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The Right Words

by Julia Sneden

Dylan Thomas’s A Child’s Christmas in Wales is a slim little book chock-full of memorable phrases, but the sentence that always makes me smile comes at the end of a chapter called: “Mrs. Prothero and the Fire Brigade.” Mrs. Prothero, the mother of Thomas’s friend, Jim, had a fire in her dining room. Chaos involving the two boys, the inhabitants of the house, and the local fire brigade ensues, but when the fire is finally put out, Jim’s aunt, Miss Prothero, whom Thomas describes as saying “the right thing, always,” suddenly appears in the doorway. She surveys the smoke and water and charred bits, and says gently: “Would you like anything to read?”

Some people have the gift of saying the right thing, usually quietly and in very few words, at the perfect moment. But sometimes the right words can be forceful and surprising. I remember my mother’s protest, when I had done something minor and foolish and referred to myself as stupid. She whirled her wheel chair around and fixed me with a furious, turquoise stare: “You’re not stupid,” she snapped. “You’re stupendous, and I love you to pieces.” We both burst out laughing, and I wasted no more time on self-flagellation.

And then there was my grandmother, who was tiny but powerful, and sturdy as an ox. She didn’t believe in spoiling us with words of praise. You just knew you were on the right track if she wasn’t piercing you with The Look. But once in a long while, if I had done something particularly helpful, she would lay her hand on my shoulder and murmur quietly: “You’re a good child.” No amount of public praise could equal it.

After a beloved friend died much too young, another friend wrote me a brief note: “Death may have taken away [the person],” it said, “but it can never take away the time we spent with her, or the love for her that we will carry in our hearts forever.” No talk of heaven or gratitude or, God help us, closure came anywhere close to the truth of that little letter.

Some people are good at finding the right words. Most of us flounder, and occasionally come up with something that works. The only time I can remember doing that happened when my youngest son was 13, a chubby, bespectacled child who was miserably self-conscious. He and I were walking down a long hall in his school when a teacher approaching us called out: “You two look like twins! No kidding — you really look alike!” The hall was filled with his peers, and my poor son shrank back against the wall. What 13-year-old boy wants to look like his 45-year-old mother, and have the fact broadcast to his friends? I was acutely aware of his embarrassment, but the teacher was not. Lest she carry the conversation further, I cut in:

"That’s because I look a lot like my father,” I said as stoutly as I could, “and Rob looks exactly like his granddad” (who was one of his heroes). Suddenly, my son threw back his shoulders and grinned.

"You really think I look like Grandpa?” he asked proudly.

Score one — probably the only one ever — for Mom.

Sometimes the right words come from people we scarcely know, which takes away not one iota of their power. My firstborn son arrived seven weeks early, a scrawny bit of towheaded fury who went straight from the delivery table into an incubator. I was allowed to walk down the hall and peer through the glass of the preemie nursery, where I could see nothing through the steam in the incubator but his tiny back rising and falling rapidly as his ill-prepared lungs dealt with Hyaline Membrane Disease. I found myself panting in concert, as if I might help him.

In a couple of days, the panting slowed, and the steam was turned down. I could now see two tiny arms and two thin legs flailing around in the little glass case. One of the nurses said to me: “We call him Everybody’s Favorite Baby. He’s a fighter.”

That buoyed me no end, but on the fourth day, I was sent home, weeping all the way as I left my baby behind. I was consumed with an overwhelming sense of failure. The months of my pregnancy had been utterly happy. I had often referred to him as the world’s most wanted baby. How, then, could my body have failed him so badly?

When he was ten days old, the hospital called. He had begun to suck on his feeding tube, and they figured he was ready to try a bottle. Would I like to come in and feed him?

Would I! I jumped into the car and headed for the hospital, full of excitement and — could this be terror? By the time the nurses had put me into a gown, cap and mask, and watched as I washed my hands for five minutes with Phisohex, scrubbing with a stiff-bristled brush, I was shaking all over. My son, meanwhile, was hungry and letting the world know it. The lungs that had so lately been weak had obviously done a miracle turnaround: with his mouth wide open, he was howling and red-faced in his fury.

The nurse, a dear little lady from Latvia, handed him to me. I wanted badly to kiss him, cuddle him, hold him against my skin, but both he and I were so bundled up that we were like conjoined cocoons. He continued to scream. I took the bottle in shaky hands, feeling more insecure than I had ever felt in my life. The nurse showed me how to hold his tiny back and head (small enough to fit between my thumb and ring finger). He howled louder.

“Oh,” I said anxiously, “you don’t really want to do that.” He turned his head and looked, really looked, at me. His crying stopped.

Look,” said the nurse quietly. He knows the sound of your voice.”

And that’s all it took. The seven months that he had sheltered and grown inside my body, those months that had been so rudely and abruptly brought to an end, suddenly mattered. Of course he knew my voice; he had probably been wondering where the heck I had gone! I put the bottle into his mouth, and he attacked it with vigor. We were home free.

The other day, my son turned 44. He’s a strong, healthy, handsome, intelligent man with a wacky sense of humor. He has a wife he adores. He teaches school. He does triathlons. There has never been a day of his life that I have not been grateful for his presence in mine. I took him to lunch to celebrate his birthday. And on the way home, I found myself remembering the gift of those quiet words that put us on the right track.

Kindness doesn’t need a lot of verbiage.

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