It’s only words

In true Radio 4’s Thought for the Day fashion I’m about to take a philosophical quote probably entirely out of context and twist it to my own ends.

Peppered with a few shady recollections from my very last exam at university, the one into which I smuggled a can of Banks’ Mild to open the moment I put my pen down, I hope it does the job.

It is a year to the day since my doctor turned up at my doorstep to tell me an MRI scan had found a mass on my brain. Within a few more days a brain surgeon had told me it was an inoperable and incurable tumour that will one day end my life.

With unfortunate coincidence, today I will go into hospital again. This time to prepare for the biopsy tomorrow that will most likely confirm what we suspect: that the tumour has turned malignant.

From that first confusing day to this one of calm, my family and I have had indescribable support and love from people we know, and from people we don’t.

The phone calls and texts and emails and messages, the cards and flowers, and gifts. The time given freely. The leaving of your comfort zones to speak of things that are hard to speak of. The little thoughts and gestures. The reminders that you are there.

People with brain tumours, their families, their supporters, their bereaved have written to reassure, to send information, to open their hearts, to share. Comments and messages have been left by strangers in response to the words that I have written.

Friends have called and called round. They’ve made soup and salads and casseroles. They’ve sent the kids toys. A family sent us a toaster, to make our lives a bit easier in a busy time.

People have given or raised money for brain tumour charities. They’ve swam, and run, and cycled, and shown films, and sold things. Every week brings news of a new challenge someone is taking on, in our names.

You’ve liked and shared my blog, told me my words are working. You’ve read, and listened, and been there when we’ve needed to cry, and laugh, and be angry and be thankful.

You’ve visited when you can, but understood when we’ve cancelled or not called back. You’ve done what many friends – men and women – sometimes find difficult to say to each other. You’ve said the words: ‘I love you’.

I wanted to say thank you, but the words don’t even come close. They feel like an insult. A cheap and convenient bottle of wine grabbed from the cupboard to take to a party.

I’ve worked with charities for nearly a decade to help them say the right things. But now I am stumped. I now know why their language about ‘amazing’ supporters, ‘fantastic’ donors, ‘incredible’ members and ‘valued’ volunteers grate with me so much. They are inadequate superlatives, a painfully weak attempt that is just not enough.

Those who know me well, know I’m a fan of the most colourful of language. Yet even saying: “Holy shit!, fucking great people can be fucking amazing,” still doesn’t get there.

wittgensteinThe Austrian Ludwig Wittgenstein was a strange old bloke. He was a mathematician and philosopher with a brain so full and sharp, he could sometimes barely function. It made him crazy, rude and ill tempered; he was often avoided, sometimes isolated.

But one of his central messages is something I can relate to, even though I’ve made my living through words.

Language, he said, in itself has no meaning. Words are only real and are important in so far as we use them. Like an arrow pointing to the right, we could only really understand what the arrow is getting at if we drew another arrow, or maybe pointed with our arm, in the same direction, or said: it means, go that way.

But then, what could we use to describe what we mean by that new arrow, by our pointing, or those words we use? Only more inadequate, incomplete signals and signs, each which would themselves require yet more layers of similar signals and signs.

Like with the arrow, we kind of just learn to use our language it for what it is, without trying to explain. Because the depths are too deep.

That’s why, for me, ‘thank you’ isn’t nearly enough for what people have done. It is nowhere near nuanced, or deep, or adequate, or true enough to express what I really mean.

As I lay in bed at 5am this morning, listening to the birds singing and thinking of the year gone by and the days to come, I wanted to say something I simply can’t come close to expressing.

Better to get as close as I can, and then for once just shut up and be quiet for a while.

“Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent”
Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (1921), Ludwig Wittgenstein


  1. Hi Gideon,

    I was intoduced to your equally heartbreaking and inspirational blog by a facebook friend just over a week ago and in that time your words and your journey have had a profound effect on me. There is little I can say or do from my desk here in Australia, except that I am thinking of you and your beautiful family today especially, and have everything crossed that things will go well for you.

    Sue from Oz

  2. Hi Gideon

    So right, there are no adequate words – but our thoughts are with you and your family. If positive vibes can do anything, you will be bombarded withg them tomorrow.


  3. We read your blog regularly here in Dunmow since we saw you last July – just to say we will be thinking of you tomorrow – good luck.
    Maddy, Linda R, Linda C, Liz and Phil

  4. Will be thinking of you tomorrow. Lots and lots of love to you and all your family,
    Vicky xx

  5. Thank you all for your comments and good wishes. It has meant so much to me and Sarah, we feel overwhelmed by what you have offered.

    It’s just 7am and pretty soon I’ll go down for an MRI scan, then by late lunch I should be in theatre. They’ve already decorated my head and face with half-a-dozen circular stickers, and used a marker pen to pinpoint where they are in case one drops off. (Spare me the indignity of sharing a photo, at least for now).

    On my neck at the left, a doctor has drawn a big red arrow in marker, as if so say: drill somewhere above here, sometime today, or at least make sure it’s on this side.

    They’ve got a cannula in my arm, and stuck tights on my legs – apparently to prevent DVT – but they feel just like cycling ‘longs’ to me, so I don’t feel my masculinity is in question wearing tights.

    They’ve asked me to stick on one of those gowns that show your backside, but I’m resisting for now. I’d prefer to sit in my PJ bottoms and an old and trusty t-shirt with a bike on it.

    I’m not planning to give minute by minute updates as the day progresses. Instead, I offer you an interlude. A TV testcard, if you will, which I hope makes you smile.

    Thank you all again for your support. See you on the other side.

    x G

  6. Thinking of you all. Your words have helped me to understand what was really going on when my husband had a brain tumour diagnosed in 1989. At that time I don’t think the medical people knew very much at all as, four years later, when the tumour returned, they completely re-interpreted the histology of the original tumour.

    Laurence lost his fight in November 1993, over four years after his original diagnosis. But when they reviewed the histology of the original sample, I was told that, looking at it four years later, they would only have given him 11 months. So we had 3 years and 1 month longer than we could have!!

    I have two lovely children, now 21 and 19 (the youngest never saw her father).

    You are right, words are never enough, but the resonance they have deep within us all, is what gives them meaning.

    Thank you for sharing your journey.


  7. Hi Gideon,

    Serendipity and Facebook have just brought you back into my life. (You may remember me writing for you in the early days of NGO Media).
    I am reading about your tumour and recent operation with shock and sadness and send wishes to you and your family of strength and courage.
    Thinking of you,

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *