Old Uzbek had words for dozens of varieties of crying–including my personal favorite, a word for crying while making the sound hay, hay.
I think English needs more words for “surprise”–perhaps for the variety of surprise that freezes one in place for upwards of seven seconds, or causes one to scour a room for tissues; for surprise that causes one to feel a heart fibrillating so powerfully that one believes others can hear it, or causes one to go pale; for surprise that makes one reflective or wistful; for the kind of surprise that launches a migraine, or that one is not sure one’s heart can withstand.
My husband and the same son who could turn a grumped-of parade of drudgery into something festive with a wry question, a twinkle, and an arched eyebrow (“And who doesn’t love a parade?”) also generated the family catchphrase “Surprise me.” (This applies whether the question is “What should we have for dinner?” or “Where do you think I should go to college?”)
The family rejoinder is always a rhetorical “Pleasantly, or unpleasantly?”
Late last night I dwelled in the world somewhere between unpleasant and heart-stopping surprise.
In my native language surprise generally connotes something happy: a surprise party, an unexpected gift.
At worst, I considered applying it to comparatively mild unpleasant surprises: “I was surprised to find my checking account had run dry,” “I was surprised that the supply of ice cream was exhausted by noon.”
I doubt anyone would apply the term “surprise” to, say, a sudden diagnosis with a terrible disease, although I am not sure there is any aptly devastating English word to capture that visceral, zero at the bone shock.
But what is the word for finally clearing a pile of cast-off clothing from a chair and seeing discharge instructions from one of my husband’s emergency hospitalizations, swimming in tiny script which lists dozens of medications and ends in bolder script with “VAD accessible” (a venous access device ready to take in more medication)? Or lifting his books from the bedside table and seeing where one of his professional journals, dated weeks before he died, had been opened to a discussion of how to be a better medical leader?
What word captures cleaning out the corner of a room and finding a spill kit that had been supplied lest toxic chemotherapy drugs escape the tubing in the pump attached to my husband’s port for three days following each hospital infusion? It includes a pillow-sized sterile package of shredded translucent white material, like the makings of a bridal bird’s nest.
Just looking at it puts me into a sea of synesthesia: I can hear that whoosh of the constant chemotherapy infusion as he slept and I could not, the high-pitched beep as a bag of fluid was close to being drained into my husband’s veins, and the zippppp as adhesive tape was stripped away. I can smell the closed, overheated air inside the hospital, and the winter air as I stepped outside at night.
I see every detail of every room my husband was in as it was then, including the wipe-off marker board where each of so many shifts’ nurses wrote in her name. (One shared mine, and there was no shortage of Jessicas.) I can taste the tang of the salsa in salads a friend brought to me in Jim’s hospital rooms, because he knew otherwise I would not eat. But I can’t capture touch, as hard as I try: I can only see what it was like it in my mind’s eye.
There is no adequate word for recent surprises, like seeing that my hopeful husband had purchased brand-new, in-the-package work shirts in cheerful blue and pink when no one else thought he ever would be able to go back to work. They remained in the package, in a drawer.
I was frozen by the aching surprise of coming across medications my husband had abandoned upon his diagnosis, because they no longer were necessary when long-term health became a non-issue, and when I discovered so many green bottles of medications which quickly were abandoned when they failed to help him.
His prescription pad; his Boy Scout leader clothing and patches; his running gear; the deep green and blue robe, with a thin crimson stripe, which he wore when he came downstairs the morning after his diagnosis and told me he knew how hard his likely treatment would be for me. . . .
The word “surprise” is not nearly enough.
(c) 2012 Stephanie M. Glennon