My girls’ birthday is in two days, and I have had a pit in my stomach since the weekend.
They would be three years old this year. We should be having a party with pretty dresses and streamers and balloons and bubbles, and they should be giggling and twirling and blowing out three candles on two birthday cakes. Or one. (I tend to imagine myself being overly ambitious in these daydreams.)
I was listening to NPR on Saturday afternoon as I was organizing our boys’ bedroom. All three of our boys share a room right now and the mess can get out of hand rather quickly. As I worked, the TED radio hour came on and they were talking about languages. I heard this talk by a Vietnamese teacher of Greek and Latin named Phuc Tran. In it, he talks about how our language affects our perceptions. Specifically, he talked about the subjunctive mood, which is present in English and several other languages, but is not found in his native Vietnamese. The subjunctive is a verb tense that deals in the hypothetical. In wishing, in hoping, in possibilities. Phuc talks about a near miss that his family had when he was a child in Saigon. They made a last-minute change that saved their lives, as a bus that they were going to take pulled away from the station, was hit by artillery, and exploded. He implies that because of the subjunctive mood in English, he was able to spend time thinking about what could have happened while his Vietnamese-speaking family, with their indicative mood, could not. The former French teacher in me was intrigued. Le subjonctif and I have a love-hate relationship.
Whether or not the lack of the subjunctive in Asian languages prohibits them from being able to contemplate what could have been, this got me thinking about grief and loss and the subjunctive. When a person lives a full life, grows old and dies, we are not usually left wondering what could have been. It was. They were. They lived their lives and then they died. But when a child dies, there are so many possibilities that are taken away, from their appearance to their personality to what they would have done with their lives and how our lives would be different with them living in it. There are an infinite number of possible outcomes, each with its own subtle nuances, and we will never get to experience any of them. We are left with this void and wondering what would have filled it.
But is that a good thing?
That is the question that Phuc brings up in his talk. The “dark side” of the subjunctive is that we spend time thinking about what could have been when the reality is that it just wasn’t. But I can’t imagine that there are mothers out there, even without the subjunctive mood, who aren’t wondering what life would be like with their children. Is that just my cultural – or linguistical – bias? It’s hard to imagine life without the subjunctive. It’s the basis for so much of our film and literature. Imagine reading an O. Henry story without wondering what would have been if something had not happened.
A particularly trying day with my kids on Sunday left me thinking a lot about those things. The two hours spent getting everyone dressed and out the door for, and then sitting through, church leave me feeling steamrolled, and maybe it was because of the girls’ upcoming birthday, but on that particular day, I spent a lot of time wondering if I could have managed if my twins were with us. And if they were, would we still have our sweet youngest daughter? If things are difficult and I feel overwhelmed with four, am I glad that I don’t have two more? Did God know I couldn’t handle it?
You can imagine that running that loop of questions through your mind for a day is futile and defeating, and doing it while meeting the needs of four little ones is quite exhausting. It was indeed a dark side and my mood matched it. So it got me thinking about what it would be like to live in the indicative.
Our twins died. They are not with us. I don’t spend time dwelling on possibilities because that is a waste of time and effort.
I have to admit that it was a bit refreshing, but I couldn’t maintain it long before the thought of “Yes, but…” crept in.
So what do you think? I’d love to hear from someone whose native tongue does not include the subjunctive mood. How does one grieve the loss of a child without the subjunctive? And for the rest of us, is the subjunctive why we “dwell?” Does its usage reflect a lack of contentment or faith? Does it help our healing or hinder it?
I think that on Thursday, we will be celebrating their birthday the way we always do: by releasing some balloons, having some cake, and imagining what life in our home would be like if Fiona and Brigid were with us.