Friday, August 03, 2007

The Language of Dying

A thought-provoking post by une nouvelle vie de boheme yesterday about the perils of translation in Camus brought back memories. Aching personal memories of describing death in two languages.

My oldest brother, J, was my idol. I hero-worshiped him. Tall, angularly handsome, he was brilliant, artistic, and funny -- full of mischief -- well, everything you could want in an older brother. He took me for rides in his red Triumph Spitfire when I was a pre-teen. He surprised me one Christmas when he said he couldn't come home for the holidays, then he sprang through the front door on Christmas Eve singing "It's beginning to look a lot like Christmas!" That kind of a big brother.

When J was in his thirties he developed a serious medical condition that put him through a torturous hospital time, keeping him alive on machines until there weren't enough machines to function for his body. When I visited him in the ICU with all the charts and beeps and wires and tubes, he couldn't speak. But he repeatedly traced the letters D-I-E in the palm of my hand. He wanted to go, to exit the nightmare. "No, no, you'll get better," I reassured him. But I wasn't reassured myself.

Weeks later, one evening I was at home having dinner with friends. The phone rang. It was my sister. "J died," she told me, along with the details which I didn't really hear as my thoughts blurred. I let out a soft sigh of relief -- he was out of his terrible misery. "Died," a verb, to me indicating that he moved on, as he had wanted. He was freed from the mechanical torture of articificial life. I was numbed, but I didn't even cry. Instead, I felt an unusual serenity knowing that all those tubes, that terrified look on his face, would no longer be there.

The next morning I got up and, trance-like, went to work, at a French organization in Boston. I had to inform my boss that my brother died and I'd be leaving town to go to the funeral. "Mon frère est mort," I announced, using the passé composé of mourir.

Suddenly grief exploded from me like a bomb. I had just said, for the first time, the permanent words "My brother is dead."

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