The second time my mother got cancer, her throat swelled until she could no longer eat or breathe.
Consequently, my mother now cannot talk. She may one day speak again — but these are long-term goals. Her more immediate objective is not dying — which, by the way, she has been excellent at. She made it through seven weeks of chemotherapy and radiation, and she’s getting stronger every week.
But — for now, and nobody knows how long “for now” will last — she cannot speak.
This would be a burden to any previously speaking person. For my mother, this was a punishment of O. Henry-esque irony.
You see, she is a talky woman.
She is a talky woman who married a chatty man and had loquacious kids.
We are the talking-est family.
We word constantly. We don’t converse. We summon hurricanes of rhetoric, which we fling at one another, until all bystanders are drowned in a torrent of language.
Family meals become typhoons of grandiloquence. Holidays are monsoons of oratory. Quiet time is… not quiet.
But then, suddenly, one of us was silenced.
Needless to say, this required an adjustment – mostly for my mother, but also for the rest of us.
There were crutches, at first — notebooks filled with scribbled answers, apps that replaced a grandmother’s voice with a robot’s monotone — but, after a few months, mom didn’t find them so necessary.
She got used to the quiet. I can’t say for certain if my mom still considers muteness an obstacle, but she’s learned to not fight it.
To borrow a pretty phrase from Rumi, my mom practices the art of silence.
And that’s been a valuable lesson for me.
You see, I am my mother’s son. I word at you. I’m doing it right now. And I do it all the time with my children.
If we’re at the zoo, I barrage my children with facts about elephants and gorillas. I can spoil a flower with a discourse about xylem and phloem. I can’t stop dad-splaining the world to my kids. But who benefits? What words can I add to improve an elephant? A daylily? An afternoon with my children?
Most of my words are vanity. I may costume them as “wit” or “useful facts my children will need when they become Nobel Prize-winning physicists,” but I know they’re not.Thirty-three years and two bouts with cancer later, my mom hasn’t stopped teaching me. Now, she’s reminding me of the value of silence and humility. (I’m pretty sure it was also Rumi who said, “Be humble.”)
Here’s hoping that I learn the lesson well enough to demonstrate it for my children.