by the time I was five years old, I was already being introduced to my fifth language. this in itself is great, of course it is. but at the time, it caused me a lot of anxiety even though I might not have been aware of it then. I can see now that it has had a lasting effect on me both in a positive and a negative sense.

people always say to me, oh wow, you can speak this and this language. that’s so great. yes, it is. however, it wasn’t great when I was in kindergarten and I couldn’t talk to the other kids. I was already an outside with a funny sounding last name, add to that a funny way of speaking and immediately you’re a target. then when I started to speak a little bit I had trouble finding the right words and it felt as if someone had glued my tongue to the roof of my mouth. I felt like an idiot and sometimes just chose not to speak at all.

so, no. it wasn’t always great. like with learning anything, it’s usually not easy in the beginning and with practice it gets easier. it did for me, at least. so hurray for that.

the reason I’m talking about language is that I find myself, yet again, faced with the challenge of learning a new one, one that I never wanted to learn: the language that grief has taught me. I can no longer say things like ‘my sister is’ or ‘my sister called me’. I have to say ‘she was’ and ‘the last time she called me was over five years ago in June’.

learning this new language I think will take me a life time and I can safely say, that I will most likely never quite master it. not that that’s something I would want to do anyway. the mistakes creep in every once in a while and, once again, I find myself tongue-tied, searching for the right word even though I don’t want to find it. only this time, I seem to feel a physical pain whereas when I was a kid, it was more psychological and something that faded fairly quickly. now, whenever I have to make the switch from present to past tense, I find myself holding back tears, gulping down a clump of sadness and taking a moment to find my bearings. not always to the same extent but always with a hint of that. it seems like a small shift each time but it’s like turning your body, moving your position for 0,001 degree each day. after a certain amount of time you realise that you’re facing a completely new direction. you don’t realise the day by day change.

sometimes it’s good to change one’s perspective, sure, but in this case, it was changed for me. I had little choice in the matter.

over the last five years, ever since her death, I’ve had to modify the words that I use. some words I can never use in relation to my sister like saying that ‘I have a sister’ because I don’t anymore. so that part of me, that language part of me, is dead. I can, however, say that ‘my sister is dead’. again. not a choice I would have preferred.

the other side of this is that there are some words, phrases that have now been added to my language. or associations thereof. like cemetery. I never associated that word with my sister. now I do.

or disease. or cancer. or tumours. or death.

sentences like, my sister died, my sister is buried, my sister used to … they’re all uninvited guests, life-crashers if you will. I hate them. every single time I feel a pang. maybe not as much as I did at first. it’s still there. like a stab to the heart.

another reason I talk about language is because all families use their own amongst themselves. every family has unique words that only they use, usually because someone couldn’t pronounce a word or simply misheard one. it’s adorable and it makes the idea of language so eternal and refreshing.

our family is no different.

I’d like to take this further because Barbara and I had our own language too. I think this is fairly common with siblings that are close. some of language components are due to mispronunciation, some of them due to speech impediments. most of them, though, are due to the fact that there were at least three languages floating around in our household at all times. and Barbara being the youngest, switched between these languages the most in the most charming way. especially in her emails which were always hilarious. a sentence could use words from three languages and it would really only make sense to us. nobody cared that it was full of mistakes. these were internal affairs, for our eyes only. these were cute and simply delightful.

I’ll never get one of those emails from her again.

see. there it is. the pang.

Barbara and I used to speak like this in public places, going shopping, having coffee, riding the bus. we used to write each other notes – this was waaaay before cell phones. you know, handwritten and folded up and handed back and forth in the hallways between classes. those kinds. if we didn’t want anybody to understand us, we just added a word in a different language here and there and the sentence would only make sense to us. it would only have meaning to us. our own little language in our own little world.


like with any language, it needs to be spoken to survive. I can feel it slip away but I can’t find the strength to go through her emails or her messages to remember. even though I still have them, I can neither read them nor delete them. whenever I try, I feel anxious and I have to stop. maybe this will fade. maybe this is just another stage that I have to go through. the emails seem like they are all I have left because they exist in black and white, unyielding and clear-cut, possessing none of the fluidity and volatility of memories. I guess they give me a sense of realism that she really did exist. but they also remind me that she doesn’t exist anymore. or that she only exists in them still. I don’t know which is worse. kind of like with pictures. which are something that I can’t look at either. but more on that some other time.

I didn’t realise how much the loss of a person can affect ones loss for words. like I said, tongue-tied all over again so I just choose not to say anything at all. not always but frequently enough.