Last month, our family had a big scare. My Mom, your Editor in Chief for Spanglish Magazine, suffered a stroke from out of nowhere. A few hours prior we had been celebrating my thirty-second birthday, and suddenly I was receiving a panicked call from my Dad. That night was probably the scariest for all of us, because the doctors weren’t giving us any hope that she would recover.
It was the next day that I finally got to see her, and although she wasn’t yet able to move, as soon as I looked in her eyes I knew she’d be okay. For the following week the doctors and nurses didn’t believe me whenever I told them that my mom had asked for something. From their point of view, I was simply a son that had too much hope and was reading into random gestures and sounds. Fortunately for the Ayala family, my Mom regained her ability to speak and move much faster than even the best-case scenarios had predicted, and she was released from the hospital as soon as all her tests came back.
At the time of this writing, my Mom is still recovering from aphasia, a neurological condition that affects which words you use to convey meaning. As we worked on this issue of Spanglish, for example, my Mom might tell me to open page twenty-four, when she really meant fourteen. This is why I’ve taken on the responsibility of assembling the magazine until she’s fully healed.
The amazing thing is that once I got used to the idea that sometimes the words coming out of my Mom’s mouth aren’t the ones she’s thinking, it’s become pretty easy to understand her. In preparation for welcoming her back home from the hospital, I did my research on how language works, and one thing I can say now from first hand experience is that words aren’t all that important for getting meaning across. Rather, the connection between two people communicates more, and more readily, than these clumsy sound clumps you’re assembling in your mind as you look at the letters I’ve typed out for you. It was the look in her eye that assured me my Mom’s mind was still in working order, before a gesture or a sound could be made. I never lost faith that she would recover as well as she has, and it’s because we know each other that I was able to trust my instincts.
As one of my best acting teachers would often say, “an ounce of behaviour is worth a pound of words.” Never have those words proven more true. But then, it gets me thinking. Generally speaking, people accept that what people say is what they mean to say. So much so, in fact, that it may seem strange for me to point it out.
Because of my Mom’s aphasia, I have been more tuned in than ever to the mistakes I make in speech, and in typing, and I wonder if these errors come from the same place as my Mom’s, that tiny part of the brain responsible for the very specific task of translating a thought into a sound or a series of finger presses. How many of these mistakes do we take as the intended meaning when someone forgets to correct themselves? And, how many of the right words does it take to communicate, for example, love, to really get the point across? Can it ever be done? If I say ‘love’, do you hear love the way I intended it, or do you hear it the way you have come to understand it from the countless experiences that colour your emotional connection to the concept? That’s why I trust eyes more than mouths, in general.
Words are only ever approximations of experiences we are trying to share. It’s convenient to forget this, but just think if our words said exactly what was in our heads. How much faster our technology could advance, how much heartache could be avoided, and maybe war could be avoided too.
As it stands, we live in no Utopia. Everything I say is subject to interpretation. But no, not quite. No matter how clever I can make myself sound, it’s really only this bag of flesh and bones and various sundry organs that’s making sound, and what it’s trying to say is “I’m here!” Have you ever wondered why birds sing to each other? It can’t be a very smart move for the little ones. It opens them up to be predated upon. And yet, there they are, outside my window at 6am chirping away, singing, “I’m here! I’m here!” Even if that’s all they can say to each other, they’re no different than you or I.
Here, try this. Talk to yourself. We all do it (or at least I hope we all do). When you do, you’ll notice that you address yourself as someone other than yourself, and what’s more surprising is that this ’other’ has opinions that sometimes are the opposite of yours! My point in bringing this up is that even when we talk to ourselves, it’s still to say “I’m here” first and foremost, and so we need an ’other’ in our heads to hear us, to confirm we truly exist. Incidentally, to bring back Hannah Arendt and “The Human Condition” from last month’s editorial, becoming friends with this ’other’ is one of our main tasks in life, according to Arendt, and the best way to do that is to prove to ‘them’ that we are dependable, that is to say, that we are ethically consistent. That’s why you can never really get away with anything. There’s a ‘you’ right inside your head that knows you better than anyone else, and knows that you’ve let your ‘self’ down, and can you imagine what it’d be like to no longer be on speaking terms with your ’other’ self?
My suggestion to you (and keep in mind my credentials are as an actor and acting teacher) would be that next time someone comes to you troubled, maybe angry, and starts making sounds at you, even if they’re perfectly intelligible as words, first acknowledge that, yes, you see them, and yes, they are really there. If I told you how often one empathetic look got me out of a bad situation, you wouldn’t believe me.
So, my takeaway from all this is that in order to talk to my Mom, her and I have had to become closer than ever. Maybe it’s our hearts that speak truer than words, maybe it’s our eyes. But thank God that I am lucky enough to still have her in my life and to know that singular connection that can only exist between mother and child.