Words matter to us. Those that are said, those that are not said. The precision of a phrase, the use of one word rather than another can make all the difference to how we feel about something or someone. Often they make even more difference to the way we feel about ourselves. Words can be a source of revelation or cause misunderstanding. They can give deep comfort and beauty and the lack of a word can cause just as great a pain as the wrong ones spoken. A thoughtless phrase thrown out in temper can stay with a child a lifetime, holding it back, just as the right words can inspire confidence. Yet most of the time we take them for granted and barely even notice them on a conscious level.
Yesterday a friend posted a story on Facebook. I have no idea whether or not it is true. I have no reason to doubt it. Some may say that these things don’t happen, but of course they do. It is often the case that we doubt that which falls outside our own range of experience. Just as we simply live and accept a normality others may see as incredible or unusual.
It has been suggested on many occasions that I should write my story. I who have lived it and have simply seen it as ‘life’. Apart from one or two events which were quite obviously outside of majority experience. And who would read it? My son’s story, that is different. Looking at the tales told by others, their adventures across the globe, their achievements, triumphs and encounters, my story, on the whole, seems pretty tame. Yet the suggestion keeps coming up. ‘What an interesting life’. Well, yes, I’d agree with that. But interesting doesn’t always mean happy or comfortable.
Yet when you think about it, the majority of people who write an autobiography after a long and rewarding life would probably say much the same. It is only in retrospect that their lives seem to take on new meaning and a glamour that we, the reader, find interesting. It is who they become, what they achieve in the realms of science or art, or simply in the art of living itself, that renders their story fascinating. It is their human legacy that makes their stories something special.
The tale I mentioned to begin with was what sparked this post. A legacy. Nothing world shaking, except to one woman. The simple story of a man who, after sending his wife a message and flowers for Valentine’s Day throughout their married life, arranged for them to continue to be sent after his death with a few words that mattered just to her. And it really doesn’t matter if this story is true or not. Somewhere it has happened, some man will have loved and thought to do this.
How can I be so sure? Because I have a suitcase upstairs full of words that mattered.
Many years ago when I first met my partner there were notes. Sometimes in the book I was reading, in the drawer with the cutlery, in the coffee canister… or sillier places like tucked in a shoe, or folded into the towel in the bathroom. I never knew where I would find them or when. I have opened my purse in a busy store and had a chain of paper hearts fall out, or a silly poem in my lunch when I got to work… or a letter in the post. Most were tiny little notes. It didn’t matter what they said as each one really said the same thing.
When we set up home together eventually, of course, there was no longer any need for the notes. He had left them there so that when we were apart, after the day or the evening was over, I would have that moment of finding the note and he the moments writing them and we would, for those few seconds, still be together. Sharing a home and a life we no longer needed them.
Yet they continued. Not every day, seldom in the same place twice… but always saying in one way or another the same thing.
He was diagnosed with an advanced cancer six months into our life together. We had no idea how long we would have and the treatment was radical. Amazingly, he did very well. The side effects were a nightmare but we laughed our way through them and the notes continued. In them he was able to write many things he felt he could not say. I still have them all.
He died in 1999, peacefully and quietly. We didn’t quite get to say goodbye, but I closed his eyes. Just the two of us. His little notes and letters became such a comfort in the days that followed, as you can imagine. I cherished the words and the love that had prompted them.
But he hadn’t finished.
I had, of course, to register his death and for that I needed his papers. He had known I would… and folded within them was a letter. I remember sitting on the dining room floor sobbing over it when I found it, trying to keep the tears from my eyes so that I could read while the heart in me ached. Oh so much.
He wrote of the boys and his love and pride in them. He wrote of memories of shared laughter, with an intimacy that brought him very close. He spoke of our life together and his hopes for my future, his faith and pride in me and what he believed I could do. And he said goodbye. He told me he loved me, one last time.
No, I am not writing this dry-eyed, those final words mattered.
I cannot imagine what it took to write that goodbye, the pain he felt or the ache in his heart. I do not know when he wrote it, how long it had waited. Only that when I needed him the most his words brought him to me and wrapped me in love.
He was far from perfect, certainly no saint. We had some right royal arguments. He was a stubborn, cussed bugger and a strict disciplinarian with the boys. I am certainly not idealising the dead. I never got flowers on Valentine’s Day. I was lucky if I got a card. You see, for him every day was a day to show he cared. From my slippers warming on the radiator on a cold day to the note in the bread bin, the coffee waiting when I got home or the song he said was mine, Presley’s ‘The Wonder of You’. Because, he said, the words were perfect. I can’t listen to that dry-eyed either, even after all these years.
Words matter. And they can matter for a lifetime. Sometimes far beyond the span of your own.