Language Down Deep

gray cave near body of water

Yesterday a friend from the general rural neighborhood came by with some old (early 20th century) German books of poetry and language study. (In return for his salvaging of the books from the dump and thinking of me and my love of both books and language, he received a fresh-baked loaf of bread and a pint of strawberry jam from my latest culinary accomplishments. So we’re square.)

The German nature of the books led him to share a story of his cross-the-road neighbor, a woman of some years with whom he has always had a relationship of mutual support and who now, in her years of increasing memory challenges, has in him a faithful listening companion still. This particular day, he told me, she was having “a better relationship with her past than with the present.”

In her chatting with this mutual friend, she had mentioned to him with apparent sadness that the German of her childhood had been lost from the years in the United States, in an area and in family responsibilities that did not connect her with any German-speaking folk. Excusing himself for a bit, he made some calls to a doctor acquaintance of his who is a German-speaker who travels the world on medical missions and uses her languages frequently. He got the doctor on his phone, then handed the phone to his neighbor.

He then told me what he observed:

The neighbor began to listen with a confused look on her face. She said a bit in English, attempting her part of what she understood was a conversation, but the disconnect between her attempts and what she was hearing was apparent.

Then, suddenly, her eyes widened, her face showed happy shock, and she plunged back into the conversation, this time in German, her speech rapid, her face lit up with a smile, her sentences spilling out of her as she hungrily devoured every bit of that conversation in German.

We do not know, my neighbor and I, whether her comments in German made any more sense than those she now typically makes in English.

But this we know, as my friend reported on the end of her ten minutes spent in rapid German: his neighbor was happier than he had seen her in years. He said, “She was alive, joyful, energized, like the young person she knew herself to be in the German language. The years meant nothing; her confusion had been replaced with clarity and with a complete sense of who she knew herself to be.”

Exactly. You know who you are through your language; it’s the human miracle down deep. Hold on to that. Honor that in yourself. Honor that in others. That identity brings joy, no matter the life challenges in which you find yourself. Don’t let anyone take that away from you.

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