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Alright, I finished, but now have a lot of editing. Thanks to everyone for their likes and interest, @Raquel for her helpful comment, and @Amalia for her peer review!

My Father is Stuck in the Subjunctive

March 15, 2020


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, moist 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 sentiment he feels and sticks to the subjunctive phrases that detach him from perception. It's great, it’s exciting, it’s terrible that...

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

“More commonly, the subjunctive expresses unreal situations of hope, desire, and longing," she says.

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 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’.” It seeps through his brain like honey, slowly leaving a sugar residue to corrode his mind into one big cavity. 

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

For our birthdays, Sra. Vázquez 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 vast for us to understand each other. Then my father forgot words to describe the weather, could not have any more of his animated 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. 

Today, I have an 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 to the sofa where he’s watching ESPN. Basketball players in yellow Notre Dame jerseys run onto the screen after halftime.

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

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 memories in his eyes. His voice would become slow and 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 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. 

“What are you going to paint?” I ask. Questions are helpful, 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 flower that we saw in every Edinburgh 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. 

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 have to take what you got and figure it out somehow. 

I’m using acrylics, but don’t know what to paint. I start with a flat brush, one with scruffy ends for texture, and streak paints of orange, green, blue, and pink in stripes across my canvas. 

“What’s that?” Dad asks me. 

“I’m not sure yet. Just a muñeca background for now.”

Monday morning, I work on a subjunctive worksheet in Spanish class. 

“Write your own sentences, be as creative as you want,” Señora says. “Just use the Spanish subjunctive! ¡Y no inglés, por favor!” 

I start working. 

Ojalá que… I hope that…. we can pay to get help even while Dad can't work.

Es bueno que… It’s good that…. Dad and I can paint pictures together.

Me preocupa que… I worry that… 

My father will forever be stuck in the subjunctive. 

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1 Comment
  • Amalia

    Ahhh I didn't think it was possible for me to cry harder than I did reading the first draft but wow this is so beautiful!

    about 1 year ago