Secret Languages

Hester Hill Schnipper, LICSW, OSW-C Program Manager, Oncology Social Work

JULY 04, 2017

All of us have had close relationships that included some secret signals and language. Raising an eyebrow at a spouse may mean "Let's get out of here". My daughters were taught a few harmless phrases that meant "I need to go to the bathroom right now" or "I need help, Mommy." At my 93 year old uncle's funeral last June, his son described a hand motion, tenting both hands with fingers touching and then slowly touching each paired set together, that his parents frequently shared. Left over from their courting days, it meant (remember there were five touches): "Let's go home and neck."

This sweet essay by Susan Gubar from The New York Times discusses the language shared by her and her husband, her caretaker during her many years living with ovarian cancer.

The Secret Language of Patients and Caregivers

Patients with tender caregivers often speak a little language of their own devising. It’s not unusual for people dealing with illness to use quirky dialects and inside jokes to attempt to maintain a sense of connection with their intimates or to revive unextinguished emotions.

Upon returning home from an operation for ovarian cancer a few years ago, I relied on this sort of shared allusion when I repeatedly asked my husband, Don, “What watch, Liebchen?” It was a coded way of asking if it was time for my next dose of pain medication.

I knew he’d understand that I was channeling the couple in “Casablanca” at Rick’s Moroccan cafe, practicing fractured English in the hope that they could reach America. They used the term “what watch” for “what time is it?” Don shared my sense of our being immigrants in the world of cancer. Fearful of time running out, we wanted above all else to find safe passage.

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Above content provided by Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center. For advice about your medical care, consult your doctor.
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