Translating Memory
by Dominik Parisien

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The complementarity principle is at work here: depending on the situation and the person we are dreaming about, we will use the one language, the other, or both.
—Francois Grosjean, Bilingual: Life and Reality

In the dream, Granpa’s skin is pulled taut over his skull, his bones. His breathing slow and laboured as he reclines in the lawn chair. Watching him, I remember the way those features slackened when he died, how a little weight seemed to return the moment he stopped breathing.

I know we were never in this place looking the way we do now. I’m older than he ever knew me. We’re sitting in the wild patch behind the backyard of the house, the one we left when I was six, past the pool and the chain-link fence, near the maple trees and the slow descent to the muddy creek we called le crick instead of le ruisseau because our French is bastardized.

“On va dire bye comme du monde, c’te fois cit,” he says. We’ll say goodbye properly this time. I haven’t heard that voice in over a decade. It’s on VHS tapes somewhere in my parents’ basement, but none of us have a VCR. The voice is exactly as I remember it, or how I think I remember it.

I’m asleep, but aware that’s where the strangeness of the dream stems. My grandfather, this place from my childhood, these are from a time when life as I lived it was French, before I moved to Toronto. I dream so little in the language now.

In the way of dreams, he remembers dying after his hours-long coma. He even knows how, for the last decade, I’ve thought about the synchronicity of our lack of consciousness that day, the way I experienced one of my violent convulsive episodes in class at the university while, unknown to me, he fell into a coma at the hospital.

He and I never spoke of what I would later call the dark room, that place beyond sight and sound where my consciousness is spirited away whenever I experience a convulsive episode. But here, in my dream, he understands. It’s such a comfort, not needing to explain. The dark room’s always been a subject for English. I would have hated to lose precious dream time searching for the words in French.

He knows I’ve agonized over the possibility that he may have slipped into a dark room of his own when he entered his coma. That by the time I collapsed in class he, like me, was untethered in the hospital bed, unable to feel or hear those around him. How I dread the thought that he might have had no awareness of his family by his side.

He knows I’ve imagined him that day in a place that was not nothingness, a dark room adjacent to my own. How walls divided us there, but for the dozen or so minutes my body convulsed, our lizard brains sensed one another in our respective dark rooms. That perhaps he didn’t know me there, but he still drew comfort from the knowledge that he wasn’t alone.

“Ct’un beau sentiment, mais ct’un peu prétentieux mettre ça sur toi de même.” That’s a lovely sentiment, but it’s a little pretentious putting it on yourself like that. Well, maybe. I’d rather it wasn’t the case, that even in his coma he knew we were all there with him later that day, in those final moments. But even if he didn’t, those adjacent dark rooms are a comforting fantasy

“T’es icitte, là. Un rêve, c’est peutêtre un peu comme la chambre noir, non?” I say. You’re here now. Maybe a dream is a little like the dark room, no? He says nothing at that, maybe because I don’t know the answer myself, or because I haven’t thought about it that way before.

The whole family is nearby. I can tell from the voices coming from the kitchen, the pool. They’re all patiently waiting their turns. Am I the first to sit with him because I was the last to leave his side—I stayed to kiss his corpse’s forehead on the bed, the skin like a plastic water bottle against my lips—or is this just where the dream began?

Behind the fence, matante Nicole and matante Jo discuss woodworking, how they made pens for all the grandchildren out of black walnut left over from the house Granpa built.

“T’aurais pu demander, t’sais,” he says. You could have asked, you know. I don’t want to talk about that, except it’s my dream, so maybe I do.

“Les mourants peuvent apporter des choses avec eux. Tu peux lui demander d’apporter ton mal,” matante Jo told me, just before the end, when people were whispering their final words to Granpa. The dying can take things with them. You can ask him to take your pain.

“Tu l’sais que ça fonctionne pas de même,” I tell him. You know it doesn’t work that way.

“Ouin.” Yeah. It feels right, this conversation in French with a dead man. Because the dream is mine, I don’t need to explain how conveying disability to those who aren’t disabled can be a little like translating a word with no equivalent in the other language. How it’s only ever an approximation.

“Bon, oublies ça. On a encore un peu de temps pour d’autres choses,” he says. Well, forget that. We still have a little time for other things. We talk for a while about what he’s missed since he died, things he knows but wants to hear said aloud anyway, until someone behind us clears their throat and startles me awake.

From CNQ 111 (Spring/Summer 2022).

Dominik Parisien is a disabled, bisexual French Canadian. Recent work has appeared in The Humber Literary Review, Arc Poetry Magazine, Riddle Fence, and Maisonneuve, among others.


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