Thursday, May 19, 2011

Language and Death

"Do you need to go potty?"
Lyn was talking to Blue, well before it was reasonable to get up.
"Go potty?" she asked again; and Blue shook his head to flap his big ears, which means yes.

Go potty. What an idiotic way of saying what ought to be said simply, directly, organically.

Growing up, my mother's version of this was "do you need to have a bee emm?"

I couldn't spell, so I didn't understand that bee emm wasn't the word shit. B and M, it turned out, were the first letters of the words "bowel movement." When I finally realized that, I was disgusted. There's something wrong with a culture that can't say shit.

When I explain that to Lyn she ignores me.

"Go potty?"

I go back to sleep.

In college, or perhaps even in high school, I swore to use authentic language. Real language. Language that reeked and burped. Abstract euphemisms be damned.

That's still with me, as the morning's irritation testifies.

Later in the day my son Joe calls. I had been expecting the bad news. Born with trisomy 18, his daughter Alayna had been battling infection and seizures and breathing problems and a weak heart for her entire short life. Things had been especially bad for the last couple of weeks as doctors and nurses at Primary Children's Hospital in Salt Lake had done what they could for her.

Now she's dead. Or now she has passed, someone says.

I don't much like the word "passed"; but it is Nate, also my son, who says it and I don't much care what word he uses. His voice is soft with grief and I understand what he's feeling.

Over the course of the day there are other conversations about Alayna. They teach me something I should have known before.

The fact of shared language far outweighs the nature of that language.

As the day ends, I'm so grateful for the familiar voices and the shared sadness that the words "passed" or "what a blessing" or "she's off to a better place" or "my condolences" sound in my ears just as sweetly as they they were meant.

Since we can't say all that death means, since our words simply are not enough in the face of death, it's far better to say something, anything, than not to speak.