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Monday, October 25, 2010

Ruminations of an Old Goat

"I don't know what to say."

Words seem to fail us at exactly the wrong times. Faced with a friend or relative who is suffering from the loss, or threat of the loss, of a loved one, it's natural to want to be able to find the right words, the magical turn of phrase that will ease the other's suffering or, at the very least, let the other know we care and desperately wish there was something we could do to help. But the words fail us.

As writers, we see words as our playthings. We can make them sit up and do tricks, describe complex scenes, delve into deep emotions, explore intellectual ideas, even build entire worlds composed of nothing but words. Having words fail us hits writers where we live. At the time we most need our tools to construct works of art, we find our tools aren't working. Instead of speaking the one, beautiful sentence that will convey our inner-most feelings, the depth of our concern and care, that will, if just for a moment, ease the suffering we so desperately wish we could ease, we find ourselves with nothing new or original to say.

"I wish I there was something I could say."

It has been my misfortune to see this issue from both sides in the previous thirteen months. Last year, I desperately wanted to find something to say, something to write that might, for only a moment, ease the pain Bruce and his family felt after Emily died. The words just weren't there, even when I was responding by email and lots of time to think about what I was writing.

"I'm so sorry."

A year later, I was right back in the same spot when I learned of Karen's cancer. There was so much I wanted to do with my words, yet they completely failed me. Words guaranteed to bring comfort just wouldn't come. My fingers, tired of waiting for the brain to send instructions, took over and type, "Oh shit!" Not exactly my most inspired message.

Less than a month later, my wife was diagnosed with myelodisplastic syndrome, a rare and serious disorder of the immune system which causes it to attack healthy bone marrow. All of a sudden, I was the one suffering. I was the one whose friends were stuck in the same position in which I had been. They wanted to comfort, to support, to ease my burden -- and the words I'm sure they desperately wanted to find just weren't there.

"I don't know what to say."

"I wish there was something I could say."

"I'm so sorry."

That's when I made a discovery. Those simple words meant so much more when I received them than I had thought when I said them. They weren't trite and emotionally hollow. They resonated with depth of feeling and carried the weight of many thousands of words. At least briefly, they did exactly what my friends wanted their words to do. They told me my friends cared so much they couldn't calmly sit down and find those beautiful words to form exquisite sentences to show how much they cared. That kind of writing takes too much clarity of thought, too much calculation, too much distance from the ones who are suffering. The words may be beautiful and sentences exquisite, but they ring hollow in our ears.

Because it's not the words that matter, it's the feeling behind them.
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