This is the story about my mother, a funeral in East Africa, and the failings of the English language.
When I went to my first visitation as an adult, I was just barely an adult. An adorable high school cheerleader that I had known since daycare had been killed in a car accident. I was so young that I had to ask my mother, “what do I say when I see the family?” My mom looked at me with a pained expression and gave me what I thought was terrible advice.
I was so frustrated with her answer that I left the house dejected.
The funeral home was just up the street, so I walked up there by myself. I found my friend Sam standing in the long line of mourners. Together, we shuffled up to the casket, paid our respects and then turned to be received by the grieving family.
I remember that moment as violent panic. I had no idea what to say that would console her family in this time of tragedy, so I did what everyone else was doing; I reached out my hand to her youngest brother, shook it and said, “I am so sorry for your loss.”
He received my handshake with a downward nod, and said “thank you.” My heart broke.
I shuffled further down the line and shook hands with her other younger brother. “I am so sorry for your loss,” I said. Again, he thanked me.
I shuffled even further to her father, repeating my mantra. By the time I reached her mother my empty words tasted bitter in my mouth. I bowed my head and stood there speechless. Instead of offering my consolation, the mother stepped forward and hugged me. Her mother just whispered in my ear “oh Vance!” as though she somehow understood the message I was there to convey. It was a calm and quiet moment filled with meaning.
But that moment of quiet evaporated in my walk between the end of the reception line and the parking lot where my friend Sam was waiting for me. In its place, fury had filled me.
I spit and rambled for hours after the reception.
I was shrouded in dark mixture of confusion, sadness, and frustration. How was it possible that in the English language the only words we had to offer during such a tragedy was “I’m sorry?” To add insult to this woeful inefficiency of our language- we force the mourners to say “thank you” as though we deserved gratitude for offering such a hollow consolation.
It would be years before I could even think of that visitation without being bitter. I was just so angry that I had nothing to say that would make the situation better. I wasn’t “sorry” for their loss; I hadn’t done anything wrong. I was “sad” for their loss, but that felt so wrong to say. I hated that the visitation of Lindsey revealed that there were emotions that I could not use words to bargain with. I was left with no other option but to imitate others during their moments of sadness. I began to hate the words “I’m sorry.”
I started to hear the words as a cheap substitute for saying something of value. And the more I listened, the more I heard the phrase cheapened. We used the same words for showing up ten minutes late as we did for asking for forgiveness after breaking something precious. We used the words “I’m sorry,” to cover over minor infractions, and we use the words as a salve over real wounds we caused. Slowly, I began to resent people who told me they were sorry for something small, and I rejected genuine apologies as lacking in substance.
Fortunately, I didn’t have another visitation to attend for almost 10 more years.
I was living as a Peace Corps volunteer in rural Kenya. I had only been living in my mountain village for a few days when my counter-part Daniel came knocking on my door. He invited me to the funeral of a member of his family. He said they lived in a village on a nearby ridge that was “just there,” implying that we could easily make it to the funeral and come back with time to complete my work for the day.
I had just completed two-and-a-half months of Peace Corps training. I was relatively comfortable speaking Swahili, and I thought I understood the value of going to community events so that I could integrate into the community.
One of the most important of ways to integrate into a community is to go say, “pole,” (pronounced poll-eh) when someone is sick or has experienced hardship. Almost as soon as we got off the plane we were taught that going to say “pole” was roughly translated to “I’m sorry.” It is not uncommon for an entire family to come and “say pole” when they find out your child is sick, or for a mama to bring you some chai (tea) when she learns that you have gotten some bad news.
When Daniel invited me to the funeral he was actually asking me to “say pole” to his family. I recognized that even though it would be uncomfortable, it would be a cultural experience and it would help me to get to know the people I was living among.
Kenyans are not well known for accurately estimating distances, or perhaps my interpretation of “just there” was very different from Daniel’s. We walked down one side of our mountain, crossed a river, and then walked through dense green underbrush up the other side of the mountain. It took three hours, and my clothes were filthy by the time we entered the gates to of Daniel’s family compound.
The funeral looked like a typical Sunday afternoon on a family compound. The men sat by some tables under a blue tarp while the women were crouched over the fire and pots making food and tea. No one even looked up when we came in, despite the fact that I was likely the first 6’4” white man they had seen at a family funeral in quite some time (if ever). We didn’t say anything; I just followed Daniel to a seat under the tarp. As soon as we sat down the women brought over steaming plates of food and filled cups with sugary chai. We were inundated with food and drink.
The men who spoke Kikuyu (a tribal language I had yet to learn) talked quietly; I picked up bits of conversation about the weather and crops while I awkwardly ate boiled chicken and ground corn stew (githeri). By the time I finished my food we had been at the funeral for over an hour. I assumed that Daniel was waiting for me to finish to go “say pole,” to the grieving mama who was making food along with the other women. Instead, he just kept chatting - he even cracked jokes that made all the other men howl with laughter.
I squirmed uncomfortably on my bench made from the stump of a tree.
I was becoming severely over caffeinated because I had started to chug my tea, hoping that when Daniel heard the telltale clink of an empty tin cup he would realize I was ready to go. I knew that all we had to do was walk over to the mama, say “pole” and then we could bolt back down the mountain, cross the river, and up the other side, then I could get back to work.
Instead, a young house girl would hear my tin cup clink and would rush over with a full tea pot and re-fill my cup despite my broken Kikuyu pleading that I was full. I was too preoccupied with leaving to realize that finishing all of your food or drink implies to a Kenyan that you want them to give you more.
I had over a dozen cups of chai that day, when finally out of the blue Daniel stood up from his seat, brushed himself off and motioned that it was time to go. I looked up at him bewildered as he headed for the exit of the compound.
“Daniel!" I whisper yelled at him once we were out of earshot. “Daniel- you forgot to say pole.” He looked back at me with a confused grimace on his face. “Daniel! We didn’t say anything.” He swatted his hand at me dismissively and started to lead the way down the mountain.
I was furious, I had wasted an entire day walking up and down mountains, crossing a river, and eating mountains of food- and we weren’t even going to get credit because Daniel forgotten to say pole!
I made my frustration palpable, loudly swatting away branches that leaned over the path, and rushing right on Daniel’s heels making sure he knew that he had wasted my time.
Suddenly, I tripped over an exposed root. Daniel whipped around and caught me before I hit the ground. “Pole, pole,” Daniel said as he helped me stand upright. I looked at Daniel quizzically, why was he apologizing? It had been my fault; I was the one that was rushing.
In an instant, I knew that I had been a fool.
You can use the word “pole” to mean “sorry,” but that is a very narrow interpretation. When Daniel said “pole, pole” he was giving me an instruction- he was telling me to slow down because the true meaning of pole is “to be slow.”
It all became crystal clear; my mother’s advice from ten years earlier hadn’t been terrible at all; in fact it held the wisdom of hundreds of years of African tribal culture.
When I had asked my mother for her advice before my first visitation, she had offered an astoundingly simple observation that I was simply not ready to understand. “Vance, no one will ever remember what you said, they will only remember that you were there.”
That is what the Kenyans had known all along. Daniel was humbly offering the only thing that could matter to a grieving mama; he was offering to be slow with her. He offered his time and his presence. He knew there was nothing he could say.
When I look back on that moment with Lindsey’s mother; when I stood there speechless; that was all I could offer. Now, when I go to a visitation, or I try to console a friend during times of tragedy I no longer say, “I’m sorry.” Instead, I say “pole,”... and sometimes I use words.*
*My mother said that I am not allowed to take credit for the "sometimes I use words" phrase… apparently Saint Francis used it before me.
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