Language matters

As an English prof, you’d think I’d know how much language matters. But even I’m a little surprised sometimes.

Yesterday afternoon, I headed with a photographer to the home of the undocumented family I wrote about in my op-ed in The Birmingham News. A second piece is coming out in the next issue of Cancer Today and we wanted to get some pictures showing the closeness of the family and the resilient spirit that sustains them. The images are absolutely beautiful, and so very sad.

As we were leaving, A. Garcia packed up her things to ride back to Birmingham and a safe haven where she could be closer to her baby. She’ll be here just until Wednesday, when she has to find a way back home, and then to Huntsville, for more treatment. The cancer is spreading rapidly, requiring radiation for metastasis to her bones.

All the way back to B’ham, A. sat in silence in the front seat of my car. She understands very little English and doesn’t speak the language at all. I don’t know a lick of Spanish. She motioned towards a Shell station when she needed to stop, and it was clear from the bottled water and pack of gum she carried back to the car after our stop that she was nauseous–from the car ride, the chemo, the situation she faces as a breast cancer survivor and mother of a very sick little girl.

As we traveled back to Birmingham in the dark, my eyes glued to the reflectors on the road to guide my way, A. grew more and more tired. She laid back hesitantly against the head rest, her pink hat pulled down tight to cover the exposed scalp beneath. The frightened look in her eyes and the extreme exhaustion–from the treatments, her daughter’s circumstances, and I can only imagine her constant anxiety that she or someone she loves will be sent away from Alabama–weren’t difficult to comprehend, language barriers aside.

I dropped off the photographer at her car and headed home, thinking about how Edwina and I sometimes seem to be speaking different languages.  It was our common diagnoses that first brought us face to face, and then our friendship grew. I wondered where my encounter with A. might lead, however quietly.


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