Words Cut Like a Knife (and It’s Often Your Heart That Bleeds)

Sunrise Wave

I went to a memorial service for a young man several days ago. My connection to him is peripheral: he was the son of my girlfriend Alice’s cousin, and neither of us had met him—and I’d only met Alice’s cousin once, long ago. So my going to the service was basically to support Alice, grieving for her cousin and her loss.

The service was held on the college campus where Al had been both a student and an employee, and the campus cafeteria was filled, mostly with people in their twenties, befitting a man who only lived to 25 before bone cancer cut him down. And that cutting was a long way down: Al was a big, strong guy, an athlete, which as the slideshow of photos demonstrated, a guy who filled the room with his body, but filled it even more with his personality.

I thought I could be nothing more than an outsider at his service, feeling the general sympathy for his friends, wife and relatives, sympathy for the inconceivable notion that a life that showed great promise was over. But as a succession of his friends and admirers spoke, I started to lean in, because what was expressed—such hurt, such pain, such shock—was profound.

Speaker after speaker told their stories of how Al coached them, encouraged them, laughed with them. How his great size and strength were intimidating at first, until the giant smile that always came with that giant strength disarmed them. How this guy, who seemed to combine goofy casualness with an intense dedication to achievement and to self-betterment, influenced anyone who spent even a short time with him.

Many of the college’s athletes spoke of how he was a role model, someone who showed them that they could always work a little harder, make a bit more effort, draw on their reserves to get a distance further. So many young people, men and women, choking with emotion spoke of how his personality and drive made them want to be better people. There was lightness too, with many accounts of college pranks and crazy escapades, the laughter mixing with the tears.

The Truth of Tears

My tears too. I work with language every day, and know its power, but sometimes language is just words on the page. These were life words, words appealing to our higher instincts. Men breaking down; more than one saying that Al made them want to be a better man. And such a wonderful, striking diversity in the crowd, the people recounting Al’s life Asian, black, Hispanic, white, his friends, his teachers—and all giving his young wife, there with their daughter, who might have only been two, a long hug after they spoke, everyone breaking down.

I was stunned at the depth of the tributes, to a fellow who had just begun to stretch out, to live the rich life that seemed so promising before the illness, to fulfill the full unfolding of the magnetism of the big smile and the strength and the warmth—to live a normal life in the tight circle of family and friends. But sometimes the book is closed before it’s even written.

I went away from the service shaken, thinking that sometimes words are all we have to try and work through the unimaginable. Of course, they are inadequate, they can’t quite parse the mind-cracking shock, the desolation after life’s earthquakes, the utter emptiness of loss. Inadequate yes, but sometimes all we have.

So on this Mother’s Day, a warm message to mothers everywhere. And to those mothers who have to face the abyss of losing their children, I hope you can find some way to assuage your grief. I doubt that anything can make up that loss. But there is no small comfort in knowing that the child was loved, and deeply.

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