Words (Un)spoken

“Words are good for saying what things are, but sometimes they don’t function for what things aren’t.”

– Colum McCann (Let the Great World Spin)

She wore the sorrowful, profoundly bittersweet expression of a mother who had experienced a love from her son that could only be birthed from the harsh, undeniable reality that his life was soon coming to an end. Gone were the hushed whispers that this might be a possibility that they had to consider. Doctors would ask if she wanted to discuss things outside of his room, but she would shake her head no. He knew. She knew. There was no longer anything they could say that he should not hear.

I only took care of him for a day, and it was a day full of sincere, warm interactions, but our relationship was not nearly as deep as the ones this family had formed with other nurses. This being his last day in our unit, however, I had rehearsed in my head what I might say when I saw them. A condolence? A sober blessing? It had to be more than just, “I’m so sorry.”

And there in the hallway, I saw her walking with a faraway gaze, her heart betraying her mind’s insistence that he would be in a better place. She looked up and saw me. I swallowed. “I just wanted to say…”  I was surprised myself at how abruptly my words escaped me.  And then there was just a hug, and finally I whispered, “Grace to you… I’m glad you had a nurse today who was so close to you all.” I heard her sniffle, and eventually, we pulled away. We gazed at each other, and my mind raced. What more should I say? You’re amazing. He’s amazing. You’ve all been such an inspiration. She’d say, no, we’re really not…we just pressed on for as long as we could because we had no other choice. I wish I’d gotten to know you all better. She’d have no response to that. There was no more time left, no reason to voice such regrets now. And so all I could do was hold her gaze, slowly nod, and let the silence fill that space as it ought.

I remember standing in his room, preparing his medications, while his friends visited with him. I remember feeling curious and surprised at the light-heartedness, the utter normalcy of their conversation. They chatted about all the normal things boys their age would chat about: sports, girls, and a somewhat heated debate about which fast-food pizza they should order. And I saw how the chit-chat meant something now, because it meant something then. Because for just a while, it brought them back to a time when life was simple and uncomplicated, when enough of the future was open to them that they didn’t have to think so hard about what to say during the time they had together.

Sometimes we say too much in the guise of honesty. Sometimes we say too little in the clutch of fear. Sometimes the chit-chat is what we need most. And sometimes, the silence fills it all.

4 thoughts on “Words (Un)spoken

  1. Silence is often our most powerful communication. I remember when my mother was dying, people kept calling her room to ask how she was doing. “How’s your mother?” Even though her eyes were closed and she had not spoken for hours, I knew she could understand every word I uttered to a caller. Holding the phone in silence for a few moments, I muttered, “Ah …ah …she’s resting.” Most people understood the gravity of the situation and said, “Just know that you and your mother are in my prayers.” Relieved and delighted, I responded, “Oh, thank you. God bless you.” That night when other family members said goodbye and went home to rest, I was finally alone with my mother. In the silence of the room, I simply took her hand and stroked it. After a while, it seemed that both of us relaxed deeply in the silence and let love and peace fill our mind and soul.

    • Thank you so much for sharing this very poignant and personal experience. Your mother must have been so grateful for your quiet, sweet, sensitive presence with her. I am developing a greater appreciation for the power of silence every day. Thank you again for sharing.

  2. This post brought tears to my eyes. The pen is mightier than the sword, but silence is stronger than both. I crave silence at times, and some of my dearest friends and I seem to speak a common silent language, beats uttered words any day. Thanks for sharing

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