“By my next birthday, I will be a certified chimney sweep.” I can honestly say that’s not a sentence I ever thought I would utter. But yesterday my best friend’s dad asked me how my new job is going, and that was my answer. Through an unexpected and deliciously serendipitous twist in life’s road, I am a chimney sweep in training (among other titles). I like saying it just to hear how unexpected it sounds.

As a writer, I hone words like a blacksmith forms a sword. I love the sound and she feeling of words that aren’t used every day. I love words that make people laugh, and I love words that make my best friend look at me like I’m speaking German … Obscure words that haven’t been heard in a century or two.

Words are my hobby, a livelihood and a real joy. But I don’t always wield them as expertly as I would like. My mouth often fires faster than my brain, and the right words elude me. I once jumped into the swimming pool of my apartment complex (back in my college days) with all my clothes on late one summer night. Just at that moment, a friend from high school passed by. She lived in the same complex, and she was taking a walk with her boyfriend. She spotted me and brought him over to introduce him. Like a poised,  intelligent, college student, I greeted him with:

“It’s so weird meeting you with all my clothes on.”

She moved out of the complex shortly thereafter.

There are even times when I heard myself uttering sounds that aren’t even words. Last summer, on a trip to Six Flags, I spotted an old friend. He was headed towards me in a crowd of people. As we passed each other, we made eye contact and I made this profound proclamation:


I’d meant to say “War Eagle” or “Hey!!” but had instead made the international cry for help. He looked startled, dropped his eyes and shrugged his shoulders at his companion as if he had no idea who on earth I was.

But of all the words I’ve ever spoken, there are a few that haunt me.

On a September Monday night, standing in a Neurological Intensive Care Unit in a Richmond hospital, I spoke words that I can’t remember. But I will never forget the answers to the questions I must have asked. It was an intern I spoke to — a young, weary-looking man, and he said, “It’s not good.” He wore a white coat with the Richmond teaching hospital logo above the name embroidered in loopy script. Dr. Small. It felt as if my brain were liquid … trying to focus on one thought was like pinning down a bubble in a swimming pool. I simply couldn’t hold on to the words I was hearing.

“Your sister’s accident was serious.”

My eyes settled on the stubble on his chin. It was sparse, and I had the fleeting thought that Dr. Small wasn’t even old enough to grow a proper beard. How on earth could he save someone’s life?

His hand on my arm grounded me a bit. He waited until I lifted my eyes to meet his before saying, in a gentle voice, “You asked what her chances are. I can’t give you a percentage. I just don’t work that way. But what I can tell you is that IF she survives, IF she wakes up, she will never be the person she was. Your sister is gone. Her body just hasn’t caught up with her yet.”

My family huddled around her bed. None of them heard my conversation with Dr. Small. And I wasn’t strong enough to repeat it to them … not to my sister’s husband who was consumed with helplessness, not to my parents who were frozen with fear and certainly not to my sister’s sons, who only wanted to know why their mom wouldn’t wake up and take them home.

I heard myself, over the next six days, repeating platitudes. Empty words of comfort filled the silent air of the waiting room … assurances we all gave each other, like tossing a life saver out into the sea. For six days, we lived a half-life under the glow of fluorescent lights, measuring time in intervals: morning visiting hours, convincing each other to pretend to eat lunch, afternoon visiting hours, half-hearted supper, last visiting hours, tossing and turning and pretending to sleep. And in between each of these events, we paced endless miles up and down hallways, stopping to gaze out the window at the view of the ambulance bay blow, wiping tears and choking back the truth.

Finally, at the end of the sixth day, when the night was black and the clock was stuck at 1 a.m., I walked the block and a half from the Family House provided by the hospital for people like us who were stranded in a nightmare far from home. The streets were empty. I should have been trying to sleep, but the words in my head would not let me. It was time to talk and say the truth.

Though the lobby, up in the elevator, down a long corridor, through the double doors and into the Neurological Intensive Care Unit I went, like a grim soldier on a march to the front line — head down, eyes full of dread.

My sister lay on a bed that rotated so very slowly from side to side in an effort to reduce the swelling in her heart and brain. Her hair had been partially shaved, and bandages covered one eye. Tubes were everywhere, keeping her breathing — keeping her with us.

Dr. Small was there. He didn’t look when I entered the room, but he knew why I was there. He pulled over a chair and left me alone with her. I reached out to hold her hand. Have you ever held the hand of someone you love who can’t respond to you? No matter how tightly you squeeze, there is no movement of recognition, no warmth. But you can’t let go because that’s all that’s left to us — this clinging to each other.

“It’s me,” I whispered. “Just me.”

The almost-silent whoosh of the machinery surrounding us was the only answer.

The words crowded my head — all the things I need to say: “Please be okay. We need you. Your boys need you. Please don’t go.”

But what I said was instead was this: “We will take care of your boys. It’s okay to go. It’s okay to rest.”

I wish I could say there was a sign that she’d heard me — a flickering of an eyelid or the faint movement of a finger. But there was nothing. And yet, just as surely as I know my own name, I know she heard me.

“I love you,” I whispered and kissed those fingers. Then I sat next to her until just before the sun came up. Before everyone could arrive, I made my way to the roof of the building. I couldn’t imagine having the strength to speak to anyone else for a while.

It was on that rooftop that Dr. Small came and found me. We didn’t speak. I just followed him back down to that endless corridor and those silent beds. I knew she was gone before anyone spoke.

There is a language of grief that doesn’t require words, just guttural sounds, moans that you can’t replicate willingly. The heart speaks that language, not the tongue. In the midst of that grief, I squatted down in front of my nephew and felt his little boy arms wrap around my neck.

“I miss her,” he said.

“I miss her too,” I whispered back. “But you’re going to be okay. We’re going to take care of you.”

And those words were a promise I’ve never regretted for a moment.