Add to that, nuance. Even when we master all the rules, there is still the fact that we are expected to use the appropriate language in the correct situations and to alter our vocabulary and its tone, depending on which company we keep.
Finally, the English language also carries with it the responsibility of being sensitive. We learn early that words hurt. This reality has resulted in all sorts of additions to the language. When we are young, many of us are taught The Golden Rule. We learn to acknowledge verbal barbs with the ditty, "Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me."
And that, of course, is utter bullshit. Most of us would rather endure those sticks and stones and a full-out beat down than words, which leave us with bruises that aren't as quick to heal and often with psychic scars.
The responsibility to be sensitive has also led us to create little sensitivity pockets in the language, which are also uncomfortable. There is political correctness, which requires that we keep up on the "right" term for any given condition. The political correctness is meant to help us avoid embarrassment and to help everyone negotiate in the world without causing more than their fair share of ire. Thus, we learn over the decades that "retard," for example, is not a good word, and we are given better words with which to replace that word. In writing, we learn to avoid sexist language, and thus women are meant to feel better because we do not use the "he" pronoun or assume that someone who works on an airplane is a stewardess. Indeed, both genders may work on an airplane, so we now have the word flight attendant.
Another sensitivity tool is the euphemism. We use certain words to protect us from harsh reality. We say that we have to go to the bathroom in order to protect those around us from the idea that we are really taking a shit. We say someone "passed away," when the reality is that someone died and is never coming back.
No matter how many tools we build into the language, it still manages to be a raw language in which we cannot hide truths and in which we, despite trying not to, hurt people we care about.
This is due to user error. I'm guilty of it. We are all guilty of it. And I'm not sure there is a cure for it. No amount of sensitivity training can fix it.
In my 37 years, the last two weeks seem to be heavy with instances of this unintentional insensitivity. To make a long story short, I learned that I was pregnant. It was not a planned pregnancy. This caused much anxiety, many tears, was the impetus of many long and complicated talks with my boyfriend. The pros and cons were carefully weighed. Yet ultimately we both concluded that we could do it. It would be tough, but we could do it. We could be good parents.
Thus, when the day for the scheduled ultrasound came, I was excited to see that image on the monitor. I knew that would solidify it for me that I was going to be a mother.
It was not meant to be. The screen showed nothing. The numbers said I was very pregnant, yet the uterus was empty. This meant that the baby was likely growing in my fallopian tube--an ectopic pregnancy. The tube is not a viable host for a baby. It isn't spacious enough and doesn't contain the proper hook-ups--the blood network, the connections that would allow a baby to begin to grow. It's dangerous. As the child outgrows the space, the eventual result is that the tube ruptures, and the woman bleeds out and can die if not near medical help.
So much for the beautiful moment of being introduced to my child. That moment soon was a whirlwind of being checked into the ER. From this moment on, the language failed those around me on a constant basis.
First there was the nurse who checked me in. She informed me that there were two means of medical treatment for this condition. She said that I would either need surgery, or they could give me a drug typically used in chemotherapy for cancer treatment. She said, "You would take the drug, and it would get rid of it for you."
Get rid of it. There's one of those euphemisms I was talking about. I cringed. I got teary. The English teacher in me deconstructed the sentence. The verb seemed harsh. In Spring, I get rid of clothing that no longer fits or that no longer suits my style. I put it in a garbage bag and take it to Goodwill. We get rid of things we no longer want. But I WANTED this. And then there was the matter of the pronoun. It? Stephen King writes books about It. It's true I didn't ultimately get to know the sex of my child, but mentally I had already begun to think of it as HE, and I had it in my head that HE would be tall and have brown eyes and dimples like my man.
To fast forward a bit, due to the fact that I was fairly far along and because I was already experiencing bleeding, the doctor decided to perform surgery. I went home with a hole in my belly button, two incision on my bikini line, and with no baby.
Here I admit that it was already a stressful time. My mother had just had eye surgery, and her recovery was an especially stressful one, as she had to remain face down for a week, and I needed to care for her. There was also the stress of my moving. My boyfriend and I had found a house, wherein I'd be allowed to have my dog. The weekend of the surgery, he was moving. I already felt terrible that I couldn't help because I had to care for my mother. Likewise, I felt horrible that his friends had to help out. They had to help even more when he had to leave the moving process and drive down to see me in the hospital. I admit all these things because I need to acknowledge that my sensitivity was at an all-time high. My body had been gearing up for motherhood, and the hormones were still coursing through my body, despite motherhood ending.
Despite my sensitivity, I encountered my fair share of insensitivity on the part of hospital workers and friends. Three days after surgery, a woman who worked in the billing section of the hospital called. I don't have medical insurance. She was trying to get me help with paying the bill. She suggested I apply for Medicaid. The application for Medicaid is 8 pages long. I asked for a bit of clarification. Beyond weeding out the sections that were applying for other types of help (food stamps, etc.), I was confused by the first box. The woman at the hospital clarified, "Check the box for pregnancy. Then write 'ended' and the date."
I began to cry. I knew this was business, but I wasn't ready for that one little word: ended.
Finally, one week after the surgery, my boyfriend scheduled a combination housewarming and birthday party for me. At 6 p.m. the house filled with our favorite people. There was plenty of food, and the spirits were flowing. The house was simply abuzz with laughter and conversation, as is typical at parties.
Yet one conversation was louder than any other. In the corner, one friend talked to two other female friends about trying to make a baby. This is nothing new. We've heard this conversation before. We know that the friend has to time it precisely, as she spends time overseas in the summers, and she wouldn't want to be pregnant while over there.
I tried to ignore the conversation. Suddenly my food felt heavy in my lap. That familiar lump in my throat was there. I jumped up and announced that my friend, Brenda, needed to see our new backyard RIGHT NOW.
I burst out into the yard, and the fresh air hit my hot face, and I was able to avoid crying.
"Why," I asked Brenda, "did she need to have a conversation about getting pregnant at our party when she knows we just lost a baby?"
This brings me to one of the newest lessons I've learned about the English language: so much depends on timing. How we react to something can be completely dependent on WHEN it is said. Had the friend had a conversation about pregnancy efforts a month ago, I wouldn't have blinked an eye. I would have been a good girlfriend and asked questions and added my two cents.
But the conversation came at a time when I'm still to raw. I wanted a moratorium on that subject matter. Just as I wanted a moratorium on TV commercials about babies, kids, motherhood, or families.
Yes. I know that's unrealistic.
And how do we let those around us know that we aren't in a position to handle a particular conversation?Should there be a safe word? If I say "baby balooga," and that's the international safe word for ex-nay on the baby talk, could we avoid this discomfort?
Ultimately, we walk the earth together, and though we are not necessarily responsible for the happiness or unhappiness of others, I feel we have to do our best to avoid unnecessarily hurting others.
I can't even begin to prescribe particular behaviors. Some would ask, "Well, exactly how long should we wait to talk about those things?" I have no answer. For me, I know one week is too soon for a conversation about trying to get pregnant. Conversely, I know some people are stronger and better able to negotiate in the world after trauma. My boyfriend only last weekend was curled in our bed and crying, saying, "I thought I'd have a fishing partner." Yet he did not seem to be socked in the gut the same way I was by the party conversation.
So maybe it is I who need to toughen up. That, however, is easier said than done. The surgery documents they sent me home with tell me I'm nearly healed after a week. They say I can have sex. I can lift heavy objects. They say I'll likely no longer need the hydrocodone.
But NOWHERE do those instructions say anything about the vulnerable invisible wound so prone to re-injury at the mere utterance of seemingly innocent words.