Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Tongues of Angels

By Melani Martinez

My grandmother, Juanita Peyron, was born on December 21, 1917 in El Paso, but today she lives in a Northwest Tucson "home" with several other ladies who also suffer from Alzheimer's Disease. My nana (as I call her) recognizes who I am, but sadly, she never calls me by my name anymore. I can sit and talk with her, and she can know that I am part of her family, but most everything else is a historical blur for her, and sometimes for me too.

The last time I visited with her, she spoke (in Spanish only, even though she knows both English and Spanish) of random ideas and memories that didn't make much sense - at least not to me. "The plant next to the fireplace is beautiful," she said, though there was no plant or fireplace anywhere near us. "The baby in the cart was putting all the special food from the market in my basket," she explained. I smiled at her. Then, to my further confusion, she verbally pointed out objects outside her window, in the desert, that I couldn't see. I'm not sure if they were there or not, but out of respect, I tried to acknowledge what she saw. I asked her questions, and sometimes she answered with complete alertness. Still, she responded to some questions by just staring at my face for long seconds, struggling to find the words, or the idea, or the memory. I remember seeing that same look of struggle on her face just ten years ago, when she was only 84 years old, when she lived in her own home with her own husband and could manage to take care of herself well enough. That same look is still there on her face - a kind of wrinkled brow, shifting eyes, mouth somewhat agape. That look makes me hurt. If I think about it for too long, that look on her face can make my whole body hurt. I do my best not to think about it.

These painful images are some of the thoughts, though repressed in my everyday waking life, that start to rise to the surface when I step onto the stage, in my costume, and the music starts. I imagine that that is true for most of us who practice flamenco - the stuff that we face each day gets pushed down inside, burying itself until the time comes when we can dance, or sing, or play, and then the stuff comes up and out. Like my nana, sometimes I get stuck with blankness. I struggle to find the words I know I need to say to the people looking at me, staring at me, sometimes with the same blank face that my nana adorns so often these days.

The good thing is, because of flamenco, I clearly understand that some things cannot be said with words. I'm reminded that my attempted conversations with my nana are never going to fully satisfy either of us. I love that flamenco provides this gift of understanding. I'm so privileged, especially as a student and teacher of writing, to have learned that words cannot always suffice, and perhaps that is the way it is meant to be. I know that even if I could speak perfect English, or perfect Spanish, or even speak with the tongues of angels, I still couldn't masterfully say what I really mean. As wonderful as spoken language is, as much as I appreciate it, it doesn't completely satisfy.

The absolute best flamenco performances I have seen or been a part of were not really about words, but I honestly remember exactly what was "said." When I sat in the back row of a packed Rodey Theater and watched Antonio Canales perform for the first time in my life, I remember what was said to me. When I stood behind the curtain of that same theater some fifteen years later, I remember exactly what I was going to say to the audience as soon as I got out there. I may not remember the songs I heard, or the steps, the tempo, the lighting, the costumes, or even the palos, but I can recall performances by the specific feeling I had in those moments. My whole life, I always had a sense of inferiority when it came to speaking Spanish and English, but with flamenco, I was given a voice. All I had to do was open up and speak. What an extraordinary gift this was for a muted life.

Though I may not have any idea what my nana means when she talks to me now about those random fire thoughts that go through her brain, as she stares at me blankly, I do know she is in there somewhere, and I can hear her love. I can still hear the accents, the syllables, the whispers in my ear, whether she is speaking to me, or not. I was blessed with every single time she recounted the tale of being the only person to see my first steps as a baby, a story that she repeated to me constantly before Alzheimer's took grip of her mind. Because she said it so often, I can hear her say my name. "Melani," she says, when her eyes meet mine. The sound of her voice and the inflections of her stories ring clear as day in my ears. And when I see her, lost in her own body, in a clean, cold nursing house that is about four times bigger than the little cozy home she left behind, she tells me so many wonderful stories - even if she doesn't use the right words anymore.

When I remember her sounds, her expressions, I have hope that through flamenco I can express myself as beautifully as she has to me.


  1. From Fabian Sisneros via Facebook: For some reason, I reminded of this quote I read which simply said, "you are not your mind." When our loved ones come to this part of our lives, that is one of the messages of wisdom we are meant to learn from. What we are is so much greater than our bodies, our mind. We are not our intelligence. We're made to be much more beautiful than that. Thanks for sharing this.

  2. Beautiful entry Mele! Though we change throughout our life, God never will. How reassuring that is. Share this with her if able. It is from Isaiah 46-4 Even to your old age and gray hairs I am he, I am he who will sustain you. I have made you and I will carry you; I will sustain you and I will rescue you.

  3. That is a wonderful verse Rick - thank you! I will share it with her first chance. - Mele

  4. Rick, right after I posted this last comment to you, I got the sad news that my Nana, Juanita, has just passed. I'm so sad. My heart is broken. But your verse - Isaiah 46:4 has given me so much comfort. The Lord HAS rescued her. Now she can rest forever in Him. Thank you for your words.