Beyond Language

By Ruth Egan
Indiana, USA

Beyond Language

I was flying home to Chicago to bury my grandmother. I hate changing planes, so had booked a flight that would allow me to stay on the plane during stopovers. At the Denver airport, a flight attendant announced that the plane needed servicing, and all passengers must board another plane. I sighed. Denver airport is big, and I just knew I’d be walking a mile to the next gate.

As I got up, I noticed a couple who had boarded with me in Los Angeles still sitting in their seats, speaking Spanish to each other, and once in a while gesturing at the speaker above them. It occurred to me that they couldn’t speak English, and were worried about what the announcement had said.

I walked over to them, asked them if they could speak English, and they shook their heads no. Wonderful, I thought. And the only Spanish I knew was “gracias” — thank you.

I held up my ticket, and the woman reached into her purse for theirs. They were going to Chicago, and I showed them my ticket so they could see that our destinations matched. Someone had probably told them to stay on the airplane until it arrived.

I asked the few people around me, “Does anyone here speak Spanish?” All I got were people shaking their heads no. I reached into my purse, pulled out a small notebook I carried with me and a pen, and started hoping.

I drew a crude drawing of an airplane, just like kids make. I pointed at it, then gestured around our airplane. The couple nodded. They understood. I drew another airplane. I put an “X” through the first one, and drew three stick figures walking to the new plane. I gestured around our plane again, making sweeping motions as if I held a broom. I looked at them to see if they understood.

They spoke excitedly, then stood up and started gathering their items together. They had understood! I made sure we stayed together while heading to our new plane — all without a word spoken between us.

When we arrived in Chicago, I followed them off the plane, and saw a sea of Hispanic faces waiting to greet my new friends. There was hugging and kissing and babies being passed back and forth. Apparently, they had not seen many of these people for some time. I smiled and nodded at them as I made my way to baggage claim. They were chattering away with a younger man who I envisioned was one of their sons.

I hadn’t gotten far when I felt a tap on my shoulder and turned to find this same young man. He smiled at me, and with tears in his eyes said, “Gracias. Gracias.” All I could do was smile back and nod.

I saved that drawing for years. Every time I looked at it, I remembered that people don’t always need to speak the same language to be understood.

Originally published as HeroicStories #313 on June 13, 2002

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