When words are all we have

About two weeks ago, my co-admin at Women and Words and I got an email from one of our writing colleagues who blogs at the site with us. It was the kind of email that leaves you reeling. Our colleague let us know that the back pain she’d been experiencing — which she thought might be a pulled muscle or some such — was because of a tumor on her spine. She also let us know that the cancer is metastatic and tumors are on her liver, lungs, and in other parts of her. The cancer is aggressive, she told us.

We got that email 2 days after she’d posted a blog for us.

We were stunned. Our colleague told some others about what was happening, but didn’t make the announcement public until October 20, five days after she let me and my co-admin know. Metastatic stage IV, she said that day.

What kinds of words can convey what you’re feeling when you receive news like that?

At that point, the amazing outpouring of love for her on Facebook and no doubt in emails and phone calls created an astonishing and beautiful synergy between her and so many of us, who are still grappling with this horrible news and trying to figure out how best to help and support her and her friends and family as she remains in the hospital. Late last week, her medical team was trying to get her pain under control so they could begin chemotherapy. Her pain, those close to her said, is excruciating.

And then the news got worse.

She announced this past Monday that tests over the weekend revealed that the number of tumors on her liver has doubled in a week and the cancer is moving through her bones at a speed the medical team didn’t anticipate. Chemo and radiation, her medical team said, wouldn’t do anything. Three months, they told her. That’s how much time she might have left. They’re down to pain management and hospice.

We — her community — are devastated for her, her wife, her friends and family. And we struggle, still, for words to help us somehow. We post them on social media. We email her. We PM her. Offering love, support, whatever we think will help, forgetting, perhaps, that as much as we think words can’t convey our feelings, they nevertheless have weight and take up space in days that are someone’s last.

We consider, thus, the efficacy of words. Their timing, their message, the places we put them, even as we look for answers when a loved/respected one is blindsided like this.

Our colleague, who is in her 40s, has been doing everything right. She’s a runner, pays careful attention to her diet, and she is a beautiful and positive person, who gives of herself every day through teaching, writing, volunteering, and just being. She is one of those rare people who not only walks in light, but carries it and shares it with everyone she comes into contact with. No one is untouched in some remarkable way when they meet her or read her books or follow her posts on social media.

That’s the kind of person she is. She reaches people, no matter the method of communication, and regardless of whether she actually meets them in person. She creates and instills goodness, brings laughter, warmth, and joy. She revels in life, and makes others want to do that, too.

And because we are all human, we demand to know why, in light of all this goodness, this is happening to her. As if we all strike a bargain with the tides and rhythms of life itself. We sit, too stunned to process. We cry. We rage at the cosmos. We ache for her and those closest to her.

Because ultimately, there are no answers to our question.

There is only the reality that this is happening, that we are losing her, that her friends, family, and beloved are losing her. That the world is losing her, too.

We dream of miracles, of something — anything — that will stop the cancer and restore her. Perhaps we think of our own mortality, and realize that if this could happen to her, why not us? We forget that ultimately, we are all human and no matter the bargains we think we make, there are no guarantees.

We realize that we will all have our goodbyes, whether those of others or, eventually, our own. And we wonder what words can best convey that, or whether we should even engage words at all.

Sometimes, words may not be the best goodbye. But use them. Use them to tell the stories of your loved ones who are no longer with you, and of those who will soon join them. Use them to tell your own stories, to express yourself at the best and worst times. Use them to build and sustain community and to help give voice to those who cannot speak.

Because sometimes, words are all we have, and as poor as they may seem when we must say goodbye, they can still serve us well in shoring up memories, sharing stories, and honoring those who have gone.

And live well, my friends. Live to the best of your abilities and circumstances. Love deeply, laugh often, and revel in the time you have. It’s precious.