How is it that the most profound or intense moments in life seem to be the ones for which there are no words? As a writer, I have the greatest respect for the power and magic of words. I love the way I can be transported through time and space by a great story. I’m continually entranced by how words can hurt and they can heal. And yet, it’s the moments that are bigger than words that leave the most lasting impression.
I was a teenager on my first trip to visit the Netherlands. I am a first generation Canadian and I was excited to visit the birthplace of my parents. It was spring and every sight was enchanting. The fields of red, yellow and pink tulips were almost blindingly beautiful. The yellow daffodils and beds of purple grape hyacinths were almost done but still glorious. I met family members who had only been names on Christmas cards and saw the house in which my father was born. I ate crusty, meat filled croquettes, to which I’ve developed a lifelong addiction. It was the first time I had ever seen my mother on a bicycle and I thought it was hilarious. If my friends in Toronto could see my Mom peddling her way in front of me on our big black rented bicycles along the duck filled canals, wouldn’t they be amazed!
It was all exciting, but the memory that can still, more than forty years later, almost bring tears to my eyes again was our participation in the May 4th Silent Walk. These ‘Remembering the War Dead’ walks take place in communities all over the Netherlands the evening before the World War II Liberation Day celebrations. My mother and I joined thousands of other people who walked slowly in silence through the dunes near The Hague to lay flowers on a monument. There was a tangy fragrance of the sea in the damp air, although we were sheltered from the constant wind, down in the dip made by the grassy dunes. White birch trees and multi coloured green shrubs and trees grew somehow in the sandy hillsides, many bent perpetually against the ocean wind. Almost hidden in the shelter of the dunes we made our way towards the large bell monument. Despite my jacket I had goose-bumps when I saw entire classes of young children, each child clutching a flower, walking together without pushing or poking at each other. I was amazed as girls my own age walked without giggling. It was a time for reflection. A time for silence, so unlike the two minutes of mandatory silence my school always held in November; the time punctuated by the school buzzer to mark the start and finish and filled with whispers or the passing of notes. This was twenty minutes of concentrated, palpable thinking, foreign to anything I had experienced before. Afterwards I could hardly explain to my mother the shivery, breath-catching, heart-squeezing way I felt. In the silence I could hear and feel the steps of those World War II Resistance fighters walking right beside me as they went to their deaths. I was left wanting to cry. I tried to explain these sensations to my mother. She just smiled; knowing and understanding.
Decades later my mother and I shared another profound silence. Late in her eighties, frail and suffering from dementia, she enjoyed receiving the small treats I brought her each week when I visited her in the nursing home. On this occasion I brought her a clementine. It was one of her favourite fruits. Her thin, trembling fingers could peel them, and she immediately took it wanting to share it with me. It took all her concentration because of the dementia; she couldn’t speak and peel at the same time. I sat quietly, content to watch as she peeled and segmented the fruit. She carefully removed one piece and placed it on the paper towel spread across her knees close to me and then one piece on her side. I smiled and took up my piece. Mmm! Delicious. She smiled in return, ate her piece and then she separated two more small juicy morsels. We were at the end and she placed my last piece down and then hers, but before I could take it, she saw that her segment was bigger than mine and she quickly switched them. I swallowed the lump in my throat before taking that last bit. Even during those final months, when almost all those elements that made her uniquely her, had been eroded away, she remained my Mom. The one who would always take the smaller portion. If we had been chatting while the clementine ritual had been taking place would it have been as profound? Without that silent concentration, would either of us have noticed that her piece was bigger than mine? Would it have mattered?
I am grateful that my mother recognized, all those years ago, that taking me sight-seeing and to visit relatives were not the only important experiences of my first trip to the Netherlands. She taught me that it is in the absence of words that we hear with our soul. The distractions fall away and we are better able to absorb the meaning of the moment.
I love the power of words. And I know that sometimes they aren’t powerful enough.