The “Yes, And” Approach: Speaking the Language of Illness by Samantha Greenberg

   Samantha Greenberg earned a dual B.A. in English and Psychology from Muhlenberg College. She runs an academic consulting business in Northern New Jersey. Read her poem, “ The Phone ” in the Spring 2015 Intima.

Samantha Greenberg earned a dual B.A. in English and Psychology from Muhlenberg College. She runs an academic consulting business in Northern New Jersey. Read her poem, “The Phone” in the Spring 2015 Intima.

Caring for my grandmother was incredibly frustrating. There were many things I wanted—and felt as though I needed—to communicate with. I most often wanted to talk to morphine. I wanted to understand how, pulsing through her body, the morphine could send my grandmother back to places and times I did not know. If morphine wasn’t the culprit, was it the cancer? Was it both? I wanted to better differentiate between my grandmother’s pressing need to sign her pillowcase with a marker and her true need for comfort. Was the pounding of her fists on the table a request for water? Or was she pounding out a time, place or memory that I did not know? I read articles to better understand the numerous physiological reactions that were taking place, but none of those elucidated the struggle I was facing: I was trapped in a foreign land of caregiving and cancer, and I didn’t speak the language.

My grandmother was not technologically savvy, but she did have a cell phone. She would hit the speed dial for my number and wait until I showed up in her room. Sometimes she could speak. Other times our conversations were complicated games of charades. When I saw Sara Hobbs Kohrt “Things She Cannot Show You” (Fall 2014 Intima) I understood more about who and what was on the other side of the telephone calls that I wrote about in my piece, “The Phone” (Spring 2015 Intima). At the very end of the morphine highways, there was an id, curled into the fetal position, nestled behind the shattered iceberg of my grandmother’s unconscious mind.

  Things She Cannot Show You . Sara Hobbs Kohrt.  Fall 2014 Intima .

Things She Cannot Show You. Sara Hobbs Kohrt. Fall 2014 Intima.

Juxtaposing the two works suggests that both the patient and, in my case, a familial non-professional caregiver, speak in languages the other cannot fully comprehend. However, I was fortunate to find a means of translation in “Magic Words” an episode of NPR’s This American Life. Act Two, “Rainy Days and Mondys,” tells the story of Karen Stobbe and her husband Mondy who, using their acting backgrounds, employ a common improv philosophy—“yes, and,”—to successfully communicate with Karen’s mother, Virginia, who has Alzheimer’s. Karen and Mondy enter Virginia’s world and begin to speak the language of her illness simply because of their “yes, and,” approach.

Soon, “yes, and” became my mantra too. “Yes, and” was the response I had to a request, and the long pause I took to see if my grandmother needed anything else. “Yes, and” was me acknowledging where the morphine or cancer had taken her. The “yes, and” philosophy got both my grandmother and me through an incredibly difficult journey that transcended times, places, medicines, diseases, life and death. For the dedicated temple nurse, the Rabbi, and the many mentors, friends, family who reinforced the “yes, and” philosophy along the way, I am incredibly grateful.


Samantha Greenberg earned a dual B.A. in English and Psychology from Muhlenberg College. She runs an academic consulting business in Northern New Jersey. Read her poem, “The Phone” in the Spring 2015 Intima.

© 2015 Intima: A Journal of Narrative Medicine