Each school day morning we drive three children from three families the short distance to their school. One of the children is the daughter of a couple that speaks very little English. The child herself is bilingual and even though she is sometimes called upon as interpreter we try hard to communicate directly with her mother who brings her to our house five days a week. Her mother is a delightful and very funny woman and it would be very amusing to watch us trying to understand each other with her shards of English and my wife’s schoolgirl Spanish and my smattering of Spanish words. Somehow we have managed to become great friends, we’ve been out to dinner with them, we get each other’s jokes. It isn’t that much more difficult communicating with these friends without speech. It reminds me a little of when I was hitchhiking through Europe and trying to tell French and Italian and German drivers where I was headed. Some things can be easily understood: the very first person who ever picked me up was a man who propositioned me with a mixture of French and fingers and whom I politely declined, choosing to be dropped in the rain next to a public toilet in which I spent the night. One of the difficult aspects of our friendship with the smattering of English/smattering of Spanish friends is that they feel some debt is owed to us because we own a car and they don’t and they seem to feel that we are doing them some great favour. This results in their sweeping leaves up around our yard as some sort of recompense and generally trying to clean up. It so happens that my mother spent much of her working life cleaning and serving and I am very sensitive to this. I find myself wanting to say – Stop, you are not my employees, you are my friends, you owe me nothing. I do in fact say “!Para”, Spanish for “stop” and this seems to have little effect. I now have no voice and when the daughter started to sweep leaves this morning I simply walked over, grabbed the broom and threw it down the length of the yard. Sometimes the inability to speak is quite liberating.
The instinct for speech is very strong. Even encountering the dog I can feel myself about to greet her and banter with her. She can no longer hear anything other than a shrill whistle and is blind in one eye and I find myself approaching her without her being aware. Despite her advanced age and her near deafness and blindness she still loves to walk. She runs, well, totters about, like a deranged puppy with motor function difficulties and will stagger around the neighbourhood for as much as an hour, sniffing everything, finding out who has passed by recently, smelling the trail of a skunk or that annoying inbred midget dog from across the way. Mostly she is searching for two things: food that has been cast aside and cat feces. Dogs love to eat cat feces. This trait in our dog has become quite pronounced. Perhaps it’s the equivalent of soft food for old people. Along the way we encounter other dogs and their owners (sorry, guardians) some of whom have been watching me walk the dog with my daughter for more than ten years since we first moved to this area, some encountering us for the first time. They are always astonished that Daisy the Dog is still alive or mystified by how that creature manages forward motion. Those who do not know Daisy ask how old she is. The answer to this now entails reaching into my pocket and pulling out my notepad, finding the page on which is written, “I have had throat surgery and cannot speak” and using my fingers to indicate eighteen years. Then I have to point to the dog in case they think I am barred from speaking for eighteen years rather than indicating the dog’s age. All this could be avoided if I were a rude person. If I were the sort of person who considers small talk beneath him. I sometimes wish this were the case but I am a polite person in a superficial sort of way and I end up in conversations with people I barely know whose obsessions and concerns are understandable but not of the least interest to me. At least for now I can avoid conversation with the woman who is in the awful process of getting her child into school and addressed the subject with me, assuming that I would be of help, having a child in school myself. She is not to know that I find that particular subject less interesting than my dog’s bowel movements and, again, I show good manners by engaging her. It turns out that she knows of my daughter’s school and has been there to take a look. She does not think she will send her child there, she says. I imagine that this statement is intended to draw me into a defense of the school, some attempt to convince her that where my child goes is better than where she might otherwise send her child. In reality I could not care less. My failure to jump to the defense of my daughter’s school elicits, unbidden, the reason she does not feel the school is right for her family. There is not enough shade. I will repeat that for those who are staring at the page wondering what the woman actually said, rather than the silly words that I have clearly put in her mouth. She said, there is not enough shade. Yes, there is someone in this world, probably not alone in her worry, whose major criterion for the choice of her child’s school is that it should have sufficient shade. My first thought might have been something along the lines of, I wish I could develop a growth of some sort on my vocal chords so I never have to engage in this sort of conversation again. In fact I believe it was more in the vein of, Daisy’s feces looked good and solid today, that’s encouraging. That my thoughts were not on this woman’s concerns for her child’s risk of skin cancer probably registered with her and we parted, mutually bemused I expect, she by my unconcern, I by the ever increasing amazement that overwhelms me whenever I am forced to talk to people about their children.