“language is a broken kettle on which we bang out tunes for bears to dance, while all the while we long to move the stars to pity.” – Flaubert
Today is my sister Kathleen’s birthday. She would have been 30 years old except that she died January 25th and I still don’t know what to say about it. I know she would have been ecstatic all week planning what she was going to bring in to her students. She would have loved when I called with a gaggle of kids to ramrod together some semblance of happy birthday. She’d have loved to report on who had called and talked to her. She’d have been happy.
I don’t have a lot of gifts, but to the extent that I have any lasting contributions to this world beyond my children (and that’s a big thing, I know), I hope and think it will be my words. I won a poetry award in sixth grade. I’ve written numerous vignettes and stories helping me process what’s hard to comprehend in this boondoggle we call life. I wrote a kick-ass eulogy for my sometimes crotchety grandpa. I even wrote a pretty heavy tribute for a 6th grade student who passed away when I was playing at administrator. Words are how I process life into bits my soul can digest. They are my spiritual molars to borrow (probably) poorly from something somewhere.
But I haven’t had any since January. How do you say how much you loved someone or how big their joy was without ridiculous hyperbole? What turns of phrase are strong enough for someone who taught you more about how to see God than any saint, prophet, or text ever could? Words frame ideas. They help us see to what extent a word is like an idea and to what extent it is not. But how do you frame what shouldn’t be fenced in?
It’s not that there aren’t stories to tell. Its that the telling is too important. I want to paint it all, to set the painting to music and read spoken word over top. I want a hip hop artist to unleash passion while a blues musician finds the beautiful in between spaces of the scales. I want to be grand.
Right before I walked my family across the muddy january soil to drive back to the funeral luncheon, I said my last goodbye to Katie’s casket. That sort of snuck up on me. So much to do. So much focus on tasks. Then–boom–say goodbye and get to the brunch. I told her I loved her and I promised to tell her story. It was the most honest thing I could think of and it seemed like the highest pouring out of myself for her.
But, now, the pressure mounts even higher. Not only do I struggle to process any of it, I’m breaking a promise to my sister.
So, in the in between, I’m going to try. Ask me to tell you a story once in a while. Ask me what she taught me. Ask me to share things. Share stories about her with me. Like a child learning how to form and command words, if I practice enough, perhaps someday I will tap into the profound something that is there to be said and have words enough to approximate it.
Thanks, in advance, for your help.
– by Jacob VandeMoortel
Jacob VandeMoortel is a managing editor at nonpropria.com. He lives in the Chicago suburbs with his wife and three highly energetic kids. He teaches history at a suburban high school and watches too much baseball.