The Last Word

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Over the last year I’ve found myself ruminating on words left unsaid; on arguments lost or discontinued; on speaking my truth that final time where, in my imagination, that truth is heard and acknowledged. These last words that ricochet inside my skull with their passion and indignation, clogged my thinking, kept me awake at night and barred my path from participating in the present.

My sister was the queen of the last word. When we were children, her defiant stubbornness fascinated and petrified me. It was not a safe household to speak the last word. It was not a family that encouraged rebellion and self-assertion. But for whatever reason, Leslie fearlessly stood her ground. Her courage astounded us all. No amount of punishment (and in our house punishments could turn brutal) dissuaded her from getting that last jibe in — that final sweep before she trotted off, victorious.

It didn’t last though. Puberty, family break-up and repeated trauma knocked her rebellion on its head and that never really changed. The tendency was still there, but she saved her ‘last word’ for softer targets — waiters, shop assistants, customer service agents, and on occasion, me. Like my own frustrated silence, Leslie felt haunted by those words she could not say and by those those fights she could not win. In the years before she died, our phone conversations inevitably cataloged the injustices she’d suffered, the anger that continually bubbled up to the surface in her daily life and the frustration of never quite being able to have her final say.

I spend a lot of time twitter. (Too much). Twitter, where the last word and final say on anything and everything ticks away in an instant. I don’t twitter well and I hold my tongue most of the time. Twitter also triggers me in my most uncomfortable and vulnerable places. My cortisol peaks within seconds at the twitter feed. As in real life, no one really gets in that last word on Twitter. Threads simply die out, only to be replaced with the next thread of circular arguments.

Lately it struck me that my silences are not a surrender, but rather the accumulation of so many last words, spoken again and again, but dismissed by my interlocutor, so that, in the end, my silence is my final word. This was especially true when, three years ago, I ended a long and painfully abusive relationship. One day I simply disappeared and refused to engage with him on any level from that day forward. For whatever reason, the tactic worked, and I’ve had no further bother him. I know that many people are not so lucky, but in that instance, with that person, it worked.

Still, for some time later, I would find myself obsessing on things I did not say and fantasize scenes where I got my final word, confronting him on each and every instance of abuse and violence he’d inflicted on me, then strut away, like my sister in childhood, glorious in my victory. But retrospectively, I had already spent years regularly confronting him, it simply had no impact. It wasn’t a fault in my argument or a failure in articulation, it was just of no interest to him. The only thing he had to lose was me, and as long as I continued to argue with him, he still had me. Silence was my strength and my savior. In silence I had my last word.

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Just like a little girl

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A dear friend — my much loved friend — my friend who loves me — once told me that whenever she hears Dylan’s ‘Just Like a Woman’, she is reminded of me.  At the time that she said it I felt hurt.  I even felt a twinge of anger.  At the time that she said it, she was right.  It had been three years since my husband passed away and I was in the midst of an untenable and abusive relationship with a man that daily stripped me down to a trembling shadow of the person I was before.  I broke ‘like a little girl’ on a weekly basis until little by little, through the years that followed, I no longer felt hurt, sad and broken.  Instead I felt nothing at all.  Oh, he continued to regularly abuse and humiliate me, but I had so thoroughly vacated my emotions and my body, that I experienced it more like one witnessing the onslaughts from a distance.  The spectacle was disturbing, but not as internally devastating as it had been in the initial years.  I became stunningly detached from him, from pain, fear, anxiety and grief.  I detached from nearly everyone and everything.  Then one day, I simply and without fanfare left him.

Numbness.  The absence of pain and complicated emotions should not be confused with contentment.  My numbness was like being encased in this body that belongs to me, but did not feel like me; this body that felt detached from the air that surrounds me, from the thoughts, feelings and perceptions both inside and outside of me.  I find it difficult to describe.  It is as though I (dis)engaged with the world around me, people, pets, whatever environment I inhabited at any particular moment in time, as though I was surrounded by protective glass.

Break through.  Chisel through. Smash through.

As I was gearing up to leave him I had this assumption that once I was ‘free’ I would simply return to being the woman I was before I met him.  I assumed that Numb-Heidi would retire her post and quietly evaporate into the space I left behind.  I assumed I’d just pick up the discarded mantle of that other Heidi, who had checked out, who was hiding somewhere in the wings, waiting for me to signal that it was safe to come out now.  I’d throw it over my shoulder and Voilà! my former self emerges from the wreckage, hands on hips, like Wonder Woman, roaring my happy return.

That’s not how it works.  I’ve got a renovation project on my hands.  It’s not a complete demolition/reconstruction job, but there’s some faulty wiring that needs addressing, some rooms that need freshening up.  There are some walls that need windows, and some door hinges that want oiling.  It’s not a condemned  building – far from it.  The foundation is strong.  It’s not perfect, but so far, I like what I’m doing with the place.  I’ve even opened it up to guests now.  It’s still a work-site, but a warm one, a welcoming one.  Most importantly, it’s not a little girl’s playhouse; it’s becoming a woman’s home.

Oh, and the song?  I like it again.  It’s not my song anymore, which is the best part.  This version by Richie Havens is from Bob Dylan’s 30th Anniversary concert.  It’s one of my favourite versions.  I hope you like it too.