Saturday, November 27, 2010

Closer to Fine: Thanksgiving week

In 1988, the Indigo Girls sang,
I'm trying to tell you something about my life
Maybe give me insight between black and white
The best thing you've ever done for me
Is to help me take my life less seriously;
It's only life after all.
I drove 9 hrs each way this week to spend time with my best friend and her family: her ten-year-old son was diagnosed about two weeks ago with an aggressive form of advanced brain cancer. 

When I arrived late at night, we sat and chatted for a bit.  I commented on how annoying it must be to keep getting the Thanksgiving cards the kids were making at school, with "Give Thanks" arched over a traced-hand turkey with colored finger-feathers. 

I suggested that maybe we should get a red crayon and scrawl "GO SCREW" on all of them and send them back.

She said, "Yup.  That's pretty much where I'm at right now."

But then, the next morning, things began to look up.  Her son was finally released from the hospital, so we all got to spend time together and with him for the first time in a long time.  No need to assign shifts to determine who would be watching the two younger kids and who would be driving to the hospital to sit with him.

What was most amazing, though, was the kindness of everyone around us.  When the daughter of a neighbor learned the news several weeks ago, she set up a rotating system of people to bring dinner to the house every other day--and they make really good food, too. 

When my friend called to tell her that her son was home now and that I was visiting, so we'd be fine, the neighbor said, "I don't care.  We're still bringing the food.  You should enjoy your time with your friend and relax.  We want to do this.  We want to help."

Two days later, her son's teacher showed up with two enormous gift baskets--one for her son, one for the entire family.  They were filled with food and games and books and cards.  People gave donations.  The entire fourth-grade class came together to contribute and send these baskets to us the day before Thanksgiving.

This is what I admire in other people, and what I consider humanitarianism, really.  Small-scale attention to details.  In a world full of people who offer nothing but more or less empty words and pat responses, there are so many people who just get up in the morning and hit the ground running. 

They don't ask, "What can I do?", they just show up and do it.  They say, "Here's what I'd like to do," or "Here's something that I did--I hope it helps."  And then they go on their way.

When you see that much compassion, you remember the root of the word itself: from the Latin, patior, pati, passus sum, compassion literally means "to suffer together" or "to endure together" ("com-" derives from the Latin prefix cum, meaning "together" or "with"). 

If we must suffer, we will endure it together.  In shared suffering, you don't turn away from the sadness of life, you acknowledge and face it in company with others.  You do what you can, instead of lamenting that there's nothing you can do. 

Really, there's always something you can do. 

Seeing this outpouring of support also made it much more difficult for me to tolerate the high-maintenance people out there.  Because of course, they're still out there, and they don't stop for nothin' or nobody.  The next verse of the Indigo Girls' song, "Closer to Fine," continues, "Well, darkness has a hunger that's insatiable/ And lightness has a call that's hard to hear." 

I've come to realize that it will always be particularly hard to hear for those who can't seem to just shut up for a minute and let some one else's feelings and needs take precedence over their own. 

I think they often end up suffering alone, though, and they never understand why.  That's punishment enough, in the end.

For my own part, I spent time posing as Darth Vader's sister (her story has yet to be told).  I channeled my inner White Witch in snow-covered Narnia, and I played the game of Life.  I somehow managed to only pull down a $20,000. a year salary, even though I was a doctor (maybe I was doing a lot of pro-bono work?). 

I also bought a boat, a house, a log cabin, went on a safari, and threw a party for this year's Grammy winners.   As I told my friend, it was clearly "The Game of the Life I Would Never Lead."  She said, "It does seem like you're making some bad financial decisions, but I blame that worthless blue peg of a husband of yours.  It all started when you got married."

I nearly had a coronary playing soccer, baseball-tag, and basketball.

The night before I left, my friend's eight-year old turned up the radio.  It was playing his favorite song: "We Are Family," by Sister Sledge.

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Ralph Waldo Emerson once wrote, "Life is short, but there is always time for courtesy."