What does it take for a writer to lose her words? I’ve been growing my vocabulary for my lifetime–36 years now, starting today. I’ve had lots of vocab teachers, beginning with my mom but definitely not limited to people. Books. Books. Books. I’ve journaled since early elementary school.
In fact, one of my old diaries currently sits on my writing desk. In addition to its lock, on the cover are pairs of pink ballet shoes–fitting for the young girl who dreamed of becoming a ballerina “en pointe.” There are words scribbled in a child’s hand, emotions, pages of observation. I’ve long been able to form a sentence, hold a thought and start building.
But the magic is missing this time–at least complete sentences.
The words are supposed to be there. It’s my job. So where are they?
Cornered in a confused jumble of my mind, I’d imagine. Or cowering beneath a dense blanket of fog. Or in a pummeled heap under the weight of a dark fist.
It all started when I clicked send last month as I submitted my column about bullying. While it wasn’t that difficult to write, it was very difficult to put it out for public consumption. The shame and humiliation were alive and well nearly 20 years later, and clicking send knocked the breath out of me. I’d hoped to start a conversation, that in sharing my story, maybe people could put a face to the infamous and ignorable word: bullying.
A few nights later, the weight that I’d never dropped suddenly fell in the form of tears. Lots of them. I cried ridicule, disrespect, alienation, insignificance, worthlessness, revulsion, shame, vulnerability, isolation. And I let myself feel my tears as they fell. I refused to brush them away. The grief and humiliation I’d long-carried was falling down my face and I chose to acknowledge rather than ignore. But within this experience was an emotional exhaustion that preceded what would come next.
First, influenza. The weekend before our long-planned trip to Great Wolf Lodge, the two youngest were hit within a span of a few hours of each other. I wasn’t panicking at that point, but then the night before our trip, our oldest started feeling iffy. Our trip was beyond cancellation, so we went, hoping against hope that hers was something different. It wasn’t. And then, at the top of the tallest slide at the waterpark, it hit me with a hostile headache. I hadn’t run a fever since working at Emprise Bank in 2005, but my fever-free run ended during the most miserable drive from Kansas City to Hillsboro I’ve ever experienced. This illness hit hard and fast and zeroed-out my physical strength.
So, I was emotionally shot and physically drained already when my mom called… “Well, the news isn’t good, Malinda…”
Cancer. Aggressive cancer. In my precious Mom.
And that’s when my words fled. I’m sure it was some sort of coping strategy. In the shock of the c-word, my ability to think–to form one cohesive narrative–disappeared. My words withdrew into my shell-shock.
I stayed that way for a while–worried, overwhelmed, anxious, sad–powerless to move beyond my fuzz-filled brain. My body still walked, still cooked, still drove, still even gave a guest lecture for a class at Tabor, and yet my mind was paralyzed, avoiding reality.
Emotional exhaustion, physical exhaustion, now spiritual exhaustion. The perfect storm.
Because my words fled, the only prayer I could form was “God help.” Over and over and over. That fragment of a prayer was all I could muster without reading prayers directly from scripture. My spirit failed within me, and there was little I could do. “God help.”
Sitting through an hour-long chemo education meeting with a nurse last week finally shook me out of my withdrawn state. I always knew chemo was rough on people. Hearing all the possibilities directed at my mom was something else. First there are the four chemo drugs, and then there are the drugs to counteract the chemo drugs, and then there are more drugs to counteract the counteracters. And then there’s fatigue. Nausea. Numbness. Hair loss….
It sounds like a nightmare.
But hearing all those details finally made me come back from floating.
That night, I cried.
Again, I let those tears fall. I felt them on my face. In stubbornness, I refused to wipe them off my cheeks and instead I let them disappear into my shirt.
Crying felt courageous. A victory against the ever-widening distance between my mind, my words and my reality. It was a start, inching away from the wordless void.
Malinda Just has been writing Lipstick & Pearls for the Free Press since 2008. To read more of her writing, visit her blog, www.malindajust.com.