Monday, February 28, 2011

To Be Without Words

A guarded chamber of my heart is a temple that holds my earliest memories, so fine and diaphanous that the breeze of time could easily carry them away:  a feather, a wisp of smoke, the curl of a tiny lock of hair.

There are four memories there. Two are from inside my crib, one of these purely visual  --  white walls, wooden slats, a 1950s pastel painting of a bunny and other forest friends on my side of the headboard. The other of these first two is a single glorious singing moment in which language rushed into my mind like a waterfall. A Mexican woman my parents hired to care for me walked into the room, chattering sweetly at the end of my nap, and in that very split second the final synapse that gave me the capacity for verbal understanding made contact. I sat up in the thrill of new waking, steeped in the sweet perfume of a clean and happy baby’s sheets  --  wide-eyed I’m sure, adrenaline coursing through my veins. It was like being born. Spanish, not the English that would ultimately become my “first” language, opened the floodgates. The next and longer work of my childhood development had to have been the unyoking of my infant tongue so that I, too, could participate in expressing a conscious universe.

The next two earliest memories amalgamate into one convulsing-red blur of violent temper, another's temper, my first experiences of agony and terror. I only break this into two memories because I remember the infractions that precipitated the whippings so well. I was about three; I can give an approximate age because of where we were at the time. Once I had rocked a rocking chair so forcefully that it broke the window behind it, and the other time I had slipped away from my caretakers with powerful intent to feed pigeons  --  slipped a half-mile away, alone, toddling myself to the edge of an interstate.

Language factors into this second set of first memories, too, though differently. Because the most stunning part of them to me now is not the flurry of fists or pain  --  these have been carefully sifted out of my first-memories chamber. They are just facts, without feeling or lingering hurt. What I remember most acutely is that I could not find the language for a new concept that entered my three-year-old mind in that flash of time, with all the shock and force of a snuffing mudslide bearing down on everything I ever knew. I was thunderstruck in the moment by an absence, a void  --  no word! no word!  --  for the sudden understanding of what it was to cease to exist. That my little capsule of consciousness could vanish. That I could die. I had no word for die.

Obviously it wasn't the end of me. Forty-three years later, I can tell the story, washed clean of anguish many, many years ago. But I wonder.

How, exactly, would it have helped, to have the word?