Thursday, May 6, 2010

The Mother Tongue

During the recent reopening of the illegal immigrant wound, I've seen many blog posts and Facebook comments calling for English as the "official language" for the U.S.  The blatant racism is disheartening and I wonder why good people are so terrified of others not like them.  The debate has reminded me of an incident when only the mother tongue could comfort.
A few years ago, I was paged to the pediatric ICU of the children's hospital for which I worked as a chaplain.  A teenage boy had been attacked during an episode of gang violence.  Unwilling to join the group, gang members beat the boy until he fell to the ground where they began to kick him repeatedly.  By the time the ambulance brought him to us, his brain was swelling and he could no longer breathe on his own.  Within a few hours, medical staff determined he was brain dead and his mother would have to make an unbearable choice: discontinue life support or harvest his organs first.
The physician, a social worker, the boy's nurse, the organ bank representative and I gathered around this woman along with a few members of her family.  In English, the physician explained his condition.  The organ bank representative gave her information about her organization.  The boy's nurse held the mother's hand.
The mother stared at all of us, frightened and unsure.  Her earth had cracked open in a cataclysmic and heartbreaking fissure.  In a last attempt to penetrate the mother's despair, the social worker talked about how her son could be "the gift of life" to others.
I stood back and remembered when my husband and I were told by my daughter's oncologist she might not live through the next few days.  He spoke to us in our native tongue, English.  Even though his lips moved I could not understand him. I forced him to repeat himself several times before his news could make sense to me.  My daughter might die.
The boy's mother was from Mexico but had immigrated to the United States many years before.  She spoke perfect English, but somehow, I knew, she needed to hear such horrible news in her mother tongue.
I stepped forward and knelt before her and in one of those moments that can only be characterized as a "God-thing" I spoke to her in Spanish, a language I had never mastered before -- or since.  I told her I honored her son and that while I would never know him, I would always remember his sacrifice.  Finally, she broke down and cursed death.   Her plaintive wail of "muerte" still rings in my ears, but before we all left the room, she had agreed to organ donation.
For a few hours, she stayed by her son's bedside until just before his body began to break down and the medical staff took him away.
Why do people wish to diminish and suppress the identity of others?  They dismiss anyone who isn't Christian.  They deny sexual orientation is God given or at even genetic despite the overwhelming science.  They want to erase any culture and language of those not like them.
We cannot let narrow minded people succeed.
We are not human beings having a spiritual experience. We are spiritual beings having a human one.
Teilhard deChardin