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My Father is Stuck in the Subjunctive

March 14, 2020


Version 2, not edited for writing mechanics 

My father is stuck in the subjunctive.

“The subjunctive mood characterizes both profound emotion and impersonal statements,” says Señora Vásquez, standing in her classroom amongst the Guatemalan worry dolls, or muñecas quitapenas, that hang from her ceiling. Wrapped in horizontally woven threads of pink, green, blue, and orange, the dolls listen as Señora shows us a PowerPoint presentation. 

“Impersonal expressions,” Señora continues. “It’s good that, it’s interesting that, it’s bad that. 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 the emotion he feels and sticks to the subjunctive phrases that detach him from perception. It's great, it’s interesting, it’s terrible that...

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

“More cpommonly, the subjunctive expresses unreal situations of hope, desire, and longing.” 

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

At first, it was, “I pray that his condition is not as serious as the doctor says.”

Then, “I feel like this disease is taking over my father’s brain.” It seeps through his brain like honey, slowly leaving a sugar residue to corrode his brain into one big cavity. 

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

For our birthdays, Sra. Vazquez 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 scraps of paper and cloth are no match for dementia, ripping through seams as it 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 for us to understand each other. But then my father forgot words to describe the weather, could not have any more of his spry conversations, and got lost in airports when he had traveled the country alone for years. I realized the disconnect was at the cellular level of brain cells and nerves. 

Before dementia, before the PET scans and MRIs told my family what we were too scared to acknowledge, my dad was a conversationalist. When he told stories - of wedding receptions, college tailgates, skipping stones at the river - you could see the memory in his eye. He would slow down and his voice became gritty as he relived the memory. He could talk about all sorts of things - Shakespeare, airplane mechanics, constellations, natural disasters in Samoan villages miles and miles away. He was sharp, could multiply quicker than anyone, and knew his way around a conversation. 

But then dementia came into the station. All mental railways slowed, communication screeching to a halt and sending sparks flying in the air. Syllables and body language have decreased in value. So maybe we don’t have to talk, but rather, coexist, synchronize. Maybe, we can paint. The brushes can do the talking. 

Saturday morning comes, and my dad and I set up canvases, easels, and our bin of paints. My dad likes watercolors, but I prefer acrylics. I’m too impatient for watercolors. They’re too vague and watery. They scruff up the fibers on the paper. One has to layer the pigments, shadows, and highlights. 

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 start a conversation, bringing up the week’s events we were too tired to talk about Friday night. 

“I got an A+ on my English paper,” I say. 

“That’s good,” my father says. There it is: the subjunctive, impersonal expressions Señora talked about. End of conversation, because conversation requires emotion. 

“What are you going to paint?” I ask. Questions are good, especially open-ended ones. 

“I don’t know. What do you think I should paint?

“Did you take any pictures at Gran and G’s house? Or in Scotland? Did you find any flowers you liked?”

“I don’t think so.”

“You could look up a picture. Maybe a wildflower, or a thistle.”

“Oh yeah! That’s what I’ll do.” 

He begins to paint the purple Scottish flower that we saw in every Scottish gift shop last summer. In between a flower and a weed, the thistle’s body resembles a prickly pin cushion with stingy, purple tips Dad mixes magenta and darker purples together. He uses a fine tip brush to streak the paint across his page. 

--- a bit more to go, but this is what I have so far ----

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