A few weeks ago, I consulted with a medical practitioner whom I hadn’t seen since way before the pandemic. When we ran into each other in the hallway outside his examining room, he declared, “You’ve really slowed down.”
Verbally, I agreed with him, while emotionally I felt myself wither. Throughout the rest of the day, his words kept re-running through my head. Later, at home, my assistant asked me how I was doing. I told her that I felt myself fading, retreating from life. She panicked and the next day moved my jigsaw puzzle onto the dining room table from the screened porch where it’s much too cold to work on it. Now I would have no excuse to ignore it. And she rearranged chairs so I could resume pedaling my pretend bike to build up muscles in my legs. In summary, it had become a downer day for me because of the doctor’s words. This encouraged my assistant to instill a more positive attitude in me, to not give up.
Medical practitioners should be more sensitive to the power of their words. Fortunately, not all my doctors have been so clueless. For example, in 2006, in a daze while walking down the stairs of Kaiser Permanente Medical Center in Los Angeles with the words “terminal” and “home hospice” tumbling in my consciousness, I ran into one of my specialty doctors. I was happy to see her and my words came pouring out as I told her that my husband, Harold, had just been diagnosed as terminal and they were going to release him to die in home hospice. I was in shock and emotionally devastated.
This doc listened carefully then opined, “Oh, Mrs. Dresser, you are a strong woman. You will be able to handle it.”
“Strong woman?” I had never thought of myself as that, but while absorbing her words, I thought, yes, I AM a strong woman. Her words bolstered me and my confidence returned. And indeed I was strong enough to handle his care for a year. This time, it was Harold whose words heartened me: “I know I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again. Thank you for taking such good care of me.”
In retrospect, those two sentences were the greatest gift he could ever have given me. Never have I ever had to feel guilty over how I cared for him during his twelve months in home hospice. How lucky is that?
Parents, too, often forget about the impact of their words: “bad girl;” “naughty boy;” “dumb-bell;” Words that we express in exasperation can mark our children for life. Positive labels stick, too.
Harold adored Italian food. One of our neighbors, Vivian, who was Italian, invited us over for a traditional family meal. Wonderful aromas greeted us as we entered: garlic; basil; oregano. Vivian warmly presided over the meal and biographically introduced her three sons. The eldest son was a bartender; the next son was a salesman, and when she introduced her younger son she said, “This is my son, Peter, and he’s special. Do you want to know why?”
Of course, I answered, “Yes.”
“Because he was born with a veil. After dinner I’ll let you touch the veil, and it will bring you good luck.”
An embarrassed Peter squirmed in his seat, and his brothers seemed uncomfortable, too, not proud of being ordinary instead of special.
Now, this occasion took place early in my marriage and before I became a folklorist, so I had no idea what the veil was. And I didn’t know if I wanted to touch a “veil” from a childbirth moment. Veil made me think of netting and the thought of touching old human netting was scary. Would it feel squishy?
A veil or a caul is a membrane that can cover a newborn’s head and face. It is part of the amniotic sac and is something the delivery physician just peels off. Because it is such a rare event, 1 in 80,000 births, over the centuries midwives and physicians have imbued it with supernatural powers. They say that it brings second sight, meaning the ability to see the future, or to become a healer.
As soon as we finished eating, Vivian beckoned a reluctant me toward her bedroom. She opened a drawer in her handsome antique oak dresser, took out an old small white May Company gift box and lifted up the lid to remove a layer of protective cotton. Lying on a layer of another piece of cotton was something that look dried, and when Vivian took my hand to touch it, it felt like parchment paper. It wasn’t terrifying after all.
In Vivian’s family dynamics, how must her two older sons feel when their mom regularly spoke about Peter as being special, and through no actions of his own, merely by an accident of childbirth? How must Peter have felt with the burden of being labeled “special” by his mom? Did this encourage him to live up to that prophecy?
No doubt, Peter felt some responsibility to become special. He was the only one in the family who not only earned a college diploma but went on to graduate school and earned a Ph.D. Certainly, he was not going to let down his Mom.
These are but four personal examples of how words affect us. What has been your experience?
Norine Dresser is a folklorist who attempts to use non-condemning words yet is not always successful (to which friends and family can attest).