I am a first generation Greek-American, but I never had the benefit of growing up with my grandparents at home and never attended Greek School—two staples of any Greek-American childhood. So as a child I experienced something that other children living in two cultures in the same place have: I understood everything any relative ever said, but I was the mute of the family, unable to respond in anywhere near the fluency my older brother possessed. So when at the age of twenty I found myself writing out phonetic pronunciations of Greek words for the physical therapy staff at the home where my grandmother now lives, I was amazed at myself. And when I caught myself for the first time translating the food on her dinner plate for her, I was at a loss for words, but this time they were the English ones.
It was around then that I started to view myself as my grandmother’s translator; the one the nurses could go to for everything from how she was feeling on a particular day to if she wanted butter for her bread. Perhaps that’s why when I first heard that a nurse from the night-shift was swearing she overheard my Yaya giggling and whispering about something with an old Cuban abuela, I brushed it off as a cute joke. Honestly, what language could they have been speaking? Greek-ish? Span-eek? How little I understood after all.
There isn’t a single nurse or resident, other than my grandmother, who knows Greek. This is a fact. Yet with only a gesture, her American, Cuban, Puerto Rican, Dominican, Haitian and Korean friends alike ensure she has a soft pillow behind her head to ease the stiffness of her neck. When her tiny, frail arms can’t pull the dinner plate within reach, they gently push it closer. And when she was hospitalized after a fall, none of us could speak with the staff without updating the entire wing of her moment-by-moment condition.
Each day when coffee is served, the old get a cup for the older, and I have seen two patients, wheelchair bound and atrophied, have a more tragic parting than two able-bodied lovers embracing for the last time.
I now believe my grandmother does possess some secret gift for communication. Maybe if I hadn’t lived for years in silence around her, I would never have known to listen, but now I too am learning to become fluent in this language than transcends all languages.
It is a tongue composed not of words but of hands on empty shoulders. The grammatical rules are rather simple: you care and I will care back. And proficiency is achieved when a grandmother takes your palm and traces the future in its lines and you know what good lies ahead from the way her wrinkles fold into a smile.
I believe the value of our lives is told through the language of love.
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