What’s the first thing to come to mind when you hear the words, “Kiss me”? Or how about, “popcorn”?
Or what about “colorectal”?
Words have weight. Words are not neutral; they come with more baggage than an American family taking their first trip to Disneyworld.
Some words, like “combine tractor” create elicit clouds of happy, Canadian summer memories of whipping through the corn fields on my grandfather’s farm. Four syllables to catapult me through time and space to nestle me in the best part of childhood. A warm, dusty, sunshiney place. Some words, like “Microsoft Excel” make me compulsively sweat and look for doors marked EMERGENCY EXIT. Four syllables to instantly recall every dissertation edit or monthly budget I pretended to follow. Or how the word “lugubrious” always reminds you of that kid in high school biology who always looked wet for some reason?
Words have movement. Words have thrust. Language does the work we normally ascribe to busy hands, tying and untying memories, mapping syntactical connections across experiences, drawing lines of retreat or engagement.
I recently had the delirious privilege of interviewing Christian author and speaker, Margaret Feinberg. Margaret was the second person (after my parents) I called after receiving my diagnosis, even though we had only met once. I definitely still qualified as acquaintance-stalker in her world, but I somehow knew that Margaret would know exactly what to say. Partly because she has also walked through cancer at a young age, and partly because she has the pixie cut of a woman with true joie de vivre.
Interviewing Margaret made me realize how seldom I use “cancer words,” and how reluctant I was to even use them in question form. Like, “What kind of cancer did you have again?” or “What was your diagnosis?” or “Heard you got chemotherapy and radiation.” I never usually say these words out loud! And I think that’s because those words have such indelible power over my physical memory. I remember what it feels like in my sinew to have toxic drugs pump through needles and tubes into my chest. I remember the weight of the chemo materials hanging at my waist like an atomic secret. I coped by learning to avoid all those loaded words as a way to protect my identity from an experience I refused to let dictate my humanity.
And that’s why I am so grateful for people like Margaret. She knows what it’s like to live within what she calls “the fellowship of the afflicted.” She’s helping me learn what words to use when someone we love is hurting. There is no dictionary for how to describe your life during horrible times, but Margaret will make sure we do better than “sorry for your loss.”
You need to hear Margaret’s story of the words she reclaimed, the weapon she uses to fight back the darkness and the unexpected gift card that changed her life. Listen to my interview with Margaret on Everything Happens, available here.
Margaret Feinberg is a popular Bible teacher and speaker at churches and leading conferences. She is the creator of best-selling coloring books for grown ups, and author of nationally acclaimed books and Bible studies. She was recently named one of 50 women most shaping culture and church today by Christianity Today. Margaret lives in Utah with her husband, Leif, and their superpup, Hershey. Follow her on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook.
I read your story in Guideposts and want you to know you are in my prayers. Every family …person has been affected by cancer and I wanted to read the list you compiled of what not to say and suggestions for what to say and do. Where is this list? I am 65 years old and I know that cancer will affect more of my family and friends and possibly me. So I want to be prepared. God bless you.