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Learning to Love Without Words MAG
Language is one of the most fundamental parts of life. It brings people together with the gift of communication; its importance cannot be underestimated. Until I couldn’t use it, I didn’t realize how precious it was. Staring at my aged, Venezuelan grandmother, six-year-old me wants to do nothing more than talk to her. There’s one problem.
I do not speak Spanish.
This is, ultimately, the fault of no one but myself. A working immigrant father and stay-at-home deaf mother were not a great recipe for learning a language that wasn’t absolutely necessary. I got along fine without it, plus I needed to focus on my speech impediment. Shouldn’t I learn how to enunciate the letter ‘r’ before trying to pick up something else? Years passed. I watched my grandmother’s smile fade slowly, and she became confined to a wheelchair. I watched her head start to bow, and I wanted to ask her why. I was 11 years old.
I spent full school years in programs that were supposed to teach me how to talk to her. I sat in a hot classroom for hours every day in a school that wasn’t mine over summers so I could pick up words in a language I wished was mine. “But it’s so easy!” “Everybody who lives in South Florida speaks Spanish!” These were words I heard repeatedly. I had no answer.
The size of my father’s side of the family is substantial. He has 10 siblings scattered around the globe. They had one undeniable thing in common: their mother. My grandmother, or Lola (a nickname my brother gave her since he couldn’t pronounce abuela). I felt like my thread to my grandmother was severed when I was born. How could I ever claim her as my abuela when I couldn’t speak her language? How could I ever feel at home at her house, where all the words being said are foreign to me? A language is supposed to be an association, a link, and a common love. For me, it was a barrier, a hopeless boundary that I could only hope to get past with age.
Then, age hit. Not for me. My grandma. She had numerous strokes, and developed numerous health problems, including dementia.
She was unable to speak. Her words became fragments. She chopped off parts of a sentence she could no longer hold in her mind. There were words I wanted to offer to her, but they fell short every time. I was 13, and she was on a quick decline. I felt like I had failed her. It was too late to talk to her. I had to find other ways to show her I loved her.
My grandmother was slowly losing her grip on reality. I remember seeing her head perpetually bowed, and kissing the top of her hair.
Often those were the only interactions we could share anymore. She rode out the rest of her days, finding solace in her youngest grandchildren and offering up rare smiles to the rest of us.
Even toward the end, all I wanted to do was tell her how much I loved her. How much I admired her brutal and unyielding determination to provide for her children, living through extreme poverty in search of an American dream. I never really got the chance to tell her – in words. I hope I did in other ways: squeezing her hand or smiling in a way that crinkled the edges of my eyes, eyes that I inherited from her. So many things I do in my life, I do for her – to repay her for the things I could never say.
Abuela, te amo. Todo es siempre para ti.
You live on in my dreams, because I know I was yours.
Highland Park, IL