I sat slumped over the steering wheel. “What am I afraid of?” I asked myself. The lump in my throat made it hard to swallow. Not being enough, I sighed. My year had already been filled with so much loss. Now, having to face my dear friend’s decline due to advanced Parkinson’s. It was more than I could bare.
“What do I want to give my friend?” I thought next. Climbing out of the car, I resolved to give her my full attention. I simply wanted to be there for her. Nothing else mattered.
Marguerite’s home nurse greeted me at the door, warning me that she was having a particularly bad day. Approaching her room, my anxiety returned. I ignored it.
She lay on her side, eyes closed, even though she was awake. She seemed uncomfortable. Her nurse shared that she was feeling less pain than earlier that day. Her arms, tucked neatly under her pillow, contrasted with her legs. They moved forward and out in random movements from beneath the bedsheets.
I sat beside her placing my hand on the metal bed rail. I stayed like that for some time attempting to tune into her energy and rhythm. Her eyes remained closed while the nurse let her know I was at her bedside. Reaching to move a strand of her chestnut gray hair from her forehead, she opened her eyes and managed a smile.
She asked me how I was and took my hand. There was a long pause before she gestured to her CD player and asked me to play something from Cuba. I put on Celia Cruz, one of her favorite artists. She asked me if I would dance for her. So I did.
I danced the dance of Oshun, (the goddess and archetype of love and the river according to the Afro-Cuban religion Santeria) who provided me with guidance to dance with joy and abundance.
I tried to fill her bedroom space with dance, being mindful to not get carried away by the music on the one hand, but not over-focused on Marguerite, on the other hand. She was part of the dance, not just the audience. I danced large and small – fast and slow – but mindful of staying connected.
Half way through the song, Marguerite asked her nurse to help her sit up. As she did, her toes touched the floor. I pulled up a chair and brought Oshun’s dance between us. Random leg movements became deliberate and under her control as she tapped out the song’s rhythm in perfect time. I joined her foot tapping with my own. The nurse joined too, and tapped the rhythm on her lap. We danced together.
Marguerite returned to bed for some much needed rest. Her eyes – full of life. We hugged goodbye and I promised not to wait so long before returning.
As I drove away, I realized that it’s not whether I believe I’m enough or not enough. It’s in trusting that in focusing on love, the world opens and with it, more courage, more patience, more love. Even in years full of loss.
My story starts a bit over two years ago when I reinserted/forced myself (with the support of a dear friend) into my dad’s life. After several decades of failed attempts and disappointing encounters, I had almost given up.
This time would be different. After showing up at his doorstep, he let me in. We visited for a short while and then I left. I began calling him once monthly. After a few months, a connection developed. Not great, but much better than past decades. Most importantly, I let go of all expectations of what a father should be. …which allowed him to be. (Funny how that works). And, new for me, I didn’t trample myself in the process. In other words, it was an empowered surrender.
We shared a few nice visits together in the next year and a half, in part thanks to my brother, John who insisted we bring Thanksgiving dinner to him in 2014. It’s quite amazing the healing that can happen in the sharing of a single meal. Having that time together was good, but actually wanting to have that time together was the real fulfillment for me…maybe for dad too. I don’t know.
And then one day, I got a call from the sheriff’s office in Northern California. Dad’s body was found in front of his house, shot in the head. He was in critical condition and was being airlifted to the hospital. An hour later, I got a call from the Coroner who told me he had died on the way and that it appeared to be suicide.
It was early afternoon on April the 28th, 2015. I live alone and the fact that it was mid-workday meant that nearby friends and neighbors were not around. But I needed human contact immediately. I went to the corner laundry mat where Lottie the laundry lady, who after numerous chats while doing my laundry over the years, has become a friend. I barely told her what happened when she stopped what she was doing and just hugged me. I went from not breathing to sobbing and gasping for air to a settled calmness while in her arms. She saved me in that moment.
I went back to my apartment and called my brother to tell him. Obviously, extremely difficult for both of us. And though difficult, I also felt a moment of relief that I’d said all I wanted to say to him from the place in my heart I wanted to say it. That is to say, from a place of love.
But the miracle of repercussions from healing a painful relationship doesn’t end here.
A couple of hours after getting the terrible news of my dad, I received a call from a tissue procurement specialist….aka an individual who makes the first call to family members of individuals who’ve just died, with the goal of determining whether the recently deceased loved one qualifies to be a tissue donor. I’ll spare you the details, but will say that the roughly two hour process, spread over the course of three separate phone conversations with four different individuals was one of the most unpleasant experiences of my life. But I hung in there and remained on the phone, responding to questions as well as I could while at the same time, trying to be present to my own experiencing of acute grief.
The net/net is that my dad’s tissues couldn’t be used because of a time delay with the coroner…so the intake process was for not.
This didn’t work for me. I’ve got a little dictator in my head that’s always saying -“dam it, rob, make something good out of this”. It’s a bugger of a demon, but sometimes its useful. This was one of those times.
I put on my Consultant hat and wrote down all my notes from my experience with the tissue procurement specialist over the phone based on what didn’t work, but also on what did work. It resulted in a three-page spreadsheet with some basic principles. I resolved to reach out (code for: cold call) to any organ/tissue donor organization who’d listen and with whom I could share my experience and feedback. Maybe in a small way, I could make a difference from this tragedy after all.
I called at least 25 different organizations around the country – 3 of which responded, and 1 of which actually made time for a one to one conversation. (These stats are not atypical. Despite the fact that we are supposedly in a “customer – centric” era, most folks don’t actually give their time…that’s what makes the rest of this story even more amazing.)
After an hour-long conversation with Lisa Stocks, the Executive Director of Lifesharing, the donor agency for San Diego, affiliated with UCSD, we both shed some tears. She assured me that my input would be considered in their training. This was my goal: to make a positive difference. What an amazing way to complete the loop of my connection, however troubled, with my dad. To give life through helping to improve communication.
I leapt with joy inside.
Several months later, I received an email from Lisa. She asked me to come speak to her group about my experience. A couple of months later, I did so. And though my speech was quite imperfect (eg., I exploded with emotion just walking into the room with face and eyes red and full of tears), I think I conveyed to those listening, the power (and importance) of being present and being human when you’re on the phone with another human being who is going through what might be the most difficult moment in their life.
That was a couple of months ago, and since then I’ve shifted my coaching/training business from Sales Communication to one focused more on difficult/important communication or situations.
Lisa has since provided me with a wonderful testimonial, which feels good of coarse, but it’s even more fulfilling to know that something useful and hopefully beneficial to others can be the outcome of a really tragic situation.
A most amazing thing happened at the post office the other day. I was standing in line to mail Christmas packages – a line that weaved through the main office, out the door and around the front of the building – when I heard a young couple arguing about a conversation the man was having on his cell phone. The conversation went something like this:
The woman telling the man: “Ask her if she can do x,y,z in time for …”
The man’s response to the woman: “Don’t nag at me bitch, I got …” at which point he continued talking on the phone, while turning away from her.
The conversation went on like this for some time, punctuated with harsh remarks between both of them. As they continued the woman seemed to retreat inside herself while the man grew louder and more harsh in his remarks.
Lines at the post office are typically slow, but having to witness this kind of conversation made each minute a drudgery to endure. I was only 3 people away from the front of the line so decided to hang in there, otherwise I would have left. It was that tense.
I glanced at others nearby more out of curiosity than to commiserate in silent agreement, but of coarse, most people were peering into their cell phones.
And then one of the two postal agents on duty, I’ll refer to her as Barbara, said loud enough for all to hear but directed toward the young man, “No need for disrespect son, we’re all wanting to get on with our day.” With this, she went straight back to completing the transaction with her customer, as uneventfully as picking up a glass of water to take a sip, then putting it down.
It was one of the most direct, compassionate, un-sensational and extraordinary interventions I’ve ever seen. There seemed to be no personality or opinion or technique, just clarity and presence. The right words at the right moment to reach past the noise inside and out, in him, in me, in everyone.
Instantly, (and I do mean instantly), the young man spoke less loudly and was less harsh. People in line, including myself seemed to drop their shoulders just a bit. A few folks even looked up from their cell phones. It was as if the entire room exhaled after holding its breath for an unnatural period of time.
What a difference we each can make in either direction, adding to the noise or being beyond it.