by Clare Durham

Competition theme: 'Perspective'

It was Maisie who suggested that we could communicate with her dad by using emojis.

Everything had changed for Nick just four days after his 51st birthday, when he suffered a massive stroke. I spent the next horrendous few weeks wondering if he had survived only to live a half life. But gradually, chinks of light began to appear as he slowly regained some movement. More importantly, he showed he could clearly understand what was being said to him, even if he didn’t have the language to reply.

“I don’t know, Maisie,” I said. “Your dad hates emojis. He thinks they’ll result in the death of the English language.”

Our teenage daughter shrugged. “Yeah, well, he’s a teacher - he has to say that. But he can’t read, write or speak, Mum. You’ve got to communicate with him somehow.”

She was right. After four weeks Nick had been moved into a respite home where he had round-the-clock care and physio. I’d been going to visit every day but if I didn’t get back to work soon we’d be without both our wages.

On our next visit, Maisie set up the new tablet we’d bought for her dad, then sat at the end of his bed with her phone out, messaging him and explaining as she went.

“So if I send πŸ˜€ it means I’m having a good day. Then if you send 😒 it means you’re sad and not having a good day. Try it.”

Nick frowned in concentration as he moved his good hand over the tablet. My heart contracted as I watched the two of them. Nick should be home, helping Maisie revise for her GCSEs. Instead, he was here and she was teaching him, with a patience I didn’t know she possessed, to send a basic text. Her phone pinged.


“You can’t just send all of them, Dad! How am I supposed to know which one is right?”

She showed me her phone and I looked at Nick’s face, understanding in an instant.

“What he means is that he’s sad that he’s here and we have to do this; he’s shocked at how patient you’re being, happy and proud that you are and he loves you.”

Nick nodded and Maisie paused in a moment of emotion before the teenage wall came back up. “You two are soft,” she declared.

The system worked well over the coming days and weeks, and we were able to adapt it to our needs. Most mornings started with a conversation much like:



And evenings ended along the lines of:



One morning I received the following:


I rang the home. “It’s Mrs Ellis. I’ve had a message from my husband I don’t quite understand. Has he had a row with his doctor?”

The nurse who had seen him that morning was put on the line and explained. “Nick saw a new doctor this morning and they didn’t see eye to eye. I’m afraid the doctor told Nick that he thought using his tablet to communicate was holding back his recovery. Nick clearly disagreed.”

I felt sick. We had been trying to help Nick; to bridge a gap and open up communication to him. But what if we were closing the door on him ever regaining proper language? Could we live on emojis forever?

“What do you think?” I asked the nurse.

There was the sound of a door being closed and her voice got quieter as she said, “When Nick first came here he was often angry. Frustrated that he couldn’t communicate properly, couldn’t read. His language is all locked inside and clearly it’s important to him.”

“He’s head of English at St Hilda’s,” I explained.

“Well, since your daughter gave him that tablet he’s been much happier. He doesn’t just use it to communicate with you, he uses it for the staff as well. It cuts out a lot of the guesswork as to how he’s feeling. Although I’m not sure this particular doctor was quite prepared to see that many clown emojis this morning,” a note of amusement crept into her voice. “Speak to his speech therapist. Look, I’m only a nurse, but I don’t think it’s doing any harm.”

I spent some time choosing my reply to Nick.


I hoped the nurse would be able to explain our conversation more fully to him later.

I was reassured that he was able to use the tablet with the nurses and other staff as well; although that was not without its problems. On one visit I was taken aside by one of the carers.

“I’m really sorry, Mrs Ellis, but yesterday at lunch Nick showed me this. I was going to speak to the doctor, but as it’s quite personal I thought maybe I should tell you first.”

She recreated on her phone what Nick had showed her.


“Was it moussaka for lunch?” I asked. “He can’t stand aubergine.”

“Oh thank God!” Her relief was palpable and confusing. “Yes, moussaka. Ok, noted. No more aubergine.” And she went off shaking her head and laughing.

I told Maisie about it when I got home. She pulled the face that only teenagers can pull when a parent has crossed the boundaries of acceptable behaviour.

“He did what? Oh my God, you two are SO embarrassing!”

“I don’t understand.”

“Google it!”

“I don’t need Google. I have a teenage daughter. What have I missed about aubergines?”

“Don’t make me say it.”


“It’s a penis, ok?! The aubergine emoji means penis.”

Suddenly I understood how my own mother had felt when I’d told her she had to stop telling people she was going to the hairdresser to have “one of those blow jobs”.

“Why the hell does it mean penis?” I flustered. “Penises aren’t that colour! They don’t have little stalks on the end. This makes no sense!”

Maisie stropped out of the room in anguish flinging, “Old people are the worst” at me.

When I told Nick on my next visit he laughed so hard I thought he might have another stroke.

And so we went on. It wasn’t perfect. Often I had to ring the care home to try and make sense of what Nick was telling me, and although it was easier in person because Nick could understand what I was saying to him, he was clearly frustrated that he couldn’t just reply in the way he always had.

On the morning of Maisie’s first GCSE exam I found her in tears. She showed me her phone.


She’d replied with:


“I wish he was here, Mum,” she sniffed as I held her and stroked her hair. “Will he ever be like he used to be?”

“I don’t know, sweetheart,” I admitted. “I hope so. Your dad is doing really well. He’s making good progress. Let’s hope he can come home soon.”

I sent her off to school feeling none too confident in my words of comfort. It was now three months since Nick had had his stroke and were we really any further forward than we had been a month ago? Physically, yes. I’d downplayed my excitement in front of Nick but I could tell on each visit that his mobility was improving and his reliance on the carers lessening with each day. But that was only a part of it. What if I could never again hold a conversation with my husband that didn’t rely on a yellow cartoon face?

A fortnight later I received the following from him:


In the code that we had developed this was his request for me to visit him and to bring Maisie. (She had objected strongly to being depicted as a monkey but nonetheless it had stuck).

When we got to the home Nick wasn’t in his room, or in the residents’ lounge. The nurse I asked for help showed us into one of the treatment rooms. Nick was coming to the end of the parallel walking bars and collapsed into his wheelchair with a lopsided grin. It was the first time Maisie had seen her dad standing since the stroke and she ran to hug him.

“Dad, that’s amazing!”

He lifted not just his good arm, but both arms to embrace her and I noticed just how much his range of movement had improved. His therapist smiled at me and nodded.

As Maisie pulled out of her dad’s embrace I saw Nick’s mouth open and a look of intense concentration appear on his face. In a thick voice that was slurred and deliberate but still music to my ears he said, “Coming home.”

The therapist helped me up from the floor where I had slumped as a wave of relief and sheer emotion overwhelmed me.

“I’m sorry,” she said. “He insisted on it being a surprise.”

“It’s the best one ever!” I turned to Nick. “How do you feel?”

That same lopsided grin and focus of concentration. Then:

“Happy face,” he said.


Photo of Clare who wrote this short story

Clare Durham, joint winner of the 2022 Ovacome Short Story Competition