I had a strong and unanticipated response to one of the scenes in our recent viewing of the excellent 90s Western “Tombstone”: Wyatt Earp is leaving Doc Holliday’s death bed, and he says: “Thanks for always being there, Doc.” Tears sprang out of my eyes and poured down my cheeks. Not so much because of Doc’s imminent death, but because Wyatt had said the thing. That is, he had galvanized the strength to stare death down and set aside the discomfort of expressing a tenderness in cowboy times in order to say how he really felt, and it was not only the right thing to say, but the right time to say it.
I lingered over my knee-jerk emotional response for some time as I washed my face before bed that night. As I drew the washcloth down my cheek, a twin pair of recent moments emerged, apparition-like. The first: when I blithely asked after a friend’s loved one over a Zoom happy hour and he replied that she had passed away from COVID just a few days prior. I fumbled around for the right words and ultimately said the wrong thing: “I’m so sorry…what a bad year.” I had felt overwhelmed by the moment, unsure of whether I was about to cry (!), and had meekly chosen to distract from my friend’s loss with a feeble reference to the more generalized horrors of 2020. A flimsy feint if I ever saw one. I wrote him a proper letter of condolence the next morning, fretting over whether I had seemed unsympathetic, but more capable of well-articulated sympathy with my pen in hand and a long run searching for the right words under my belt. The second: when another friend, in a moment of duress, shared some horrific memories from her childhood, and I sat quietly on the other end of the line, tears rolling down my cheeks. All I could manage was: “I am so sorry.” And then a regular cadence of phone calls to check in on her in the weeks following.
I will not permit myself to browbeat over my earnest and vulnerable reactions to the misfortunes of these friends. I am human and I was caught off guard by the emotional intensity of their admissions. I know, too, that sometimes — perhaps more often than we think — it is enough to just sit in grief with someone, to just be there. But as I stared absently into the sink of my bathroom that night, I thought how much I would rather have been Wyatt in those moments. To have said the thing. It seems to me that a woman of substance should have the presence of mind and emotional fortitude and experiential know-how to say the thing.
I write for a living, take genuine pleasure in a well-turned phrase, and spend days agonizing over le mot juste. I am particularly attentive to and critical of dialogue in fiction. And yet why is it that when these moments present themselves, it is as if language fails me, and I find myself either mute or awash in vaguenesses and platitudes? It is l’esprit de l’escalier, but applied to exchanges of all varieties.
I asked Mr. Magpie about this as we climbed into bed. “My mom is like Wyatt Earp, too. Why is it that she knows just what to say and how to say it in the moment?” I asked, drawing the covers up under my chin as I effortlessly conjured a half dozen individual moments in which I had observed her responding swiftly and with genuine empathy to admissions of loss on the part of friends and loved ones. Her composure! Her earnestness! The ease with which meaningful and kind and substantive words tumble out of her mouth. The instinctual way she tilts her head and makes a tutting noise to let you know — “well, this is awful” as she says the thing.
“Well, she has a good thirty years on you,” he replied. And maybe that’s true — maybe she has (sadly) had countless opportunities to practice the right words. But I should be at least partly on my way there at this point, right? I’ve grieved the war stories and losses of too many loved ones as it is.
But, yes — maybe I’ll get there with age.
Maybe I won’t, though. Maybe it is my lot to wear my heart on my sleeve and to disappear into a puddle of tears and to sit quietly on the other end of the line, present but bereft of speech. But then I can, maybe, do the thing afterward — write the letter, make the donation in someone’s name, call to check in with regularity, commemorate the moment of grief in various forms of shorthand and emoji for years to come.
Maybe it is enough.
Does anyone else struggle with saying the thing? How do you get around it? How do you reconcile?
+This sweater!!! In my cart…
+This scalloped side table is beyond darling.
+We have been loving this cookbook so far this year.
+Cannot recommend these little tubes of “plus plus” pieces enough. A reader recommended them not long ago (thank you!) and they have preoccupied hours of mini’s time since she received one of the tubes in her stocking. I sent one to my lego-loving nephew as a little surprise!
+This little wicker bag just makes me happy.
+ICYMI: reviewed some hyped beauty and home products in this post.