There are no words

March 3, 2020
  • March 3, 2020
  • Living with Cancer Blog

By Ian Robinson

A friend I met through Wellspring just lost her husband to cancer.

Wellspring offers many gifts to those of us lucky enough to find our way through its doors. One of them is an unexpected bounty of friends. New people to love and who love us in return.

Can you say: “Mixed blessing?”

I have cancer. I will never not have cancer. So I joke about cancer a lot.

I joke about it because it’s the only way I can cut this thing down to size so I can keep putting one foot in front of the other. Because cancer is such a vicious, horrible, genuinely wrong thing, this destroyer of worlds and defiler of beauty, this evil bio-machine that generates a pain incomprehensible; unspeakable.

But when cancer kills and you are looking to reach out and comfort those who remain, left reeling as a hole is torn in the fabric of their personal universes … well.

Jokes exhaust their utility at certain moments.

This is all I had to write to my friend ahead of the funeral of her husband, father of her children, the man whose fortunes to whom she had tied her own so many joyful years ago:

I have no useful words. I have no wisdom to impart. And I most certainly have nothing that will make you hurt any less.

All I know is that I am desperately sorry for what you and the ones you love have endured and will continue to endure.

Know that you are in my prayers.

There are no useful words.

Hard to write that.

I’m a word guy. Words are supposed to work, to matter. I am supposed to be able to find those words. I have spent my life immersed in the world of words. Writing them, editing them, curating them, delighting in them, rolling them around in my mouth like the wine nerds swirl a sip from a fine and cherished bottle. Were I were not a Christian (Category: Inept/Aspirational) I would be proud to say that I worshipped at the altar of the English language. It is a language that has, by some estimate, more than a million words. More than any other because my ancestors were awful. They were vicious and thieving conquerors who sailed around the world with sword and cannon and, among all the other things we stole like gold, silver, spices, fabrics, land, people and recipes … we stole words. English is a pirate’s tongue and as a consequence is very rich indeed.

And, at moments these, profoundly and utterly impoverished.

And that’s okay, I guess.

We speak to one another in more than one language.

When I see my friend next, she will be able to read the expressions that cross my face. She will be able to feel my arms around her when I hug her, while my mouth utters words inadequate to the situation. She will hear them, perhaps only as sounds. But between the sorrow on my face and the grief in my voice, the actual meaning of the words will not matter. What matters is I was there and she knew I was there.

So many of us do not know what to do in the face of the grief experienced by our friends.

But know this: When you combine the inadequate words and the inarticulate speech of our arms and affection and the lexicon of our tears and our presence, it is enough even though it isn’t enough. Nothing could be enough. But it is what we have to offer.

And it has to be enough … because it is all we have.

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4 Responses

  1. Thank you for your words Ian. As always, you captured everything I feel but can never articulate as well as you……it is your gift. And to our family, who are are all reeling from the recent loss of 3 family members to cancer, your words are a balm. You are also in our prayers amigo. 💕

  2. I love the article. The wonderful people at Wellsprings are greatly helping me to cope with my journey in so many wonderful ways. Great thanks to all.

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