mystery, but Mom especially loved long nonfiction books. As a preacher's kid, a former religion editor and the spouse of a minister, she was happiest reading books on religion and theology -- the more challenging the better. When a spate of books on the Dead Sea Scrolls was published a few years ago, she gobbled up each one like candy. History, biography, politics -- she read them all to the last page, and discussed them eagerly and knowledgeably the next time I'd call.

This was only natural for, primarily because of her example, we were a family of readers for as long as I can remember. Go into the dining room of the Warren household in the early '60s at breakfast time and you could find five or six of us reading something, anything. We'd have big battles over the rights to a section of the newspaper or the back of a Wheaties box. (To this day it's impossible for me to have a bowl of cereal without an accompanying printed text.)

We learned early on to respect and treasure the written word, which can explain why three of my mother's children went into journalism. When I became book editor of The Sun in 1987, I think she was as happy to have someone to talk books with as she was that I had gotten a job I wanted.

Just this summer, as health problems were slowing her down, I asked how she was able to keep going. My mother has faced a lot of adversity in her life: getting polio as a young woman, my father's dying when she was 37 and leaving her to raise seven teen-agers by herself, and lately numerous physical problems. She's naturally tough and resilient, with a strong religious faith. Still I wondered how she could make it through the day.

Part of it, she explained, was that though she was limited to a routine of depressingly limited possibilities, she could still read. "You just don't know how much books mean to me," she told me. "I can't imagine what it would be like without them." And she recalled how her own mother, a strong, independent woman who had been an accomplished poet, had been devastated to learn in her late 80s that she could no longer read.

A few months later, the stroke made such a life a distinct possibility for Mom. She faced this square on. She might have despaired in her private moments, but in talking to me she was both candid in assessing her situation and resolute about trying to resume reading. She agreed that recorded books could fill some of the void, but I knew without her saying that she hoped that would be a last resort.

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