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First published March 15, 2010

Words are close to our hearts and souls

by Stephen Wilbers

Mom (right) with her cousin June

 

Iíve been thinking a lot about words lately. Words in business writing, words in everyday discourse, words in literature. Iíve been thinking about the thrill of learning words and the tragedy of losing them.

This morning my sister in Cincinnati called to tell me our mother, who is suffering from Alzheimerís, may be "actively dying," in the words of her attending nurse. Just before writing these words to you, I booked a flight from here to there, from a world Iíve made for myself and my family here in Minneapolis to my motherís world in Cincinnati Ė from a world of words I write and teach to make a living and words I read to help me understand the joys and grief and mystery of life, to a world where words are locked somewhere deep inside, shunted away from where they might surface to tell us what someone is thinking and feeling.

Over the years Iíve written many columns about the importance of learning words. Iíve suggested a variety of ways to expand oneís vocabulary, from owning and using a dictionary to taking part in one of the great pleasures in life: reading. A word learned is a personal victory. For every new word, Iíve pontificated, a new synapse is created. Without the right words, certain thoughts cannot be thought or communicated.

But thereís more to it than knowing words. There's also owning them and possessing them. Thereís keeping them alive and well and handy for when theyíre needed. Thereís standing behind them and using them genuinely.

After 38 years of teaching writing, I decided to treat myself to a novel-writing class taught by Mary Gardner at the Loft Literary Center. One student in class described a helpful writing exercise: Make a list of objects you might associate with a character you are developing.

In the novel I'm writing, the objects are an accordion, a black stallion (named Dangling Participle), and a little boy. For Henry David Thoreau, they were a hound, a bay horse, and a turtle-dove.

What are they for you?

More to the point, what words do you associate with your identity, values, and character? Do your words do justice to the story of your life? Are you dissatisfied with your grasp of language? If not, what are you doing to improve it? Do you take the time and go to the trouble to find the right word, the word that captures your precise meaning, the words that express exactly how you feel or describe a problem without causing offense?

Thereís one word my mother has not lost. My sister said she heard it yesterday. As she was leaving her room, she heard Mom say, ďI love . . .Ē Mom didnít complete her sentence, but my sister was thrilled. It has been a while since Mom has done anything more than stammer the same syllable.

If "love" is the last word she says, Iíll count my blessings. I accept her gift, and Iíll try to pass it on.

On May 4, 2010, Mom died peacefully. My sister was with her.


 

 

 


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