The Language of Crisis

by Carolina De Armas

It was a hushed language. Silent even, understood by tired, worrisome faces and lingering strokes on the back. It was a language that caused eyes to dry from hours on the computer screen, or to swell from constant crying. It was a language that my parents prohibited me from learning: the language of crisis.

I was never taught the language of crisis. It seemed to have its own grammar, dialect, and specific audience, and I was a foreigner to its culture. “It’s grown-up stuff,” my mother would answer me, shrugging off my curiosity with a strained a smile. I always asked, but she never fully answered.

It began at family dinners. We would speak in Spanish: fast paced, with emotions in every syllable and laughter at the end of every sentence. My mother many times would tug at my arm as a polite reminder to shut up and let others speak. I marveled at the way our table talk would run through every topic: from those light on the heart up to those heavy on the shoulders. I never knew how it began or where it would stop; until an obvious silence would settle in, signifying that it was time for me to go.

I remember the first time I approached the crisis language. We were having dinner at my grandparent’s house, and my cousins and I were all dismissed to leave the table. My brother was the first one to bolt out of his chair and run over to the soccer ball placed near the front door. I decided to stay behind, hiding under the table; the tablecloth serving as my accomplice and the 12 pairs of well-manicured toes and neatly shined shoes being my only witnesses. My breath seemed louder under the shadows of the table. Fortunately, nobody seemed to notice.  As my back started to ache, I began to rethink my decision to  spy and that is when I heard my father say quickly, and somewhat under his breath, “La economia esta mala.” I had no idea what it meant, but his usual warm, husky voice suddenly turned cold and made my back ache even more.

The heavy wooden door would release a loud whimper every time I pushed it open on Saturday mornings. I would escape a dim hallway and enter a welcoming, sunkissed kitchen. My grandmother would always greet me with a hearty breakfast and some loud small talk as she tried to speak over my grandfather’s radio. My grandfather would listen to the local news every morning on that ancient machine, and the two male voices emitted from that radio chopped at my eardrums like knives; it was very unpleasant. I could almost imagine those two men physically resembling trolls seeking to eliminate all tranquility and silence from my mornings.

I knew it was the crisis language that morning the trolls were blabbering words I could not understand. Eventually, like every time I heard the crisis language, I gave up on trying to comprehend it. Instead, I fixed my attention on the pancakes my grandmother had made for me until I heard my grandfather hiss at the mumbles on the radio and say, “La economia ‘ta mala,” in his somewhat crooked tongue.

I dropped my silverware and looked directly at him. “ What did you say papabito?” I asked him desperately. He looked me in the eyes, still chewing on some of his breakfast, and simply turned the volume of the radio a notch lower. I felt like screaming.  

I did not speak crisis, but I began to notice the absence. What my ears and tongue could not comprehend my eyes could decipher. First, it was the house. I remember discussing: “What was home?” in Ms. Montpetit’s 3rd-grade class. I proudly yelled out  “I move to different houses every time it’s my birthday!”  Ms.Montpetit fell silent.“ Well,” she paused “ I guess you’ll just have to stop getting older!” She smiled awkwardly and moved on with the discussion. I too smiled but remained quiet for the rest of the day as if I had already said too much.

Then it was my mom. She began to work, a lot. Her daily routine of taking us (my brother and I) to school now felt rushed, and she sometimes lashed out on us if we forgot something at home, which we always did. I would not say she was absent in my life because she wasn’t. Not even close. But I do remember her tired face and how she no longer kissed us good night because she would fall asleep before we did.

It  came to a point when my best friend said to me, “I’m leaving.”  I had noticed the absence of several classmates in school; their name tags taped on top of what suddenly became unoccupied desks. Would she also become a simple name tag on a vacant desk? My eyes stung with tears and my face was boiling hot. “Caro, la economia esta mala,” she said to me as if it were to soothe my sorrows. I shook my head in disbelief. She sounded like a robot. I knew she also couldn’t speak the language of crisis. It wasn’t my best friend who was abandoning me; it was a robot figure repeating everything her parents told her she should say. “You don’t even know what you’re saying!” I yelled frantically. Why was I mad? My eyes burned and I wanted her to leave. She left to Jacksonville, FL the next day. On my birthday she sent me a letter. The card played the song “Somewhere Over The Rainbow” when I first opened it. I recognized her loopy handwriting and smiled to myself. The song replayed again, and I began to cry.

I started to feel like a spectator in my own life. Once again, I asked my mother about the crisis, but this time instead of shrugging me off she simply answered: “He just does not want you to worry.” She signaled towards my father who was staring blankly at his computer screen. His hand clenched his jaw and covered his upper lip; he squinted his eyes as if trying to understand something that was incomprehensible to him. I noticed how the artificial light from the computer screen bounced off my father’s gray hair, and between his furious typing sessions, he caught a glimpse of me staring at him. His eyes became soft, and he smirked at me the way I had seen him do millions of times before. I smiled a big smile back. And I suddenly realized that sometimes there is no necessity to understand a language. I realized that if crisis resided in the tongues of everyone surrounding me.  It was my parents who decided to lead me out of the ditch to a place where the only language spoken is hope, and they would lead me there with admirable perseverance, even if that place was somewhere over the rainbow.