He with the fiercely intelligent quicksilver brain and explosive personality, often bemoans the fact that I don’t understand the basic stuff in plain English. He would huff in exasperation, sometimes with barely suppressed impatience.
“How many times have I told you the same thing, Jacq, for god’s sake!”
Or: “If I didn’t know you better, I wouldn’t have believed that you actually live in London for real.” (I can’t find my way home to him from the grocery shop in broad daylight).
But here’s the thing: I understand him perfectly when he speaks to me in his native tongue. Polish. One of the most difficult languages. I could do Hungarian at a push and a little Thai. But Polish? Nie (and there are like 200 ways of saying No in that language, depending on the context). It took me months to master this word: cześć. I had to ask two Polish friends to help me with that word. And after months of relentless trying, I finally managed to refine the five alphabets into four syllables.
“Not bad,” he said grudgingly. “But can you say it without your saliva flying out.”
And what does that word mean? Hello. Yes, just hello. That’s it.
“How do you say ‘I love you’?” I asked.
“You’ll have no chance of mastering such a difficult phrase,” he replied sourly.
“Tell me, please!”
“You’re like a child sometimes!” He exclaimed impatiently, but knowing that I would not stop badgering him, he relented. He told me how to say ‘I love you’ in Polish.
I screamed with laughter which annoyed him all the more.
“What’s so funny?” He demanded.
“I can’t believe it!” I howled, bent double with mirth.
“Can’t believe what?”
“How you say ‘I love you’ in Polish!!!!”
“What’s so funny about Kocham Cię?” he demanded.
“You just said ‘cock and armchair’!” I screamed, pointing at my grandma’s chair which used to be in the corner of my bedroom until I donated it to charity. “You sitting on that chair!”
“I can’t see what’s so funny,” he huffed.
But here’s the thing: many nights, he used to settle comfortably in this armchair (until I got rid of it, much to my regret later) and from this chair, he told me the stories that his grandmother told him when he was a boy, which I am adapting into a book about an autistic girl who learns about the world and people and life and love through her grandmother’s stories.
I am going to show him I understand when it matters. I was going to call the book The Eyeglass, but my literary agent suggested a working title of Maasai Boats.
But most of all, something strange happened. When I was knocked over on my bike a few months ago and ended up in hospital, he was absolutely distraught. He sat by my side when I slept, worried to death, holding my hand in his. I could feel him in my sleep. And I certainly heard him.
In my twilight, he said a word that stuck on my mind. I forgot about it for a while, and then it came back. It kept coming back, as if wishing to be born.
“What did you say to me when I was asleep, that first night after my accident?” I asked.
“I said a lot of things. Probably all nonsense.”
“You said this word. Knee pevs noshshsh. With the same ending as in cześć.”
He clicked his tongue in impatience. “Just leave it, OK?”
But that word would not go away. I wanted to know what it meant. And here’s the thing about Polish language – it is almost impossible to correlate the sound with the text, unless you know the language. But after a lot of work, I found the word.
It’s niepewność. Uncertainty.
I asked another Polish friend. Does Uncertainty have a deeper meaning or am I mistaken?
My friend gave me a strange look. “It’s a poem by Adam Mickiewicz.”
The thousand unborn suns exploded in front of my eyes when my painstakingly copied words yielded the most beautiful translation in English.
Beautiful because I have already known these words in my heart. He had said them to me in countless days, on those summer and autumn nights here on the verandah, in the stories he tells and in the food we eat and in the wonderful closeness we share that has no need for words.
Adam Mickiewicz, revered by us, Western Ukrainians, too! Especially in the beautiful former Polish city of Lwów!
You always write so beautifully, Jacq! X