August 14th, 2011
Twenty five years ago, I began a friendship that broadened my world. A French exchange student stayed with us in our home. I enjoyed showing her my 15 year old’s version of America for the summer. Soon afterward, I got to take a tour of her 18 year old’s version of France.
I spent two summers abroad with her family. My French became strong enough for me to enter the advanced French literature seminar in college.
But I haven’t been to France in over two decades.
J’ai beaucoup perdu.
This past weekend, a little bit of France came to me. I had another lovely visit with my French friend (that’s how she signed her letters back in the day and continues to sign her emails now).
Only this time, she brought her family.
I didn’t know what it would be like to try to summon up all that dormant vocabulary and grammar, especially after the number chemo did to my brain.
I’ll be honest, it felt a bit rough at first. Lots of misconjugated verbs and comment dit-on‘s.
My friend and I can weave in and out of all sort of versions of Franglais, but her two girls and husband counted on me for some French conversation. Not to mention my own family. My husband speaks fairly functional French but the kids needed to be let in on the action. I found myself playing the role of translator quite a bit.
But then, I crossed over to actually producing thoughts in French, to hearing myself what the song and rhythm of the language should be without having to overthink each utterance. Every time a synapse connected and a word came back –– pop!–– I wanted to do a fist pump.
Becoming plural — having a we to talk about –– was not the only significant change to my language in the past 20 years. As teenagers we spoke in singular tenses — je et tu — but now we are very, very plural.
In part, the gaps in my vocabulary reflected the changes in the world –– I needed words for “email,” “going online,” “googling.”
But the missing words also reflected changes in my own life. I need much more medical vocabulary now that I am a 40 year old cancer survivor than I did as a 20 year old college student with a Eurail pass and a backpack.
I have picked up some of the vocabulary from reading the blog Maison du Cancer and by tweeting with the amazing French survivors that we often refer to as les Cathies, Catherine Cerisey and Catherine Malhouitre. So I knew radiothérapie, chimiothérapie. But I needed some help describing consultations with le chirurgien. That word is a mouthful.
All of these words rushing forward, all of these blanks to fill in: it made me remember, once again, how deeply our language is connected to who we are.
Why, for example, is there no good French translation for “silly” but English is so impoverished when it comes to food that we need to borrow French words like gourmet and the even better gourmand?
There are whole swaths of experience that can be kept at bay when we have no words to describe them.
Which is, in part, why I blog. We share our stories and put words to the otherwise indescribable experiences cancer brings to us.
When we tell our stories, they are no longer invisible. We learn from each other and invent the words and images we need to feel seen.
Our stories become a part of a collective strength, and then we are no longer alone.
This entry was posted on Sunday, August 14th, 2011 at 7:22 pm and is filed under Survivorship. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.