For reasons no one can know now, Nancy loves to sit on the porch of her mobile home and listen to her dozen wind chimes tinkling.
Her longtime partner, Bob, hates the sound, but while he's sitting inside, he leaves the sliding door open in case Nancy needs his help.
Nancy loves that Bob wakes up before her and waits to eat breakfast until she gets up.
She loves to point to a newspaper article after she reads it so Bob will slide his chair next to hers and tell her more about it. He gets so worked up about politics.
Seven years ago, a stroke turned the part of Nancy Hicks' brain that controls language and speech into a one-way trap called aphasia. She did not lose her intelligence or her devil-may-care personality, but she cannot make words, written or verbal. She can, almost, say only one word.
Maybe she's trying to say Bob. No one really knows. But he comes anyway when she calls.
• • •
Nancy, 69, had been dating Bob Mitchell for about 10 months before the stroke. He met her children, who live out of state, for the first time in the ICU of Morton Plant Hospital. He knew almost nothing about her past, but there he was, sleeping uncomfortably in the chair by her bed when she opened her eyes. He began making her medical decisions. After six days in the ICU and 21 days in rehab, a nurse came with discharge papers and asked Bob if Nancy was going to a private home or a nursing home.
"I didn't think about love or anything. At that point it was, 'What do you mean? She's coming home,' and after that, the choice was made," Bob says. "I'm not sure what it was that made me decide in an instant. But her life as she knew it ended the day she had the stroke, and so did mine."
Bob, 74, expected it would be difficult, but he had no idea how often he would have to go shopping.
"I hate shopping. I'm getting old. I want to sit in my chair and watch TV. I would shop once a week, get exactly what I want and get home. Nancy isn't like that. She always wants to go, go, go. She will shop for hours. I guess it's love that gets me out of the chair and gets my shoes on. I can't deprive her of a life."
• • •
On a recent morning, Bob is driving Nancy to a hair appointment. They are early, and Nancy starts pointing. Bob has no idea where she wants to go.
"Baa! baaa! ba!" she insists from the passenger seat as he almost misses a turn lane. He begins to suspect this may be the way to the shopping mall.
Joe Walsh's Life's Been Good comes on the radio. Nancy cranks it up, puts a thumb up in the air, waves it back and forth, and starts to sing.
"Ba ba baaaaa ba ba ba baaaaaaaaa."
She points left again.
In the discount store, Nancy takes the lead. She chirps her one word at employees like a songbird without hesitating to see if they have any idea what she is talking about. She gives them a thumbs-up and does little dances when she sees things she likes.
Bob saunters behind her, ready to translate, decode the clues or lend a hand.
Then she sees it.
Another wind chime. She brushes five tinkling brass bells dangling from a large brass heart, shakes her rear end at the sound and laughs.
"Baba! ba ba baaa?"
"It'll cost you ten bucks."
He reaches to help her take it down.
Tinkling fills an awkward silence. He looks at her. She gives it a shake.
She looks at him sheepishly.
"Okay. It's your money," he says, shaking his head.
She does a dance. Bob's newest porch sound tinkles along with her, and she begins to sing.
• • •
Dr. Jackie Hinckley, executive director of Voices of Hope for Aphasia, says more than 1 million people in the United States have aphasia, at least 10,000 of them in the Tampa Bay area. She says Bob and Nancy break the mold for aphasia and relationships.
"Divorce is significantly more likely among people who have a stroke with aphasia than among people who have a stroke without aphasia. So the aphasia has a huge, negative effect on marriage and relationships," she says.
"(Bob and Nancy) are special in the sense that the kind of aphasia Nancy has is severe. The fact that Bob did what he did for her and that they've figured out how to have their relationship all these years even though they had very little history is really amazing. It is probably one of the better love stories I've known."
• • •
Bob sees things the other way around: "Nancy is the one making a life for us."
She gets him out of his chair and out into the world. He has learned that paying attention to your partner is more important than good conversation.
He was married once. They each had their own car and their own checking account.
"We had separate lives. We married, but I guess we never really became a union or something. And with Nancy, because of aphasia, I have to really pay attention to her needs, her moods.
"We do everything together. We're together 24-7. We're closer than most couples because we have to be. So most couples probably have more trouble communicating than we do, in ways. At least we're trying to understand where the other is coming from."
When Bob thinks about the first 10 months of their relationship, before the stroke, he wishes he had gone more places with her and listened more closely. There is so much about her he may never know.
He has learned that simple gestures make a big difference, even when things get complicated.
"If we're upset with each other and I really don't know what she is thinking, after some time passes I will turn around and tell her 'I love you', and most of the time that kind of ends the problem. Because she needs that reassurance that no matter what problem we have, I still love her."
• • •
Back home, Nancy hands Bob the new wind chime and directs him to an empty hook on the porch.
"Ba. Ba. Ba."
"That one? Okay."
"Baba baaa baba ba."
"There used to be something up there, eh?"
He stretches to reach the hook. "Like that?"
"Aaaa-Bababa!!!," she exclaims, giggling and running a hand along the bells to make them chime.
Contact John Pendygraft at [email protected]. Follow @Pendygraft.