Peer Review by Amalia (United Kingdom)

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My Father is Stuck in the Subjunctive

By: she_writes


My father is stuck in the subjunctive.

“The subjunctive mood characterizes both profound emotion and impersonal statements,” says Señora Vásquez. My Spanish teacher stands in her classroom amongst the Guatemalan worry dolls, or muñecas quitapenas, hanging from her ceiling. Wrapped in horizontally woven threads of pink, green, blue, and orange, the dolls listen as Señora shows us a PowerPoint presentation with a red background and gray letter. 

“Impersonal expressions. It’s good that, it’s interesting that, it’s bad that,” Señora continues. “The emotion is separate, not attached to the speaker.” 

Like pollen floating in the air, away from the yellow, balmy flower. The subjunctive reminds me of how my father speaks. Surely, his disease doesn’t render him incapable of feeling emotion. He is just incapable of expressing any sensations and sticks to the subjunctive phrases that detach him from awareness. It's great, it’s interesting, it’s terrible that...

As Señora continues, I realize that maybe I’m stuck in the subjunctive, too.

“More commonly, the subjunctive expresses unreal situations of hope, desire, and longings." 

Las muñecas sway as a breeze comes in through the classroom window. The Spanish classrooms were pushed into cheap portables outside, but Señora doesn’t mind. She likes the wind and the sun.

“For example, I wish that, I feel that, I pray to God that,” Señora keeps going with her list of phrases I find myself thinking every time I see my father’s blank gaze.

At first, it was, “I pray that his condition isn’t as serious as the doctor says.”

Then, “I feel like this disease seeps through his brain like honey.” Slowly, leaving a sugar residue to corrode his brain and make one big cavity. 

And finally, “I wish that he had anything easier to stop than dementia.”

For our birthdays, Señora Vásquez gives us each a small muñeca. She tells us to whisper our subjunctive dreams to the dolls at night, slip them under our pillow, and hope for knowledge in the morning. But knowledge and tiny pieces of paper and cloth are no match for dementia as it rips through seams and comes between my father and me. 

I thought the disconnect between us was a result of our age. I’m 16, my father is 50. Maybe the technological and social divide was finally too wide. But then my father forgot words to describe the weather, couldn’t have vibrant conversations as he once did, and got lost in airports when he had been traveling the country for years. I realized the disconnect was at the cellular level of brain cells and nerves. 

Today, I have an A+ English paper in my backpack on the symbolism of light and dark in Romeo and Juliet. I bring it to my father, not wanting praise, but a conversation. Maybe he’ll see my paper and ask me what it was about, how long it took me to write four beautifully-crafted pages about Shakespeare’s banter. 

“I got an A+ on my English paper,” I say to him. I set my backpack on the barstool in our granite lined kitchen and walk over the sofa where he’s watching ESPN. Basketball players in green Notre Dame jerseys run onto the screen after halftime.

“That’s good,” my father says. There it is. The subjunctive, impersonal expressions Señora talked about, my father remaining stuck in the sludge of mental corrosion. 

Communication Is hard. So maybe we don’t have to talk, but rather, coexist, synchronize, be companions. I decide that my dad and I could paint this weekend like we used to when I was younger. The brushes can do the talking. My dad likes watercolors, but I prefer acrylics. I’m not patient enough for watercolors. They are too vague and watery, scruffing up the fibers on the paper. You have to layer the pigments, shadows, and highlights. 

Saturday morning comes, and Dad huffs as he accidentally picks up black paint and lays dark pigment on the canvas where he wanted his grass to be bright green. 

There’s another thing I can’t stand about watercolors. Once you make even a little mistake, there is no going back. Like brain cells and damaged nerves, there is no regaining the carefully crafted scene. You just have to take what you got and figure it out somehow.

--- I have a bit more to go from here ---- 

Message to Readers

This is for a contest, I really need help with connecting my ideas. I'm still working on the ending, please let me know any suggestions! I like my concept, but want to be sure I execute it well. I would appreciate ANY feedback and constructive criticism.

Peer Review

This piece is incredibly moving and sophisticated; each sentence is layered with so much meaning and emotional weight while never feeling clunky or dishonest. As someone who also has someone they love suffer from dementia, this story completely resonated with me and the clever metaphor of the subjunctive used throughout perfectly represents how dementia manifests itself. You are a truly gifted writer!

As you've mentioned that you 'have a bit more to go from here' I would love to see what direction you take the narrative in; does the narrator find a way to find common ground with their father? How will they deal with any breakthroughs or setbacks? Does Señora Vásquez play a further role in the story and our understanding of it? Either way, I can't wait to see where you take the story!

Reviewer Comments

This piece is really moving, sophisticated and elegant, reminiscent of magical realist literature such as The House of the Spirits by Isabel Allende or One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, particularly in the discussion and emphasis on family. Fantastic job!