She was the first to arrive for the talk, a senior with carefully curled hair, her demeanor neat and put together. As she walked down the center aisle between the chairs I went to meet her, offering the printed writing sample. When she sat near the front (but not in the front row), I sat a few chairs over in front and attempted striking up sociable conversation. No sense leaving her to sit there awkwardly in silence, I thought.

Perhaps she hinted at some surprise that someone so young as I was here giving a talk about Alzheimer’s and caregiving. However exactly the conversation began, it lead to a brief summary of my story. That was enough, all she needed to break the ice.

“I was a caregiver too.” She let it come out. “My husband had Alzheimer’s. I took care of him until he couldn’t get out of bed, couldn’t stand. Then I couldn’t dress him. I wasn’t strong enough. I couldn’t do what was needed anymore, so I had to put him in a facility.”

A slight pause followed as she visibly controlled herself. “Every day I go visit him, and every day I cry and cry. I talk to him—but—he—he just sits there. He isn’t really eating, and he just stares ahead. Is he there? I don’t know if he is even hearing me. Is there anything I can do?”

The question was a mixture of fear and hope. Fear that there is no answer to the question, hope that I might give her one.

My talk hadn’t even begun and already I was handed a hard question.

There was no easy pat answer to her question, and not quick fix to her grief. Instead, I told her the story of how Grandpa would call, and even when I was sitting beside him on the couch he acted as if he didn’t hear any of my replies. I told her how since I figured he didn’t hear me I decided to say what amused me. And so when he called again I told him to shout a little louder because the Chinamen couldn’t quite hear him, and he had then stopped his endless repetition to say, “Was that a snide comment?” I used my story to encourage her that no matter how much it looked like her husband heard nothing she said—that still he did, and it mattered what she said and did, no matter what it looked like.

I don’t know if my story helped her. I hope it did. My story is all I have. But her question had reminded me that I was talking to people with heavy and hurting hearts, and lives filled with the difficult burdens they carried. In a few short minutes I was going to stand up and address a minefield of the rawest place in people’s lives—their struggles, failures, hopes, and fears of caregiving. My words would bring either healing, or hurt.

There is a balance—I don’t know how one manages to maintain it—of considering your words to speak in care, but not considering so much that every word catches in the throat. If I think too much about what all those people in the audience are going through then the words will die, and silence will seem the only acceptable course. There are no easy fixes for what such people face—and would I seem to make light of it by offering a few words?

Who am I that I could speak into the life and the hurt of someone else? It should be a humbling thing. It can be frightening. In this place, in this time, I can only trust that my story has meaning deeper than I can see and beyond what I can bring to it—that telling it truly will speak into the life-stories of other people in ways that I can’t see, and can’t even fully comprehend because life and the conveying of truth and hope is something that happens beyond my feeble efforts and in spite of the weakness of my best attempts.

The rest of the crowd began to arrive and I went to greet more people. When nearly everyone was seated, and it was almost time to start, I returned to the front of the room in preparation to begin. From there I saw the librarian helping an elderly white-haired lady to a seat. Even from my distance I could hear the elderly lady asking (in a very proper sort of way) “So why kind of experience does he have? What is his expertise? What has he done?” Thus, moments before I opened my mouth in front of all these people, I knew I had at least one member of the audience who would be watching me with a critical eye. And maybe she was voicing the thought of so many other members of the audience. What kind of expertise did I have, anyhow?

But no more time of thought for that. It was time to get started. So I opened my mouth and began speaking.

Here I must say that before I did any speaking events I wrote myself a nice speech. If I had even more time I would have polished it to a glorious piece of rhetoric—soaring and eloquent. However, I am a much better writer than I am speaker, and the fall back of attempting to stand in front of an audience and simply read aloud an excellent piece of writing is far less stirring than the extemporaneous act of grand eloquence. So I have the problem of being able to imagine a piece of communication far better than I am able to present. This weakness of mine meant I was very harshly critical of my own ability to present orally before an audience, and before my speaking engagements started I was very gloomy. My verbal ability simply does not in any way live up to my writing skill. As a result I faced the prospect of speaking with dread, certain I would utterly fail myself.

If I watched myself present I probably would be very disappointed. I would see all the things I meant to say, but forgot, and all of the things I said much less eloquently then the carefully written document in my head. But I can’t watch myself present (at least, not in real time) and I discovered that when I began speaking in front of audiences I have to focus so intently on what I am presenting that I have a certain amnesia afterward about what I said. When the event is all over I can tell you that I spoke, but I actually can’t remember exactly how I said anything. This saves me from the mental lashing I would give myself, but it also means I can’t really give you my own accurate rendition of the quality of what I presented.

What I can say is that I made it all the way through my slides, and the reaction from the audience was very positive to whatever they heard. After I was done speaking people clustered around the book signing table talking with me, complimenting me on the talk, and sharing their own caregiving experience. The little old lady who had wondered before the start about my expertise told me in the end that she worked in the local hospice organization and my book was certain to be widely used in their hospice. I passed that test.

Open your mouth, speak, and discover what comes.

As a beginning to my speaking career it was all I could have hoped for, and more. But it was also sobering. These people I had touched were walking through one of the hardest, and saddest, periods of life. It was not a gathering of joy, or lightness, and I was reminded of how easily, and unwittingly I could hurt the already hurting instead of binding up wounds. Is speaking on these things important? Absolutely. Do I feel sufficient? Absolutely not.

So here I stand, here I walk. Here I speak.

One thought on “Speak

  1. Deborah

    I like this a lot, Rundy. It’s the perfect practical example of your comment on my last post. I’m glad you’re standing, walking, and speaking.

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