Silence as testimony
Consider my silence a testimony on its own. With two languages at my disposal, sometimes words fail me anyway.
Like yesterday, awakened at 6:30 in the morning: my brother-in-law saying the police had been called and my sister was on her way across town to Mom’s house, where Mom had walked out into the dark and disappeared. When? How? The caregiver was near hysterics when I reached her, “I didn’t hear her leave! I didn’t hear her leave.” What could I say? My mother-in-law walked out of residential care in broad daylight once. I’d awakened one night to find my mother fully dressed and sitting in the living room. While police, sister, caregiver and cousins hit the streets to look for a woman who’d defied locked doors and her own fears and paranoias to leave her house — 30 minutes ago? an hour earlier? two hours? — I sat in my living room, the sky outside going from deep indigo to dark gray. My brother lives some 20 miles away from me. I woke him with news, and then we waited.
What do you do when your mother could be lying in a dark gutter with a leg or foot broken, or trying to cross the nearby highway, or stepping out of the shadows and in front of a car? Heart pounding, I began dismantling the day’s plans so that I could catch a flight, or drive 600 miles home, or break down and plan a funeral if needed. Muted, I could only picture the worst: the tears, the trip home, the editor I owed a photo story. Hundreds of contacts in my cell phone directory, and not one I could think to call. A writer, mouth agape, and not one word I could think to utter.
Several weeks ago, Julia Alvarez spoke to a group of writers. We talked about the darkness in the world today. She said — and I’m paraphrasing here — that when events affect human beings on a large scale, we are often rendered mute with horror. A tiny woman, she mimed this for us, mouth opened in silence, hand at her chest. Similarly, at times of great stress or tragedy, we stand slack-jawed, our voices ripped from us by shock. Then the poets step up; metaphor by metaphor, image by image, they begin the job of witnessing. After that, the prose writers come, laying out the stories and filling in the details.
I thought of Julia yesterday, in my dark living room waiting for a phone call. Of how lately I’ve been struck dumb by the hate and the hypocrisy around me. By the greed and selfishness I see. Watching legislators quibble over principle while our poor go hungry, our children go uneducated, our sick go without medicines, and our elderly try to decide whether to eat or buy prescriptions. What words — in any language — could I possibly offer as balm to soothe? What words could I possibly utter that won’t be snatched, co-opted and twisted into something I never meant to say? What words could anyone have offered me yesterday morning as I waited? Possibly, a poet would have known how to gather the threads from the shadows and the hastening dawn and stitch together the appropriate images in which to wrap myself.
While I sat in silence the phone rang. One of my cousins’ wives had found my mother in a neighbor’s Jeep. Clad in her nightgown, her legs squeezed into the arms of a shirt as if it were a pair of pants, she’d managed to climb the three-foot height into this vehicle. In her arms she was cradling a large trophy our neighbor had left in the car. The caregiver bathed her, found not a bruise or scratch from a bumped knee or shin.
I fear our collective return to sanity will be more torturous than searching for a lost woman with Alzheimer’s. We need the poets. We need them now.
©2011 Beatriz Terrazas, all rights reserved.