She was an 81-year-old pediatrician, born and raised in Vienna. There she trained in medicine, thence fled to Paris in 1934, thence to New York in 1940. When she first came to the doctor in 1990, fragile and erect, she had been having spells of supreme unease, lasting minutes to hours. She was frightened: could these portend a stroke? Over the next months, no more of her symptoms occurred. Whatever could be done to prevent stroke, was done.
When a stroke did come, she was motionless and mute for several days. Then, as her faculties began to reappear, her speech was German. The language of her childhood, the language of her persecutors, of Immanuel Kant and Walther von der Vogelweide, of Tannhäuser, of the guttural tribesmen who fought the Roman legions. Her ruined talents huddled around a little linguistic fire, lingering; and she too lingered a few months, and died.
He was an old retired electrician who had left Naples fifty years before. He came to the emergency room because of fainting spells. A doctor had given him six or seven medicines, which probably hurt more than they helped; these were stopped. When his right side went limp a few days later, his English, formerly fluent, if accented, was gone. His Italian was intact. He cried.
He sang an aria from The Marriage of Figaro, the words of an aching wife who fears, with justification, that she has lost her husband’s love: Dove sono i buon’ momenti?*
* Where are the beautiful moments?
Charles Bardes is a physician who lives and works in New York City, where he teaches and practices general medicine as professor of clinical medicine and associate dean at Cornell University's Weill Medical College. He is the author of Essential Skills in Clinical Medicine and articles related to medical education. (3/2006)