What Do You Say When You Can’t Say Anything And There’s Too Much Left To Say?

March 31, 2011

I want to say something important to you, but all I can think of is, “Arthur, take a piece of toast.” • Mother (Marsha Hunt) to son (Brandon De Wilde) as he takes off after his pregnant girlfriend in 1959’s Blue Denim, a movie I recently watched again. I never resonated with this line during previous viewings, but this time, I understood.

The last time I saw my mother, I knew her death was close. I knew that we would never again go anywhere together, not to Disneyland nor to a movie nor on the bus to downtown Los Angeles to visit Clifton’s, Olvera Street, and Union Station. I knew that we wouldn’t share another order of onion rings or split a combination plate—the cheese enchilada for her, the chile relleno for me. We weren’t going to sit companionably and watch an old movie. I wasn’t going to hear her play the piano or sing my favorite songs. I would never again get her phone calls wishing me happy birthday or happy anniversary or brightening my Saturday morning with her mother’s interest in my life.

As I knelt beside her bed the last time I saw her, countless never-agains swirled around me and I groped for meaningful words to hurl into the forever that would soon separate us. I couldn’t find them. They were hidden behind the façade of normalcy we’d complicitly erected in the months leading us to this moment.

My mother was hopeful throughout her illness. Her faith sustained her, and infused her life with a possibility that made it impossible to talk about the other what if, the unvoiced possibility of her death. This silence overshadowed our last good-bye as it had our conversations in the months preceding it. In those final months, hope seemed the least that I could give her, the most that we could share. I said good-bye the last time I saw her, of course, but it was little different from any other parting we’d had. I’d be back in a week, I said and I would see her again, I pretended, hiding my tears and smiling widely. And I hoped I was telling the truth. But I lied. She died while I was on the way back to see her, still hoping we’d have a chance to say those truly final words.

In our last minutes together, I told her I loved her, that she was a good mother, that I knew she did her best, that I was sorry for all the things I did or didn’t do that might have given her pain. I told her I delighted in all the fun we had. I told her that I’d stored up hundreds of sweet memories. But I wanted more. More said. More heard. She was too tired to talk by then—perhaps too tired to mother me through the emotional labor of her impending death. She labored to bring me into the world and I felt compelled to ease her exit from it more than I wanted something more.

And still, this failure haunts me. But how can you speak when love stills your tongue?

What failures haunt your life? What might help ease their pain?

Odd how much it hurts when a friend moves away—and leaves behind only silence. • Pam Brown



  1. A powerful portrait you’ve painted, a thousand words generating a lifetime of pictures. And, though I feel your anguish, your sense of loss, loss of something you know not quite what, I’m going to turn this scenario on its head by imagining all those people who have shared the final events with the accompanying longing, a longing to say a final farewell, to communicate love, meaning, a treasured relationship, but who lack the intimate stories of true relationship, relationship that only comes from time, time spent together doing simple, everyday things. There was nothing you could say that hadn’t already been said a thousand times over in the shared experiences you had with your mother. Then, there are those who desire what you did as a loved one lies on her death bed, struggling to find the words that will communicate the love they felt, only to come away empty, empty because if the words aren’t there as lived experience, they cannot be forced at the end of a life. Your mother heard what you had to say, in the meals you shared, the art you created, the stories you told, the smiles and laughter that were the hallmarks of your love. Peace be to your mother, Zinn, and peace be to you.

  2. Thanks so much, Malcolm. I do not have a father–not one I ever knew nor one who loved me–so of course, I understand what you’ve written on another level as well. I did have a mother who loved me and with whom I had–especially in the years when both our children were grown–wonderful times, much more like best friends than mother and daughter. Our shared adventures were a blessing that will remain with me until I die. W-OZ

  3. The conflict that lies within me as I read was my failure/refusal to be present when my mother was passing, so I at times, feel guilty. Reflecting back….I was the only one present at midnight when she “coded”/crossed over in the hospital room. I can still recall her dazed look, snapping my fingers in front of her eyes, gently shrugging her shoulders, and trying to talk to her before screaming for help and pressing the button for assistance.

    I had never felt so alone as many blue individuals flashed in and out of the room. They did not ask me any questions, nor did they ask me to leave the room, but they frantically did their medical interventions as I stood in the corner of the room in my silent “freak out”.

    The next thing, they rolled her and the bed out of the room as I stood frozen in the corner, not knowing what just happened. It seemed hours had passed (it was really seconds) when I began calling immediate family. I called my father who asked a few questions and said he would be there in a few minutes. I called my brother, who again asked a few questions, then said, “call me when you know more”.

    Putting this all in my perspective, I moved away from my family 15 years prior (for a reason). My parents had recently moved out of state for a business adventure two years ago prior to this incident. When mom was diagnosed with cancer, they decided to return to their home state. During the moving transition she needed surgery, so she and my father stayed on a hotel and I flew in and stayed in the same hotel down the hall. My brother was already in the area as he never left our hometown.

    I was the one that stayed on a cot in her hospital room after the surgery, which is why I was present when she coded. After enough time passed and we were able to talk about this incident, because she did survive, I said I could not witness it again. She understood, but did not believe me words. Her remission lasted 3 years and when it returned I stayed in daily contact by phone daily and visited frequently.

    The night she died, I remember talking with her on the phone and she would not hang up…I had to hang up on her, call the nurses station so they could get the phone out of her hand and hang up. I should have known that she was passing away that night, but I couldn’t handle the thought of it again. She died less than three hours after we hung up the phone.

    During emotional crisis, I wish I could be like my brother…rather unaffected and neutral. Then there are some moments when I feel I received a gift by helping to give her a few more years of life, sharing something so very rare (which I can not explain). I still remain conflicted!

  4. My heart is with you even though the right words escape me.

    I am a teacher and yet I know that much of I teach will not be needed by the people to whom I am teaching it. I also know that there many things I do not teach that people desperately need to know.Dealing with life’s challenges and loving other people while also taking care of ourselves is one of those things. This is a tightrope I walk daily and one that becomes ever narrower as I try to navigate my way across the chasms of caring.

    I wish you the peace of knowing that you gave generously.


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