Communication. What a loaded word. We think it means conversations, feedback, truth-telling, pillow talk, peer support. We draw on our mother-tongues and our second languages, our eyes and our bodies and our gestures, our desire to be understood and our tendency to shelter the most tender worries.
Enter cancer, and it gets even more complicated. Did you know that young couples who deal with cancer have a much higher tendency to head toward cancer-induced break-ups? I mean, its no wonder. After all, who prepares young couples to communicate and navigate life challenges? And what kind of challenge have two young people in love ever faced that might parallel cancer? Right, none. I mean, take me and Sammy: we were together for many years- nearly a decade, during which time we built a shit-ton of communication skills, but we still got married and then got cancer. Well, not exactly. We got married and found The Lump within six weeks of each other. Because my path to cancer diagnosis was marred with multiple misdiagnoses (the case for very many young adults) that included assurances of “it’s definitely not cancer” at physical exam, ultrasound, mammogram and biopsy (I should quote the radiologist who said, “I’d fall out of my chair if this was cancer.” I wonder if she fell out of her chair), the time lapse between wedding and cancer diagnosis was sixteen weeks and two days, exactly. But remember, ten weeks and two days of those sixteen weeks were spent wondering why no one was taking us seriously and buffing up on research so as to convince our doctors we needed more investigation, more tests, and more knowledge in the face of what only we thought (at that point) seemed like a misdiagnosis, or at least, one that needed more back-up.
Needless to say, we spent most of the first year of our marriage sifting through breast cancer research, treatment, and side effects. We dealt with chemo and life-or-death decisions on a daily basis. As we wrote wedding thank you notes, we had conversations about Sammy being a widow and about how far we were willing to go to prolong life and about how much ice cream we would eat in the face of a terminal diagnosis. We sorted wedding pictures as the chemotherapy nurse looked on and inquired about bridesmaid color schemes. We picked up my cleaned wedding dress on the way home from my first oncology appointment, and on the ride home we debated the costs of naturopathic treatment.
And we did it all in two languages, in the gray space where Spanish and English slip into each other, in the space where the words tumble together and forget which mother tongue they came from. And we still love each other. So I think we are exceptionally qualified to say a little something about communication. I think our communication skills saved us. I think our two-language vocabularly, our two-language sensibility, our ability to slip between our two languages and to make new words from the best of both languages saved us. I don’t think, though, that you need two languages to survive. I just think we had exceptionally creative language skills because of our two languages. There’s other ways to build exceptionally creative language skills.
You see, when the person you co-habitate with is both the other half of your orange (mi media naranja!) and your better half (mi mejor lado!) there’s two ways to think about who you are. All orange-halves need other orange-halves to be orange-wholes, and what if you don’t want to give the other half credit for being better? What if the other half is in fact, being your worst half at the moment? Then it’s damn good you have the metaphors of another language to draw on! In all seriousness, really. Maybe you’re not so worried about this language and way of thinking about your orange half or your better or worse half, but it’s just an example. Extrapolate. In a much tenser, more radical moment, we’ve got two languages, two sets of metaphors, two cultural reference points.
And of course. Because there are two sets of metaphors, two languages, two cultural reference points, we are used to complete and total misunderstanding. Once, when we were driving over the mountains from Sam’s folks home on the coast of Veracruz to Xalapa, where we lived, I sat in the front seat. Sam’s mother and cousin sat in the back, and Sam drove. The fog was atrocious, the kind that requires you to open your door to make sure you’re driving along the dotted yellow line, but there’s not yellow line dotting the road over the mountains from the coast to Xalapa. And so Sam, driving through the dense, dense, fog, said to me, “Hechame aguas!” as we backed up on the empty road. Now, “Hechame aguas” means “Throw water on me” literally. And so I started looking around for a water bottle and asked why he wanted to be all wet when we had a two hour drive ahead. Clearly, I was totally misunderstanding! “Hechame aguas” was a call for me to help him navigate the road, to be an extra set of eyes, to watch out for him, with him. After some laughter that produced tears and belly-aches, we all realized I had just mistaken “hechame aguas” to mean something it didn’t, and Sammy had assumed I knew how to interpret the cultural reference. That, folks, is pretty much the everyday reality of life with someone who doesn’t share your mother tongue or country of citizenship.
But we learned. We learned to anticipate when references would take on new meaning, we learned to laugh at jokes that lose meaning when translated because we could quickly translate them back and grasp the meaning, we learned to re-explain, re-visit, and to revel in mis/understanding, whether the conversation was about throwing water at the car driver or what to make for dinner or how we wanted to die. I think that approaching each conversation knowing that it could quickly slide down the slippery slope of misunderstanding- and being able to blame mis/understanding on language- has given us the tools to communicate like only other bilingual couples know. These tools foreground, always, and humorously, the real threat of radical misinterpretation. And so we know we must re-explain. We must tell stories. We must use verbs from the other language. We must let our tongues get used to telling in the other language. We must draw parallels to explain ourselves, and use metaphors grounded in a culture we had never heard of us small children. We are constantly translating, thinking about how words sound in another language, noting how meaning shifts changes, deciding when to shift into English or Spanish or Spanglish. So we learned. We learned to communicate knowing full-well how often we would misinterpret, and we learned to delight in the un/knowing between languages, to find magic in making new words and finding feelings only one language had a word to articulate. We learned to communicate.
And so when cancer came a-knocking, we continued down the same path. We used the same creative assemblage of language and feeling and body movements. We quickly discovered that if the terrain of misunderstanding in our everyday was slippery, then the terrain of cancer was like the side of a grassy, muddy mountain topped with mounds of warm, slippery butter. We knew we were bound to mis/understand.
I think this is key. We knew we would misunderstand.
How often is it, that we pout in the corner or cut of a friendship or cry in the bathroom because we were misunderstood? Misunderstanding, and especially misunderstanding that feigns understanding hurts. Like bad. Real bad. Isn’t that why I recoil at the platitudes people offer in the face of cancer like “Be positive?” “Be positive” grinds at me because it denies my experience that is everything but positive. “Be positive” totally and completely misunderstands what I am feeling. On the other hand, acknowledgement of misunderstanding in the face of total confusion is comforting, quieting. It screams, I cannot understand, and I want to, but I cannot, and these languages we have at our disposal to make understanding possible are as inadequate as the mammogram that read my cancerous lump as naught. That acknowledgement is not insignificant- it’s just the opposite. It’s monumental. It calms me so much to know someone who cannot know is not trying to steal away and warp and re/present oddly, off-handedly my testimony, my experience. Because the key feature of that experience? It’s mine. And I want you to pay heed to that, respect that, handle it carefully. I’d rather misunderstanding than appropriation of my experience touted as “understanding.”
So I urge you to delve into mis/understanding. To stare at the eyeballs of people you love and know that as hard as you stare, as deeply as you sink into their experience, understanding is just a slippery, wet, muddy slope doused in warm butter. It’s impossible to climb up, and so instead we might revel in the slipper slide down. And we can talk about it, and throw words into the air, and grab what we can of the others’ words, and we can use them to ground ourselves for a moment, like grabbing onto tufts of grass peeping out hear and there, but soon enough the roots of those tufts of grass will pull from the muddy ground, and again we will be sliding.
It’s not to say that understanding is hopeless, or that we shouldn’t spend the moments before our eyes close fighting to stay awake and understand our loved ones’ pillow talk. It’s not to say we can’t listen to people different than us, and it’s not to diminish the radical act of witnessing the lives and experiences of those around us. It’s not to say we can’t be jarred out of boredom by stories we’ve never heard before, and it’s not to say we can’t learn to love people who’s lived experiences of the world don’t overlap with our own even a little.
Mostly, it’s to say we can love each other when we don’t understand. It’s to say there’s a certain freedom and a deep (ondo is the word I really wanted to use, because it sounds more like the color of the bottom few inches of the center of a lake, just before you get to the sand) respect in witnessing without trying to stand in the others’ shoes, a respect in standing in your own shoes and knowing you cannot ever stand in someone else’s shoes. It’s to say how cool, to stop trying to understand, and simply start listening. It’s to say, what power in listening, without needing to understand experience by appropriating it, but rather, what power in listening while only listening, while only feeling, while only being and knowing we might be sliding down the slope of mis/understanding.
So that’s what we do, in our own little nudo de amor, when we talk about cancer. I don’t understand what its like to watch your media naranja get cancer, fight chemo, cry because she misses yoga, or use up all the printer ink on breast cancer articles. He doesn’t understand what its like to feel incensed because all the women in my exercise study are two decades older and tell me they’re “young at heart,” and he doesn’t understand what its like to wake up in terror that I forgot to take a medication, or to be so divorced from the brick on my chest I can’t really call it my own (fake) breast. But that is ok, because we got a nudo de amor, and inside of it, we can throw rational understanding to the wind and instead, revel together in the slippery slide of mis/understanding.