Without Perfect Words

White alphabet dice in a pile
"I love writing and I love words, but my writing and my words require revision and editing. "

I’m nearly certain a drop of sweat was slowly crawling down my forehead, and it was not hot. We stood outside of a church, pinned off to the side of the crowd exiting after mass. In front of me, an older woman, spatterings of grey hair and a few creases hanging on the corner of her eyes—and under it all, immense warmth and kindness.

A litany of questions rolled into quick succession, until she discovered I was a Jesuit. She invited me into her life with stories of joys and agonies, beautiful decades of marriage. She’d laugh, but her eyes carried a heaviness even in laughter. Her husband was sick, and he had been for a long while.

As she continued, I felt simultaneously graced and panicked, because the moment she introduced herself—I missed her name. And I could feel it coming…“So, would you pray for me?”

I answered of course I’d pray for her, and I did. That evening, me and God spent a fair bit of time going back and forth on what I thought her name was. Ultimately, I just gave a detailed description of what she was wearing, of her husband and their marriage, and of her family. I could remember all sorts of details, but I missed her name.

That evening, I felt the desperate worry: What if I got it wrong? Does the prayer count if I can’t remember her name? My head says this is a silly question, but for some reason it took twice as long of restless tossing to get to sleep that evening.

***

The voice on the other end of the phone line had dropped into silence. I usually pace when talking on the phone, but his last line stopped me mid-step. My foot hovered above the cement of my third-floor balcony, too confused to settle into the comfortable track that had occupied it the last hour. I quietly inhaled, but when I release I was no more sure of where to go with that silence.

I could see his face—my friend from college. I pictured his hair now trimmed down to a business professional from the chaotic curls which piled upon his head back when I’d see him between classes. And, though I couldn’t see it at that moment, I knew he had a hand covering his eyes and his face. There was a slight rhythm to his breath that told me he was moments, gasps away from crying.

“I didn’t see it coming. I mean you make plans, and then it’s gone. A life together, Colt. Just gone…”

The sentence hung in the air like my pacing foot, stunned into a silent stillness. They had been together since college, inseparable. But, he had called me to let me know that his fiancé had left him—the wedding was off. The cadence of his labored breaths faded into a calm, and he asked me:  

“What am I supposed to do now?”

I have no clue what to do.

I have absolutely no clue what to say.

So, I don’t say anything.

Years later, he mentioned that silence on the phone: “Thank you for not trying to fix anything. Thanks for just being there.”

I laugh about it now, because he thought I had been so wise and compassionate in the moment. But remembering the panicked rush, the feeling of insecurity and inadequacy, my deer-in-headlights response, I remember the phone call very differently.

***

I love writing and I love words, but my writing and my words require revision and editing. I confess a ridiculous rush of jittery joy when grafting a good line or polishing my poetics and prose. Yet, love doesn’t wait for me to draft a great response. If anything, more often than not, love requires that I bumble forward—staring at the person for a cue, hoping that someone else has the answer to a question, and relying upon my heart rather than my words to guide me.

And, perhaps that’s genuine love. It’s the captivating image of a clumsily courageous, frightfully flustered person standing in the midst of a crisis or an opportune moment to show compassion. It’s not the precise, perfect words applied within the tightly timed delivery—it’s following the pull of one’s heart into the mess of another’s life. It’s action without a rough draft.

It means blundering through a prayer for someone whose name you’ve forgotten, or perhaps even standing in stunned silence rather than answering a question. It means diving in and loving the other person—without revision or polishing—despite your own insecurities or uncertainty.

Perhaps you won’t have the perfect words, but maybe, just maybe, you’ll have the perfect love.

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