Tuesday, April 24, 2012

The Power of No Words

It is said words are power.  Words can do anything, make anything happen. There are so many of them.  How to arrange them, pick them, put them in the right order is always the conundrum. 
Every now and then, people will say the right thing in an impossible situation.  Most of the time, people stumble over their words.  Or use words they know won’t help but are most commonly called upon when one must acknowledge an unfortunate turn of events.    
“I’m sorry,” or “How can I help?” or some other grouping of words that can, in no way, ease the pain or express the depths of our feelings. 
When I was 20, I had my tonsils removed.  I had been sick for a year, and finally the decision was made.  A tonsillectomy on a child is a day or two of being down, but on a 20 year old, with no complications, we were told two weeks.  I laid on my mother’s couch for a week.  Unexpectedly, my Daddy showed up.  He sat in the uncomfortable rocking chair next to the couch as I tried to be polite.  I guess I fell back asleep.  For the next week, my mother either was out or retreated to her bedroom - to give us space I guess. My Daddy rotated between the uncomfortable rocker or under my feet at the end of the couch for the entire week.  
And here’s the catch:  I don’t remember him saying ten words the entire week.  He would show up, ask how I was doing that day and if I needed anything. I never needed anything because my mother was doing all that work. Instead of leaving, he would then read, or watch TV, or nap, or just sit.  All day.  Every day.  Sometime in the afternoon, he would kiss me goodbye, and tell me he would see me in the morning.  
Then I started watching him.  He is not a touchy-feely man or very expressive.  He avoids conflict, probably because he doesn’t have much patience and can be short tempered.  But the way he can sit in silence is an extraordinary gift.  He holds pain for people, if only for short periods of time.  He can sit with the sick or the elderly, and click on a baseball game, and say, “I’ll bet you five bucks the Braves win.”  Even though I would bet he has never watched a complete game in his life, being that watching sports bores him.  In turning on that game and sitting there, he is taking the cancer away or lessening the loss of a loved one for just an afternoon.  He allows people to retreat to a happier place ever so briefly.  He has the rare ability to just BE with them. Few or no words are spoken. 
In the last months of my father’s father’s life, the Alzheimers had made my grandfather paranoid and anxious.  My Daddy drove the hour to his parents house several days a week to do his thing - just be with them. I was with him once and I was sitting in my grandparents now quiet living room with my Daddy and my grandmother and my grandfather.  My grandfather was upset about the kids hiding in the trees in the front yard.  My grandmother kept admonishing him that there were no kids out there.  The kids had been gone for years.  I was in silent shock at seeing this person who used to be my grandfather act like this.  This was the conversation for an indeterminable amount of time.  My Daddy wasn’t saying anything.  He was reading a paper or something regular that shouldn’t have been happening because we should have been trying to do something for my grandparents, something to help both of them.  
Finally, my Daddy got up, folded the paper, and walked outside without saying a word. “What the fuck?” was all my 20 something brain could come up with. “Don’t leave me here with them like this.  I am scared.”  But I was still frozen solid, words failing me.  
So I sat in the living room listening to my grandfather worry about the imaginary kids safety or learning that these kids were scoping out his house to rob him blind in the night. I listened to my grandmother tell him there were no kids - sometimes gently and lovingly, other times exhausted and exasperated. This is how it was with him - we had to tell him things over and over and over. I might as well have not been there - words were failing me.  I didn’t know what to say or do. 
After awhile, my Daddy came back inside.  He told my grandfather that he had talked to the kids and the kid’s parents.  Everything was ok.  They were just playing and there to keep them company.  My grandmother and I just watched in awe as my grandfather finally starting settling down.  
I was so ready to blow out of there at that point.  I was exhausted, frightened and needed to go.  
But my Daddy picked up his book and settled in on the couch, saying nothing. 


  1. Wow, what a story. And what a man your dad must be. That is an incredible skill and gift.

  2. Your dad sounds like he knew just how to be a soothing presence, and how words could be powerful by their conciseness. Awesome!

  3. This is how we should all be, with each other and alone. The restraint and consideration to sit and bring nothing but positive energy to a situation is a gift.

  4. That is such a beautiful story, M.K. My dad is quiet and still, like yours. It really is a gift. This story makes me miss him.

  5. I have learned that sometimes the best and most thoughtful thing to say is, "I don't know what to say, but I want you to know that I'm thinking of you." Admit that you don't know what the words are but that you want to know. And then, just be. Support comes in all forms, and what a touching story you tell about that here.