Language Lost

I’m sitting by your bed holding soaps and handkerchiefs– the only gifts I could think of to bring a dying man. It’s quiet– both of us write poetry and are no good at small talk. We are straining for language. Your English is half-textbook, half-forgotten; my German slow and stilted, like that of a young child. And my tongue will never know the Arabic you were born with, the true expression of your heart.

I fear I am failing you in my only chance to be your daughter. I pull out a beat-up collection of Stefan Zweig’s stories from your bookshelf. I’m told he is one of your favorite authors. (He is my mother’s favorite too.) I pronounce each word as thoughtfully as I can, hoping to borrow the beauty and weight of someone else’s language, to hold this moment in place before it is gone.

A year later, I’ll be the only one of your nine children who is not with you when you die. I’ll have a plane ticket in hand, but at the last minute, need to stay behind to watch my own three children. On your last day, my sister will call me in the afternoon so I can say goodbye, but whatever language I use will feel hollow–“Baba”–and insufficient –“Ich liebe dich.” I will cry, not because I’m losing a father– but because now I will never have one.

My mother will happen to be visiting me in Western Massachusetts, and I’ll persuade her to talk to you for the first time in thirty years. I’ve heard her speak German my whole life, but on that day it will sound different, tinged with a tenderness I didn’t expect. There will be love there too– forgiveness even– the things we all wish for when it’s time to go.

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