Saturday, April 03, 2010

Words are Alive


"Words are alive. Cut them and they bleed."
~ Ralph Waldo Emerson

Yesterday I had a conversation with an old boyfriend. He said I was the first to say, "I love you." I vaguely remember him initiating it. The debate bordered on an argument and I couldn't help but wonder what was beneath it.

Did it really matter who said "I love you" first? Is "I love you" a game of chicken. Whoever says it first "loses"? Do we treat those simple words too preciously?

When my mother was ill with terminal cancer, my boyfriend's family invited her to come visit in Philadelphia. She was living in Florida by herself and while my sister lived close-by, my mother was feeling quite alone and enduring grueling treatments without a lot of assistance. This trip would be a break, a "cancer vacation" of sorts.

My ex-boyfriend's family is a demonstrative sort—kind and giving people. When my mother arrived, she was treated like a queen. No medicine in the world could have touched their generosity.

They arranged a lunch in her honor one afternoon, where she met several extended family members for the first time, including my boyfriend's Aunt Mary, a warm and jovial lady. My mother and Aunt Mary sat next to one another and they laughed and conversed easily, like old friends.

When the day came to an end and Aunt Mary was heading home, she hugged my mom. I heard her say something that would stick with me: "I love you, Randee." They had spent several hours together, that's it. Yet I didn't doubt her love for my mother for one second. She did love my mother after only one afternoon together.

The next day, my mother was feeling quite recharged from all of the attention and activity. She flitted into the room I was staying in and started chatting happily. Unfortunately, I was feeling a black cloud over me. I knew what was to come. And for some unknown reason, I felt angry at my mom, annoyed by her newfound happiness. She mentioned something excitedly about the day's plans, I don't remember what, but I snapped at her. Hard.

And I live with that. I was under an enormous amount of pressure, as was my mother. But I realized that day, among others, that once words are uttered, there is no retracting them. Reparation is possible, but retraction is not.

My oldest brother,
in a fit of anger years ago, once told me that I was the “slow one” in the family. Just not as quick as the others. A few weeks ago, as we discussed some family business, I asked him to repeat something I didn't understand. I said, "Remember, I'm the slow one in the family. It takes me a while." He looked baffled. I explained that it was a callback to an insult he had made years ago. He had no memory of saying it whatsoever.

"Why have you harbored that all these years?" he asked. "Why did you say it all those years ago?" I replied.

Of any insults that have been leveled against me, stupidity doesn't tend to stick. But it stuck a little, obviously. Words, once uttered, are etched in some cosmic fabric in the sky.

My favorite grade school teacher Mrs. Polhamus once scolded me in class. I was in first grade and she caught me talking during a spelling test. I don't remember what she said but my whole world fell apart suddenly. I couldn't complete my test, so shaken up. Instead I wrote at the top of the paper these exact words:

"I know it is true that Mrs. Polhamus does not like me anymore."

My friend is dating a man who seems downright phobic when it comes to the word love. One day, he put his fears aside and signed an email to her "Love, John." She was flattered by his attempt. She didn't book a date at the local church or buy paint for the picket fence; it just made her feel good...and special.

But months later, he retracted it. He told her he didn't mean to sign the letter that way. That it was just an innocent congeniality. Please don't take it too seriously, he begged. She began to take him less seriously, unfortunately. Love and cowardice do not go well together.

We all know when we love someone, don’t we? It's a very natural, simple feeling. It cannot be contested. It's as plain as the nose on your face. It doesn't require years of harvesting and deliberating. It doesn't require the perfect setting to be spoken. It's not even all that complex. It just is.

When you become a tightwad with love, your world becomes smaller. Love becomes a bank account and you write your checks carefully, constantly watchful of your shrinking budget.

The words that really matter are often stuck in some box, waiting for a perfect date to be released. Other words pour out of us, often with little discretion or forethought. I do my best to refrain from saying, even jokingly:
"Shut up."
"Fuck you."
"Calm down."
"Get over it."

Do I say them once in a while? Sure. But because I rarely do, I feel I'm afforded the opportunity on occasion...and I probably damn well mean it when I do.

My friend's mother, whom I've always been close with, once said "fuck you" to me semi-jokingly. (I had made a small joke at her expense and that was her response.) You can't carry every verbal infraction with you since you only burden yourself. But I do remember it.

And let us not forget the importance of the simple yet sublime:

"I'm sorry."

When those words are spoken from a genuine, heartfelt place without any dreaded "but" attached to it, it can wipe away a world of hurt. Occasionally, "I'm sorry" isn't enough; it requires action as well. But most of the time, deep-seated resentment and anger evaporate like mist in the wind almost instantly with those little words.

I read somewhere that talking slowly is good for your mental health, akin to eating food more deliberately. Perhaps there is some answer there. Choose the words you say carefully--but not so carefully that they become a too precious of a commodity.