When Words Fail

By Stefanie Newman

I spent most of my life at a loss for words. On job interviews I could never describe my good points or my bad. As an art professor I would get student evaluations that said She was nice but I didn’t understand what she was talking about. Life’s important moments found me rooting around for words with the dogged persistence of somebody looking for their car keys

stefanie's mom img028
Shirley Newman, 1988

I had a reverence for language that only a visual artist could have. Color and form were slippery and vague, but I was sure that language could sort the world out.

I learned otherwise when my mother was dying. Her cancer had been in remission for two years but it returned, rabid with pent-up strength.

There was no language for that kind of leaving. So I made do with whatever words I could grasp. As I drove to Indianapolis my mother’s habitual expression came to me. ­“This is ridiculous” She would be on the phone to Marshall Fields Customer Services. “This is riDICulous! You’ve sent us the wrong color lamp for the third time!” It was surprisingly empowering to repurpose her words, to vent my outrage at a world where she would no longer dwell. It was all a ridiculous mistake.

My mother was transferred to hospice which was tranquil after the hospital’s organized din. “This may take some time,” she said to me, referring to a death that she now considered inevitable. I was not surprised that she talked of dying with the resignation of a diner waiting for the Peking Duck. She had always been a debunker of sentiment.

I wanted to ask her big questions. What had life taught her? Did she have any regrets? But a reticence overtook me or wishful thinking. Avoiding discussions of death might keep it at bay.

I stuck to safe topics. “Your hair looks great.” So little time left and my mother had finally found a good hair stylist.

“I went a little shorter this time,” she said as she squeezed my fingers one at a time.

There should be special language just for life’s overwhelming moments; a special tense that blends future feelings of loss with a past of shared memory.

Our inconsequential words performed the same function as my toddler son’s water wings: they kept our heads above water, but barely.

One night my mother phoned (I was staying at her house). Her words came slowly between labored breaths. “I am so proud of you,” she said. “You done good.”

We weren’t used to speaking our feelings. The gritty grammar added an irony that must have made the words easier to say.

When I visited the next day she was asleep. There was no longer an answering pressure when I grasped her hand. Although I sat inches from her face trying to memorize it, she seemed far away. I wished I knew where she was at that moment. I wondered what that place beyond pain and words looked like.


Stefanie Newman grew up in the Chicago area and has lived in central Virginia for thirty years. She was a painter and sculptor but turned to writing, an activity every bit as difficult but at least it doesn’t ruin her clothes. She is currently working on a memoir of her family’s three month stay in Bologna Italy, focusing on the challenges of travel and homeschooling a ten-year-old boy.

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7 thoughts on “When Words Fail”

    1. Thank you, Judy. Although I had to work at recalling some of the details, the feelings were still vivid.

  1. Stefanie, “You done good.” I agonized with you at your mom’s bedside and felt the warmth you shared as she waited for her Peking Duck. Even as I read, memories of my mama’s own final night came back bittersweet and loving. Thank you.

  2. Thank you, Johanna

    I guess it was in character that my mother never liked waiting for the special order items like the Peking Duck.

  3. Your article was very moving. You brought back memories of my own mother who passed away 50 years ago on April 17 this year. Keep up the good work. Would love to read your memoirs about your stay in Bologna.

  4. Thank you so much for sharing this with me Stefanie. It really had a profound effect on me in several ways. Looking forward to reading more from you.

  5. Thank you! Love this essay, and the part about “repurpose her words.” I want to sit with that a bit…lost my mom in 2006, one decade ago on April 10, and though beyond words now, that does not stop her! In my head, I hear my mom say, “I was just thinking,” and then continue on…and she is still helping me to find mine.

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