In my language classes we learned words like table, went and cold.
We learned how to describe our homes, our families and our interests.
We learned how to talk about our home countries, its weather and how people celebrate Christmas, or not as the case may be.
We learned so many useful things. Things that I use on a daily basis. Language that helps me go to the shops, to pick up the kids from kindy, to pass pleasantries on the bus.
But I never learned the words for breathing. I never learned the word for bleeding, or vomit, or rash. I never heard the word for seizure.
I never learned these words until I needed them. Until after I needed them. I learned these words in hard places. In doctor’s offices, or in panicked late night phone calls.
No matter how good at a second language you get there are always gaps. Little gaps mostly. Ones that you can work through if people repeat their words slowly, laying the bricks down like a bridge forming in front of you. Or that you can shrug off, walking away from a stranger with a smile, sure that whatever it was being said it was, at least, kind. Or gaps so small you can just skip over them, without slowing down the tempo of your already clumsy conversation.
The gaps might just be single words that you can fill in. A connect-the-dots conversation where you are a very determined five year old. Pencil gripped firmly between your fingers. Eventually the time comes where you are tired and you lay your pencil down. Brain done. Can I watch TV now?
We learned how to ask someone to speak English, or to speak slowly. We learned the common phrases, you’re welcome, how are you, how much is this apple? But we never learned what the operator will say when you call an ambulance at night. So your brain catches when you hear it. A slight panicked freeze in which all you can find are your gaps. Because in these gaps are all the important words. All the fear of the what-ifs that can’t be spoken out loud, no matter what language you try to say it in.
People are kind. They hide their frustration. There is always that fortune of living where English is widely spoken. Even then, those times when defeat is admitted, or the conversation is too important for my mistakes the gap is there. Each doctor finds their own unique gaps. Our conversations slip and slide as our languages are mixed. A word here and there, untranslatable – do you understand? Mutual incomprehension is, thankfully, rare.
We nod, our brains churning. The glazed stares of parents still in shock. The English slides over us too. Important facts snagging, to be held onto and inspected later. Only now in the moment we must keep moving forward. Any questions? Always. There are always questions. The deeper you go you find that there are not always answers of course.
We are grateful, so grateful, for every person who makes that effort to speak to us in a language we can easily understand. Those who take incomprehensible facts and lay them out in front of us so we can understand them. But it is hard to show grateful when you are scared for your child.
In this we are no different to any other parent. No matter what language we speak.
There are no words for some things, in any language. No word for the measured look in a doctor’s eyes as your questions stumble out. No word for the silences that grow louder as they listen, and measure, and poke. No word for the perspective trick that makes your child appear smaller on a hospital bed, or under a mask, or surrounded by machines, electromagnetic waves aimed directly at the heart.
There is a word we learned. Hjerte.
Then there are the things we don’t need words for. They are the same whatever language you speak. The whispered lullabies. Fingers that stroke gently across foreheads, smoothing down the hair. The questions posed by little arms that clutch to you for safety and the answering beat of your own heart.
A beat that is the simplest, most universal message of them all. A beat that says I love you. I am here.