What We Can’t Do: A Father and Daughter’s List1
March 19, 2020 by The Citron Review
by Anita Gill
The moment we touched down and the prickly Delhi heat grazed our skin, you were ready. Amongst the sea of people and car horns and stray dogs outside the airport, you pulled us into a cab. The language flowed through you like a current and the driver never revealed any confusion to your words, nor did he ask about the white woman and the two mixed girls in the back seat. We stayed quiet. In India, we relinquished all power to you. I was twenty-three years too late in learning what you were saying to the driver, yet I never tore my eyes away from the front seat. I concentrated on both of you, to see if I could tease out sounds that made words that made meaning.
On that trip, I would ask you for the millionth time why you never taught me your native tongue and your answer would be the same, “What use would it have been?”
After you wired a slice of your income to your parents back home, you put aside the rest for a down payment on an all-brick split foyer colonial house in the suburbs of D.C. The housing market in the 80s made you the perfect candidate for owning your own residence, your citizenship coming a few years after. New words entered your vocabulary: dependents, interest, and homeowners’ association. You needed a paper trail, so you spent empty Saturday morning hours in the play room/computer room thinking of words while your wife produced the sentences on the blocky Apple IIe computer screen. You rested a hand on her chair back. You looked out the window facing east. A large patch of grass stretched as a buffer between your house and the next. The deed had a name as the owner of this land: Yours.
You first arrived in the United States after several flights that wore you down. Medical degree in hand, you were told to repeat residency because your experience with the onslaught of wounded patients carted to your hospital during a border war wasn’t applicable. After setting up a practice in Southern Maryland, you attached a small black pager to your belt. Its piercing sound shortened vacations, cancelled your attendance at school plays, and erased you at the dinner table.
On evenings when your absence felt more pronounced, I sometimes wandered into your den where your shiny silver recorder sat on the desk amongst the clutter of opened letters and papers you never threw away. Some nights you’d be illuminated by your desk light, holding the recording device while your hand laid flat upon on an open file. I imagined the tiny cassette tape with your accented words as it journeyed onto the admin’s desk for transcription.
Your second language was my first language and my second language was foreign to you. My teachers praised my ability to master another tongue. It was like I was born to it, they said. When you visited me in Madrid, you scrutinized the menu with your signature look: scrunched nose, furrowed brows, your teeth pressing down on your exposed tongue. I hadn’t noticed the white tufts that took over your temples until that trip. You turned to me for guidance in decoding the menu, and I realized the amount of focus and responsibility it took to straddle two languages for the well-being of your family.
When we moved into that house with a pool in the backyard, you decided the private setting would be optimal for learning. On quiet Sunday mornings in the summer, you waded in the shallow end of our kidney-shaped lagoon. You held onto the concrete ledge, and placed a small foam board under your chest to make your body buoy to the surface. Then you’d kick your feet. I would have loved to see you press on and do laps, gliding over into the deep end. But your interest faded. Your swimming trunks got pushed to the back of your closet; the board sat covered with cobwebs in the garage. If I were ever in danger of drowning, I would have to save myself.
We were sitting in the living room when you asked me to help you write the eulogy for your younger brother. I was twenty-three. I obliged, thinking that your raw grief kept you from touching the keyboard yourself. As you spoke and gazed out the window on the overcast winter day, I faced my screen and maniacally wrote down every word you said, ignoring the spelling mistakes in my wake. Occasionally, the typing would stop as I interrupted you to debate your word usage because I had knowledge of the nuance you lacked.
Later, I went to the kitchen table. I read and reread, finessed the words and rearranged sentences. I considered your speech and cadence while working to craft the language in a way that reflected you.
It evaded me even then, the subtle way you’d handed off the writing to my mother or to me. I’d thought it was your way of making us feel useful. But like the sun light slowly brightening the room, I would later come to understand that every word you had ever written you had never written. You had survived in a foreign country for decades and established yourself without ever suffering from your one debilitation: that you couldn’t convey your ideas on the page: an intermediary had always been involved. But you never attempted to hide that fact. Instead, you made it a scene in my childhood, one so deeply ingrained into my life that I would never question it. That’s the funny thing about secrets—they’re usually right in front of you, defying you to open your eyes.
Anita Gill is a teacher, writer, and a current Fulbright Fellow in Spain. Winner of the 2018 Iowa Review Award in Nonfiction, Anita has humor and essays in Prairie Schooner, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, The Rumpus, The Iowa Review, and elsewhere. Her website is anitagill.ink
[…] Anita Gill‘s “What We Can’t Do: A Father and Daughter’s List” at Citron […]