So the question may arise, as you begin to peruse my writing, “Why ‘Witnessing This Life’?”. I could have called this blog any one of a million things, and I tested out about 217 ideas on the people nearest me before landing on this, Witnessing This Life.
If you’re a fan of NCI or Law and Order, you have an idea of what a witness is. Witnessing can also be linked to a religious process of bearing witness. For me, neither of these are what I’m talking about. See, I am an oncology social worker. I work with cancer patients and the people who love them, and essentially I work in the capacity of a therapist. An advocate. A loving, impartial presence, and above all, a witness. This last is the spine, the backbone of the work that I do and why it comes to mean something to those I work with.
When I was in first grade, I discovered a love of reading, but more than that, a love for words. Their nuances and textures, and how whatever my heart felt could be more clearly understood if I assigned the right words to the feelings. So my mom did one of the best things she has ever done: she gave me my first dictionary. And not just any dictionary, but a 1958 Webster’s New School & Office Dictionary that had been hers as a child. Compact, with yellowing pages, I recognized immediately that it would be one of my best friends ever. It made the unclear clear. It gave words to things that had no meaning before. My dictionary, given to me at the age of 6 and promptly adorned with invaluable stickers, promised to put the world in order. Things that previously felt unruly or unknown had words to describe them.
I tell you all this because when I was trying to name this blog, I started thumbing through my old dictionary in the mornings, landing on words that worked and words that didn’t, and then I landed in “W”. Waver, whitsun, winkle, Witness. Witnessing: n. an attestation of a fact or event; testimony; evidence; one who sees or has personal knowledge of anything; one who attests; v.t. to have direct knowledge of; see, give testimony to.
Years ago I worked with a couple who had been married over 70 years. The wife lay dying and the husband, who had known his wife since high school, agonized over whether he needed to be present for her death. It hurt him to think of it, but he felt he had to be there. He wasn’t sleeping, he was distraught. After talking with him for a short time, I told him—“you’ve been a witness to her whole life. I think that gets you off the hook a little for being here at her passing.” I could feel his relief and gratitude. He cried and held my hand. In that moment I bore witness to their entire life together, no doubt filled with much sadness and joy, the mundane and the sublime…and I saw him…I saw them, moving through this life together. Witnessing is not a small thing. It is what we as humans give to each other. To fill the gaps, settle the doubt, and to get our feet back on the ground. And so here I am, writing the first official post for my new blog, “Witnessing This Life”. Why “witnessing”? Well, now you know.
It is why the people dearest to us are held so dear. Because at the end of the day, regardless of what we do for a living, where we live, or who we love, we seek partners in this life. Not necessarily romantic, most often filial partners. We choose each other, and serve a purpose. To see and validate, and in seeing, to make us more real. Like the Velveteen Rabbit, it is in the process of being loved that we are able to live the richest and realest existence. That our lives, in all of their banality and wonder, victories and failures, come to mean something is a testament to those who stand with us, who see it all. We are social animals and we don’t live in a vacuum. To stand, at your most vulnerable, in front of a trusted human and be seen—as beautiful, as worthy, as whole, as possible, makes all of these things more true. It makes this life mean more. And so I am a witness. To the cancer experience and all that it holds. To this life, and what gives it meaning. To humanity and suffering and beauty and joy. I am a witness, and I am sharing what I learn and think along the way with you.