Speaking in New Tongues: A gift of vulnerability

I want to share this piece I wrote a few weeks ago, as an illustration of how my own experience of limit opened me up to new gifts. What is your story?


tree of knowledge

I remember watching my tiny nephew the summer two family members’ health both hit a wall at once.  My brother, the family standard bearer by way of being born first, first to have kids, and taking on my daddy’s dreams which had before come to lay unfulfilled like the over-ripe crabapples I once saw untouched amidst autumn leaves in our family home, had been tasked with taking on their care.  “Watch my little boy for awhile”, he asked us.

My late wife, living then, zoomed around on an electric power chair, since the neurological disorder that later took her life already had stolen her ability to stand and walk.

My little monkey of a nephew loved to ride atop that wheelchair.

tribal_drawing___mother_and_child_by_portraitsbyhand-d5s8kecI told his daddy, who often read him a children’s book called “Boy and Bot”, that I was certain our little monkey thought his aunty wasn’t sick at all but instead part robot and all the cooler for it.  She was his own personal Iron Man.

The little guy would point out everything – sun, moon, stars, leaves, squirrels, dogs, cars – in a flurry of naming.  And, oh the questions that followed!

His questions were as incessant as the drops of rain in one of those summer storms in which I was often caught while wandering in Eastern North Carolina woods as a child, or the blazing heat I came to know in my twenties coming down unstopping in California deserts.

He not only questioned but imagined, making up stories, jokes, and new words for each thing he pointed out.

In wonder, he embraced it all, discovering the language of life.

I am thankful he has yet to learn the other language those days which followed taught me


Hearing, in pained voice, “Honey come here quick”.
“I can’t stand, can you give me a hand?”

“oh, the pain!”

The language I discovered in many unspoken words—

in her grimace that spoke of volumes of pain I have never felt but heard of so fully that morning I had to help her dress herfself for the first time, when the pain of the pressure on her brain blinded her, making her world spin for an hour or more.

In those worry lines,

In her exhaustion, her sighs

In the nameless sorrow that gathered around our home like a thick fog over Mount Pilot

I spoke this language, too, without words.

Since she passed, people congratulate me.  “You look so great!”  “ How have you lost so much weight?” “I love to see you laughing and smiling”

All that changed is that I no longer carry that weight of worry.  No longer do I have sleepless nights wondering if what happened ultimately would come that particular morning – my waking beside a cold, dead body, now emptied of my love.

Some moments I hear these greetings as gift – a reminder I did not let the weight of pain crush me but did as we always talked about, finding life again.

Yet such words are also, unknown to those that speak them, a kind of silence.  My body no longer cries out, no longer thunders in its way, crying desperately out its worry.

Though I work in religion – once a preacher, now a chaplain – I do not know.  I do not know if my beliefs are true and on the other side of death she yet lives and breathes, yet speaks and moves.

In facing her death, I faced that this is not an answer we are given, but can only trust by living in uncertainty.

But I know either way her passing is a liberation – from pain none but I witnessed, worries she and I alone carried, fear unspeakable.

grief cycle

I see this language each day as I sit, eyes locked, holding hands of people likewise locked in pain on my hospice line.

Their voices, expressions, stories, and even silence all speak.

When I see a body hunched, just so, I now know its message.

When I hear that quiver of their loved ones trying to fight back the agony over the phone I nod my head, understanding.

I cannot say I am grateful to learn this language. It certainly does not bring me the joy watching our little monkey learn the language of life gives me.

But in a way, it is her parting gift and, whatever lies beyond the veil, in using it to touch the hurting with love, each day I am her afterlife.



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