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The Most Powerful Word in the English Language

September 28, 2010

As someone who dapples with words, I am constantly trying to find the right word to express exactly what I’m trying to say.  Often language comes up short and my attempts to convey an experience or a feeling are minimal at best.  I have often wondered if there was a word that had the power to instantly evoke the same drama and intensity for all readers the moment it was uttered.  Is there a word that creates that kind of instantaneous effect?  I didn’t think there was, until recently.  But I have found it!  I have found the most powerful word in the English language.  I’ve heard it many times before, but never knew its impact until it crept its way into my life, and coincidentally, my vocabulary.  6 letters.  2 syllables.  Cancer.

I have had friends with cancer.  I have had friends with family members who had, or still have, cancer.  I mistakenly thought I had walked closely enough with the drama and power of the word, but when it is not an immediate part of your own life it is still just a word.  I know now that the word “cancer” is an experience unto itself.

My father had to be taken to the ER a few weeks ago.  And that one particular event suddenly thrust this two syllable word into my life, placing a curtain over the lens that I was seeing my life through.  In that one instant, a possibility for cancer was born.  And in the subsequent events that followed later that week, the possibility of cancer was no longer just a hypothetical, but a logical conclusion to what was happening to my dad.

I have yet to figure out how one word had the power to completely shift my entire life.  It seems to produce two effects: either fight or flight.  Some of us feel the need to shut down, to have our lives momentarily paused by the weight of this ugly, damned word.  Others of us go instantly into fight mode; ready to do what is needed, call whoever needs to be reached, make arrangements with airline and car rental companies.  I was surprised that I fell into the second category – fight mode.  I now know that flights can be booked and cancelled and re-booked all within a thirty minute window.  I now know how to force an ER secretary to give me a doctor’s name against her better judgment so I could properly fill out necessary forms.  I now know how to grab my mother’s hand and pray calmly, only letting her hear my voice shake slightly in the quiet, cold hours of a Saturday morning.  I did the only thing I knew how to do, and that was to just do something.  Anything.  Fighting seemed easy.

But the possibility of cancer brought on many not so easy things.  It pervaded every thought I had.  A co-worker was telling me about her husband’s car trouble, but oh wait, I was waiting to find out if my dad had cancer.  I paid for groceries and looked down at the name on my debit card; the same last name as my dad.  Oh wait, he might have cancer.  My dad called and left a message on my cell phone and I trembled while holding it.  Pause.  Breathe.  Should I delete it?  Will I want memory of this?  Will I want to go back and hear his voice in case this stupid, putrid word that has more power than I ever thought possible actually took him away from me?  Will I want to go back to this place, where this word could make every worst-case-scenario come true?  Will I need this, will I want this?  I couldn’t make up my mind and so just closed my phone.  Cancer made me spend twenty minutes contemplating a voicemail.  For crying out loud.

I don’t know why God answers prayer, but I will thank Him for answering mine when I see Him later.  Against whatever odds were stacked against my dad, further tests, 3 ER visits, and an ambulance ride later, all confirmed he did not have cancer.  Now how does this word that creates so much turmoil and angst and pain, also have the power to evoke so much relief and grace and gratitude?  How was it able to rock me, yet ground me?  Because after my phone vibrated at work with a call that said “no cancer,” I was instantly overwhelmed with love and awe and wonder for the life and the family I have been given.  Cancer forced me to see life without my dad, and in a matter of a week had also forced me to see life with him.  How precious it is, how fleeting, how miraculous that I have my father.  My father who called me his “little Muffin,” who built me Playmobil castles, who read all my stories, attended all my plays, and taught me before anyone else did that I had something to offer the world.  What a gift I have been given that he walked me down the aisle, that he danced with me on my wedding day.  Just one word had the ability to wipe that all away, and then in its absence, put it all back together.  I morbidly marvel at that semantic power.

My family and I are lucky.  Cancer was only a brief part of our vocabulary, and I hope it remains so for as long as possible.  But for the rest of my life I will see it stamped in red rubbery ink across the file of my memories.  The look on my dad’s face when he desperately needed help.  The sound of his voice when he needed me to wake my mom.  The quiet tap of water pipes while she and I sat in my living room figuring out what we were going to do.  Cancer will have forever branded that period in time.  It is the only word I have come across with such poignance.  And yet for all its power, no one on this earth would miss it for a second.  No one would feel the need to replace it, or re-define it, or preserve it.  Our language would be better off without cancer.  There are no rules that say the most powerful word cannot be the most hated one.

And for those in my life who are not yet able to remove cancer from their vocabulary, I promise to keep fighting with you until we eradicate the word.  Completely.

One Comment leave one →
  1. mom permalink
    September 28, 2010 8:12 pm

    i love you muffy

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