Pole, a simple, two-syllable word that says “my heart is with you.” Pole, a simple, two-syllable word that says, “I am holding you, and you are held.” Pole, a simple, two-syllable word that can be said, a word uttered as a sigh that conveys how difficult it is to form words in the face of the unbearable.
We first learn pole as children—it is the word that follows every clumsy fall as we are learning to walk. It is a comfort word, a word of care from our caregivers, from all who extend care. It is a word that changes strangers into caregivers. You will hear a chorus of pole when a child falls down in a public area. There is care. I am sorry for your pain. Your pain is shared.
As children, we learn how to extend care by using this word among ourselves. Sometimes, we use the English “sorry” when a friend falls and gets hurt. We say “sorry” when a strange child get a cut and shows up with a band-aid. Or Elastoplast, as we used to call them. We interchange “sorry” and “pole” to create systems of care. We may be strangers, but we can extend care.
Pole changed when I was seven and the grandfather for whom I’m named died. His house became a chorus of pole. Pole entered with every relative and friend, given unsparingly, unceasingly, to my grandfather’s wives and twelve children. It was a word short enough to be said fourteen times and more if extended to my grandfather’s siblings and grandchildren. Pole multiplied.
Per the Kamusi, pole means “kwa utaratibu; bila ya fujo au nguvu.” With care, without fuss or force. Perhaps we learn this word as children so that we can know how to use it when other words feel impossible to find, impossible to say. Perhaps we learn its brevity so that as grief sits on our chests and chokes our throats, we have just enough breath to exhale pole.
I struggle with the English “condolences.” It stays too long in the mouth, needs too much air, demands too much concentration, feels too formal. Unlike pole, condolences can rarely be used on its own. You must add “you have my” or “I wish you” or “sincerest” or “heartfelt.” Each additional syllable struggles to make it past the heavy chest, the locked throat. I have wondered why English makes it so difficult to extend care.
Sometimes you can use “sorry.” Sometimes, I use “I am so sorry” as the closest I can get to pole. Or, “I am thinking of you.” It’s not that pole cannot be combined with any of these: you search for the right word or, given how grief and mourning steal language, you search for what it’s possible to say. I have said, “pole, I am so sorry.” Or, “pole, I am thinking of you.”
The last few years have felt like an unending chorus of pole. As we age, our parents age. As we start experiencing new aches and less stretch, their bodies become less resilient, less able to heal. As economies become more precarious, we become more vulnerable to mental and physical harm.
Holiday seasons—times when loved ones gather—are especially difficult. For some, this year will be the first time they do not receive a phone call or card or email from someone they love. For others, this will be the first year they sit at a family table without that special dish by a now-absent family member. It will be the missing laugh, the out-of-tune singing, the familiar grouchiness. Holidays are hard.
My father died in May 1990. That first holiday season was tough. My sisters were out of the country and kind friends invited us for Christmas dinner. A toast was offered to “those who had gone too soon.” Perhaps the toast was something like that.
When I was seven or eight, he bought me one of those electronic cars-on-tracks set, and spent more time playing it with than I did. He taught me how to enjoy being silly, how to relish play. How to be an adult and be playful. Holidays had a particular flavor, a particular tone, because we were together.
A friend told me recently that I never seemed to enjoy December holidays. It’s because my father wasn’t there.
Each pole I have uttered and written to friends over the past few years has resonated with all the pole in my blood and bones, aged over twenty eight years. It took me ten years to learn how to write about my father, about his life and death, about how I was still learning to live without him. I am still learning.
My mother’s garden is full of comfrey. Comfrey is known as “knitbone.” Per internet lore, a comfrey poultice will help fractured bones to mend. Comfrey is also known as a dynamic accumulator: its deep tap roots harvest minerals from the soil and store them in its broad leaves. If you plant comfrey next to fruit trees, the fruit trees benefit from this nutrition. You can also chop comfrey leaves and place them around plants as a green manure. They grow back quickly.
Pole might be like comfrey. As children, we learn it as a word of care and comfort, as an expression of communal feeling and shared pain. It roots itself in us as we root ourselves in it. Later, when we hear pole, no matter the occasion, that deeply stored sense of comfort, accumulated over time, grown stronger with experience, saturates us: we are held. We are held by the comfort strangers offered us in the past. We are held by the comfort we call family and friends. We are held by the air that resonates with pole, a brief, two-syllable exhalation.
Pole knits. It assembles those who may not have spoken or seen each other for decades. It creates new connections, turning strangers into caregivers. It says that care exists, even and especially when the phone no longer rings, when the laugh no longer sounds, when the chair remains unoccupied.