Mortal GrammarLia got sick and then died. She was young. She got liver cancer. She’s gone. So is her black hair and her violin and the car she’d just bought. So are we. We left not long after.

Before she knew she came up to the city. She wanted to have supper with us. It was raining, we were tired, we didn’t want to go. Sometimes there wasn’t much to talk about. And she was my wife’s friend, really. But we went, my God, what if we hadn’t. After that, we came to her. Took the Sunday morning bus and felt alert to the quiet of strangers. Watched her country’s hillsides rush and stall with the traffic. Waited to arrive. I liked where her hospice was, outside the town in a little valley with a creek and smoke on the timberline. The spring smells free of exhaust. Then what to say, inside her room?

Her real name wasn’t Lia. It was So-young. She was Lia in English, even though it’s Italian. She liked languages. But we called her So-young. Now Lia is better because the other is a wordplay, and there’s nothing to be done about it. She was only thirty-two. She liked music, romantic South American stuff full of fire. She organized a concert once and had us read sappy poetry between each number. She was a terrible driver. She was lonely and helpful and kind. She was pretty. She was our friend. She was a friend to us.

I have trouble choosing the words, so I repeat them with variations. The problem is the verbs. The past tense, I suppose. The past tense is the sad one, the nevermore. But it’s more than that. I didn’t cry when I heard the news. I didn’t cry in her little room, where she smiled and told jokes about morphine. I didn’t cry at the silence in me when her faith in heaven didn’t break, when she was resting in cliché, and my critic’s hat fell off. I cried a little at her funeral. But I cry more now because I want to write words about her, and it feels violent. Like carving up a tombstone.

My grandma died a few months later. She was ninety-seven. Her verbs were active. She wanted to go, she readied herself; she left. Lia was taken. The passive voice in command, chiseling the rock. There are no revisions, there is no talking back, there is no conversation, there is no long-wrought conclusion, there is only interruption, and my words an accomplice. Lia will not speak to us again. She will only be spoken about. It is a violation.

Two months from sickness unto death, forewarnings forsworn by whatever God inhabits heaven. There was the yellow-gray skin shade, a belly hard and round with the resident growth. There were the small murmurs reposing in place of her words. The English first, then the native tongue, language displaced by her pain and its remedies. No more room for the meaning of her. It finds some meager form in my memory, in my wife’s memory, the memory of her friends, of her lonesome mother and brother, but everyone is too small. She will dissipate untended while we make sentences in her honor. We will confine her to grammar.

I imagine some final vocabulary of isolation. Lia walking back from the doctor, calling her people, saying things that make sense to them, but feeling already a rising inside. She makes new words that mean nothing and are bound in the emptiness. She tries anger, fear, sadness, but these are words for the living, those who feel, those who do or do not. She is done to, and no more. She will never do again. Never drive us to the movies, never take us out for coffee, never laugh out loud when she cannot understand our English. She walks back from the doctor, and after that she will only be served, taken care of, cheered up, and mourned. She knows it. The words for it are from the bottom of life, lying in wait. Grandma at ninety-seven never used them, never found them. What did Lia do when she heard the words that make no sound?

I take refuge in the facts. There is no opiate for me, no paradisal vision. Lia got sick and then died. I remember her, and I write it down. I remember her brave and smiling, and free. Nothing more.

Adam Smith tells us “I am an academic by trade, working on a PhD in Political Science, but I try to write well anyway. I grew up on a farm in Indiana. Two summers ago my wife I and moved to Oregon after spending about four years in South Korea, which is where the event in this essay takes place. I’ve been published once before, a short story included in the Fall 2009 issue of OurStories. Other than that I am fairly new to working without footnotes.”

Photo by Tory M. Taylor