One Last Lesson

I haven’t had a Hindi lesson for a few weeks now. The last time I showed up, I met the other student I go with as I was walking from the subway station.  She was heading back. His door was locked. He wasn’t home.  A few days later we learned he had had a fall and was in hospital.  After that I had to go on my first November trip to Louisiana.

When I came back, he was still in hospital but in reasonably good spirits. I made a few visits – sometimes alone, sometimes with another student. Each time we would chat a bit and then he would proceed to win several games of Seep. After a couple of visits it was time for me to go back to Louisiana to do some more work.  By the time I returned his health had taken a turn for the worse. While he was briefly out of the hospital and in a rehabilitation centre, he was back in the hospital with pneumonia in a few days. This is serious business at age 95.  Once I found out where he was (he’d had a few moves throughout the hospital), I headed over on Christmas Eve.  I was a little nervous as I had heard he had had a time of being pretty unresponsive and couldn’t speak and I wasn’t quite sure what to expect.

When I arrived he was surrounded by two of his children and two of his grandchildren. He was listening to Hindi music – most of it devotional from what I could understand of the lyrics.

His granddaughter put a chair next to him and I sat there with him and his family, occasionally talking to them. And then his youngest daughter said “You should speak to him in Hindi. He can understand well.”

Now I am self-conscious about speaking Hindi at the best of times, but now I was surrounded by people who spoke it far better than I did. I got really nervous.

Then they said “You’ll have to lean in close and speak loudly – he doesn’t have his hearing aids in.”

And I got even more nervous. I would now be essentially yelling in a language I felt very unsure of myself in feeling worried what everyone might think of how I was doing. And really, I wasn’t even sure what to say in English let alone Hindi. But I also knew that this was no longer about me. I needed to do this.

And so I pushed through the self consciousness, the New Englander’s reserve, the fear of failure, the fear of looking stupid, and just started speaking. I talked about how I had been practicing every day with someone in Pune, and how it was being helpful in improving my speaking. I talked about how my son, Daegan, and I were going to go to India and where we were going to go and how it would be Daegan’s first trip there.

And something magical happened as I did this. His face went from being mostly passive to lighting up. He had a big smile, his eyes got bright and as I talked he nodded furiously. When I finished everyone around the bed told me how well I’d done. My nervousness was forgotten, the joy of being able to bring happiness through such simple words had replaced it.

He felt good, I felt good, and the discomfort I had had was over almost the minute I started speaking. It was a lesson in something that hadn’t occurred to me: Failing to push through my discomfort doesn’t only affect me, it can affect those around me as well.

It was a powerful teaching moment for me and inspiring. As we head in to a new year, I think that the theme for 2018 has revealed itself to me in that moment. 2018 should be the year (or rather the first year) of not just facing discomfort but walking steadily toward it. There’s a lot to be gained there.

As it turns out, this lesson, possibly one of the more powerful ones I’ve been taught, was the last one he would teach me. About this time yesterday afternoon, he passed on. Though I will miss him a great deal, I am truly grateful for the several years we had together and how much I learned from him. I went from not being able to speak, read, or write even a word of Hindi to feeling comfortable with basic conversation and now I know what I need to work on learning and practicing, going forward.

But try as I might, I could never beat him at cards.

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