TANDY VERSYP Staff Writer
My sister’s in-laws are from Mexico and speak very little English. When Gina married her husband, they spoke their vows in Spanish to signify the limitless union between two lovers, cultures and families – something that translated across the restrictions of any language. Like how lame U2 is.
But today, on a day just like any other, Gina told me her husband’s father hung himself last night – nothing else, because even though she’s there with the family, she doesn’t know more. Her husband’s family is discussing their grief in Spanish, and full comprehension of the circumstance is lost in a painful inability to translate.
When Gina told her daughter Cailey that Abuelo died last night, Cailey began asking questions immediately; her five-year-old instinct was to use her recent grasp of language to suss out situations she won’t understand until they hit her in the gut, where words aren’t spoken.
How do you explain the emotional complexities of suicide to a five-year-old?
You don’t. You hide true meaning with sweet little euphemisms that shoehorn reality into a digestible, candy apple tart.
“Abuelo stopped breathing,” Gina told Cailey. “When we get to Abuela’s house, don’t ask any more questions, OK honey?”
“That’s not exactly a lie, is it?” my sister asked me.
And sitting on my oversized couch eating my Kroger-brand Cinnamon Toast Crunch, I clicked. It’s almost audible. This small click changes your expression, tone and feeling. An involuntary reaction of selflessness.
“No, you did the right thing,” I soothed. Even though I was conflicted, it was what needed to be said.
My mother was already on the way to pick up Gina’s daughters. When Gina told her the situation, Mom clicked too. Except she was already in her soccer mom van halfway down the driveway when she finally heard it and told Gina what she was doing.
As I continued listening to my sister, she was already using the euphemisms – “Abuelo had a troubled life,” “He was really sad last night,” and “Abuela is handling it OK.” But I wasn’t listening to them. I was listening to the spaces between – the moments of silence where I could actually hear.
Like Laurie Anderson said in the mid-’80s, language is a virus. Once you open your mouth to speak, half of the meaning is gone. Irrevocably gone. The longer you try to talk it out, the more it disappears. And if you do get it all out, it’s its own being, something else belonging to someone else. Looking back at it, you don’t believe it came from you because you’re smarter than that, some stupid language. And if the other party you’re trying to communicate with speaks a different language, well, there is no comprende.
Lost in thoughts of how to help, how to understand, how to cope, how to articulate to her husband’s family the support she wanted to give, my sister came up with the answer – food. It’s one thing that is universal when a death occurs. It usually materializes in the form of a tuna casserole, but that’s beside the point.
Now Gina had a plan, something that didn’t need discussing, but she couldn’t find her other daughter, four-year-old Marianna. Moving frantically and over-dramatically from room to room, Gina finally found Marianna outside playing in dirt and water, making mud pies with a grin on her face.
The food was already taken care of.