Many years ago, when I learned that my dearest friend had been diagnosed with cancer, I felt I should send some flowers. I called one of the well-known services, and told them which bouquet I’d selected.
“Would you like to include a card?” the operator asked.
“What do you want it to say?”
“Just one word please. ‘Shit.’”
“We’re not allowed to say that, Ma’am.”
I didn’t know what else to say.
My friend, thank God, went on to beat the cancer, but I’ve never forgotten the frustration of not knowing what to say… or knowing, but not being allowed to use the word.
Lately, in much too rapid succession, I’ve been receiving unfortunate news about friends and relatives. What do you say to a young person with cancer who is about to undergo the toughest fight imaginable? What do you say to a childhood companion who is not likely to be cured? What do you say to a friend about to lose a parent, or a beloved young person saying goodbye to a treasured grandparent?
But you’re not supposed to say that.
Do you give the sick person words of hope? I remember when my own Mom was dying, how people came over to the house and tried to lift her spirits. “You’ve got this, Sweetheart! Have faith and be strong, you can beat this!”
Well, she couldn’t. She knew she couldn’t, we knew she couldn’t, the people who were talking knew she couldn’t.
As Tennessee Williams said, “There ain’t nothin’ more powerful than the odor of mendacity. You can smell it. It smells like death.”
Mom herself wasn’t one to mince words. When my grandfather was dying, she went to visit him in the hospital and found him hooked up to tubes and machines. “How’re you doing, Old Man?” she asked.
“Good,” he answered.
“Good and fucked!” she said.
He smiled. “Good.”
Mom also called her best friend’s husband after his prostatectomy. “My poor darling!” she cried out. “You’ve been spayed!”
That was Mom’s gift. She could make people laugh even at the worst moments in their lives. Her words were seldom appropriate, but they were always welcome, because they came from a place of real affection. Not everyone approved of the way she behaved, but an awful lot of people loved her to bits.
I think of her whenever I hear myself blurting out the usual clichés. “My thoughts and prayers are with you…She’s going to a better place… He fought a good fight… May their memory be a blessing.” Those phrases aren’t insincere, but they’re totally deprived of passion, aren’t they?
Illness and death aren’t polite. They’re not pristine. They’re cruel and filthy.
I really have nothing nice to say when I encounter them.
Maybe it’s best to say nothing.