When I speak with my grandfather, my voice stutters as I translate English thoughts into broken Vietnamese. Often, I cannot understand what my grandfather is saying, so I just smile sheepishly and mutter some incomprehensible reply—pretending that it is his hardness of hearing and not my linguistic incompetence that impairs our communication. But on the morning of the day I was to leave my Seattle home to study a nation away in Durham, my grandfather was my final goodbye. He held me and told me he loved me in a voice softened with age: Ông yêu con nhiều lắm.
I have never understood anything else as clearly as those five foreign words, or that tender embrace only eighty-two-year-old arms have had enough practice to give. I have never remembered anything else as painfully as the five goodbyes I let slip between my teeth and tongue before I was ready to leave, or the eighteen years’ worth of apologies I tried to squeeze into a ten-second hug: I am sorry I never learned to speak our shared native tongue.
As if he had heard my thoughts aloud, my grandfather laced his sweet smile with forgiveness. His love for me—and my love for him—needed no words. It needed only the beige remote-controlled car my grandpa took down from the top shelf and taught me to steer when I visited as a child. It needed only the swimming pool where he would throw me into the air like a rocket ship only to nail the splash landing. It needed only the rhythmic movement of rosary beads through my young fingers as he led nightly prayers.
This, I believe, is the limit of language: It cannot bring one to fully understand something without having experienced it. How do you explain the color that is “red” to a blind man? How do you explain the sensation of a kiss to a child yet to have her first? However, experiences need not necessarily be bound by language. Often, the most powerful experiences and emotions are also the most challenging to capture in words. When mutual understanding between two individuals is complete, their bond transcends language.
This is what I feel when my thoughts wander to my grandfather. Our lack of communication does not diminish our relationship, but in a strange way fortifies it by forcing us to find and focus on other ways to express love. I remember how he scoured the Internet for months to ensure he found the very best laptop for me four Christmases ago. I remember the way he would pull two Lindt Lindor chocolate truffles from his secret stash to share after dinner—one for me and one for him, despite his diabetes.
Remembering these actions, I realize how blessed I am to be loved with a love beyond words. I know now what I should have tried to squeeze into that last ten-second hug: I understand.
Nguyen is a rising senior co-majoring in global health and psychology, with a focus on palliative care and end-of-life issues. He intends to pursue a Ph.D. in medical sociology.