The Gift in the Dead Man’s Email
About ten years ago (before social media reconnected me with people who I never thought I’d hear from again), I received an unexpected email at work.
It was from a guy I’d known more than a decade earlier and who had faded into my memory like the vague shadows of a rear view mirror. He and I had once run in similar circles, but I’m fairly certain we never had a conversation that endured more than five-sentences. He’d certainly never occupied much, if any space, in my conscious or subconscious mind.
Which is why, when I’d received a chatty and rather lengthy email from him, I was more than just a little surprised.
He’d contacted me after reading a newspaper article in which I was quoted. He hadn’t known that I lived in the same town where his daughter and ex-wife resided, and seemed genuinely excited to re-connect.
I responded, and we exchanged a few more emails.
And then he died.
I learned about his death in the same way he’d found me – by reading about it in a newspaper article in the local paper. He had been in a head-on collision after apparently falling asleep at the wheel.
At a glance, there’s nothing particularly meaningful about this guy who was a small part of life, then wasn’t, then was again, then exited it completely.
We hadn’t been close nor do I imagine we ever would have been.
And yet, his random appearance after so many years then his abrupt disappearance after only a few days have stayed with me. Perhaps that’s partly because they serve as a reminder of how random and fragile life is. But they also suggest something more essential about how we live our lives.
We never know what the implications of our simplest interactions with others may lead. Acknowledging the presence of the quiet person in a group or sharing a smile don’t seem like grandiose gestures in a world overwhelmed by people who scream for, and often get, attention.
But then again, maybe they are actually bigger and more relevant than any action on a stage, or screen, or political platform can ever be.
Mark’s email all those years ago was a surprise because I never thought there was much worth remembering about me in those early days of my adult life. I certainly didn’t think someone I barely knew would reach out to me more than a decade later.
Yet he did. And even though our interactions were brief, he gave me something in return: a new-found understanding of my relevance in the past, in the present, and in the future.
As the Year 2016 ends and the Year 2017 arrives, the majority of my friends and acquaintances are glad to say goodbye to a year in which so many people died and the future of our democracy began to crack. Because of that, they are fearful of what 2017 may bring.
And yet, in truth, we can’t really live if we spend our energy in a soup of regrets, resentment and concerns about the behavior and actions of others.
All we can do is follow the Golden Rule and treat others in a manner that no one can criticize. And sometimes, when we do that, our actions may stay with others long after our own memories of them have faded.
A guy I once barely knew taught me that.
Rest in peace, Mark.
And rest in peace 2016.
I debated writing this post.
These are probably the most personal words I have ever written, yet I feel guilty about writing them.
My friend is dying of cancer. She has been given only hours to live.
Despite the tears making wet trails down my cheeks, I feel guilty about the enormity of my grief. Her husband, children, parents and even other friends are losing someone who occupied a much bigger space in their lives.
I feel guilty because they value their privacy and my friend’s privacy, and I don’t want to violate that.
And yet, as always, I feel the incredible need to write something about the situation. I feel as though putting my thoughts into a concrete form will somehow make sense of an incredibly unfair situation.
If my friend, the lawyer by education and the social worker by heart, could read these words, I know exactly what she’d say.
She’d tilt her head ever so slightly, give me a sidelong glance and say “curious.”
My friend never understood why I wrote.
I remember one particular conversation that occurred while we sat drinking margaritas as we looked out over Pamlico Sound in the Outer Banks of North Carolina.
“You write for pleasure?” she asked in her trademark flat yet completely expressive voice.
We were discussing a possible career change for me, and she was trying to make sense of what she considered a completely ridiculous notion that being creative could actually be a profession.
“But who would read what you wrote?” she asked.
“You already do,” I replied.
“Yeah, but I don’t pay for it,” she said.
That ended the conversation but not our friendship.
Now, on an extremely cold February night, I’m grieving the loss of that friendship while simultaneously trying to remember how it even began.
I remember how we met, but I can’t remember how we grew from being acquaintances to being friends. I can’t remember when she became THE person I texted when I was most pissed off because I knew she would respond with some sardonic comment that would make me feel better.
Just today, despite a final visit to her hospital room yesterday, I found myself picking up my phone to tell her about a completely ridiculous situation.
That was the bittersweet moment when I realized that her diagnosis of cancer had gifted me with a reminder about the value of time, of enjoying completely inane moments and of appreciating the sometimes random events of life that bring people together.
Cancer completely sucks, but it also has the amazing ability to remind us of how beautiful life can be.
As my friend would say, “curious.”
I’ll miss hearing her say those words, but I’ll never forget how they always made me smile.
This final goodbye would be much more difficult if she hadn’t given me so many of those smiles.
Thank you my friend.
Thank you so very, very much.
Collecting Tiny Pieces of the Soul
One of the best things about having children is the privilege of serving as a sounding board for the ideas that are constantly bouncing around in their heads.
One of the worst things about having children is being forced to think about the ideas that are constantly bouncing around in their heads.
The other day my daughter said something I simply haven’t been able to shake.
‘Mom,” she said, “I’m worried about the future. What if teleportation actually becomes a reality?”
“Why is that a problem?” I asked.
“In order for teleportation to work, your body gets broken into tiny little pieces that have to be re-assembled perfectly again.” she explained. “If a lot of people are being teleported at the same time, what will prevent the pieces from getting all mixed up?” She sighed, “I don’t want pieces of me mixed up with pieces of someone else!”
Initially, I had visions of my mid-section being swapped with Jennifer Anniston’s. While I’d be delighted, I’m sure Jennifer would be horrified. My daughter interrupted those daydreams. “What if pieces are left behind?”
That was a good question from an almost 11-year old, and it’s come to haunt me over the past week: a week when I know too many people who have lost someone they care about deeply. A week when, for whatever reason, people who should be in the prime of their life are suddenly gone. A week when the power of medicine failed to make all the pieces of a person’s body work correctly. A week when so much has been lost, and yet so much has been left behind.
And some people leave many, many pieces of themselves behind. Those pieces aren’t intended to be re-assembled but to be shared.
I believe that every laugh, every kind thought and every good deed is a tiny piece of our soul that we give away forever with no expectation that it should remain part of us. These are the pieces that shine in our eyes when we smile and that warm our hearts when we hug. These are the pieces we send with our children each time they walk out the door and the pieces we lose when we share a secret.
These are pieces that do get mixed up with the tiny little pieces of others. And then, other people continue to pass them on all mixed up with their own tiny pieces. These are the pieces we collect when we need to paint a picture or compose a song or write a beautiful story. And they are the pieces we collect so we know how to love and embrace all that is beautiful in the world.
I understand why my daughter is worried about her tiny little pieces. I just hope I have collected enough tiny little pieces from others that I have plenty to share with her. And I hope she, in turn, is collecting tiny little pieces that can also pass on.