This past week, for the first time, I cried in front of my graduate students. I teach a writing class to non-native speakers of English, and I have a tradition of bringing in donuts for them on the last class. But the donuts, I tell them, come with a story.
My father died of a brain tumor when I was 18. Towards the end of his life, the tumor put pressure on his brain stem, revoking his ability to speak. In the hospital, he was given a chart with rows of tiny pictures that he could point at to communicate. The complexity, passion, and fullness of language were reduced to two-dimensional images on poster board. I didn’t think much of it at the time, but as I learned more about language and God, the memory started haunting me.
Language, you see, is a gift unparalleled. It’s a gift that reveals who God is (a speaking God), who we are, and what the world is like (See Why Language Is Everything). It’s an elaborate system for communication, wheels within wheels of perspective, association, definition, and structure woven together with invisible thread: a tapestry more elaborate, more intricate, more jaw-droppingly diverse and beautiful than we can fathom. And this gift is as precious as the air we breathe, for it provides what we need more than anything: communion. It gives us closeness . . . nearness. It joins what was separate. It binds what is broken.
This gift, I told my students, was taken away from my dad. And on one evening, as I sat next to his hospital bed with some of his friends, we tried to guess the name of his favorite donut. The communication chart was useless. Eventually, he was able to part his lips and push out the sound, “Europe.” Our guesses started flowing: German Chocolate? French cruller? 45 minutes, we couldn’t figure it out.
Later that week, one his friends said cheerfully, “Hey! We figured out your dad’s favorite donut: it’s Dutch crumb!” I should have known. He’d brought that very donut back to us from his work when we were kids. It was legendary: a cake donut with thick glaze, smothered in sugar crumbs. Yes, Dutch crumb — a donut made by a local shop, which I now happen to live near, a donut that I give my graduate students at the end of each semester, a donut with a story.
And so I sat before my students: Nigerians, Koreans, Chinese — and told them about this special donut I had brought in memory of my dad. I told them that language was a gift. . . .
And that’s when I lost it. The thought that my father had such a precious gift taken away from him in his final days . . . it was too much. The weight of the gift and the sadness of its absence for him, at a time when I so desperately wanted a few final words with him . . . my chest was too heavy to produce any speech. His speechlessness made me speechless. Silence and restrained tears would have to do. As a class, we could gather around this gift and marvel for a few moments.
It’s easy to treat language as an academic subject. We can wax eloquently about the nature of communication and what it reveals about the human condition. But language is also about Dutch crumb donuts. It’s about persons made in the image of a speaking God. It’s about the giving of a great gift.
Maybe that, in the end, is really why I’ve written so much about words. Behind all of my investigations and ruminations on language is my father — silent but strong. His heart set on his God with closed lips.
After he died, he got the gift back, no doubt. But he got what we really want more than anything: the gift giver. And we’ll get him too . . . one day. Until then, take a moment to find gratitude for the gift. It’s a truly great gift. Open it slowly, carefully, with a full heart and palms open in praise.