Someone I know had a scare with their father’s health. Turns out it’s not cancer, but still serious, still requiring tricky surgery. When I last saw this person, I walked away thinking of how different conversations are when you have experienced death first hand. In many ways, I thought, it is like how the conversation changes when you have given birth and you are talking to someone who is about to for the first time.
When you talk to a pregnant woman or her partner and you see the fear and possibility in their eyes and you hear their understanding of what is about to happen to them, you can do one of two things. You can chide them (gently or not so) for having no idea what they are talking about. Or, you can be quiet and listen for yourself in the hopes and dreams that have not yet been dampened and deepened by what happens after the birth of a child–after the first illness, the first smile, the first injury, the first kiss, the first lie, the next disappointment, and the next unanticipated challenge that seems unsurmountable, until it isn’t. You can choose to stand their and belittle their ideas of what parenthood is “really” like, or you can hold them in that same tender place someone allowed you.
Just so, when you talk to someone who is beginning the journey of saying goodbye to a loved one. And by this I mean the kind of loss I’ve experienced–an illness marching toward death, not an unexpected death or one caused by violence because those I have no experience with. There have been a couple of times now, since my own father’s death, when the fathers of people I know have taken ill. And both times I found myself unable to say anything of real value to them. I started to think of my own experiences–about making a trip west and not knowing what I would find when I got there, of never having been able to imagine all that I experienced in that one little week. I couldn’t tell those people how the experience changed me because I couldn’t expect that their path would be the same as mine, that they would approach the opportunities of being present in the same way that I did. I only hoped they would.
My experience has been that the deepest changes in me have come from simply paying attention to what I was doing and where I was in the moment. People could have told me that I’d be changed by having kids (and many did) and people could (and did) try to tell me how my father’s death would change me. One woman was so insistent upon telling me every detail of how she was changed by her father’s death while my father was still living that I found her presence on this or any other topic unbearable. She continued to intrude on what I felt (at the time) was a very unique and uncomparable ordeal and I began to loathe her presence and avoid her at all costs. She was using my experience to tell her own experience, thinking it would give me comfort. Obviously, that didn’t work.
The attempts by other people at preparing me for what was to come didn’t prepare me at all. I had to experience it myself. I had to feel the hot rage and the tender devotion, the manic worry and the sweet release, the terror of the unknown and the contentment of the (finally) understandable.
But this is my life and my experiences warrant my understanding of them. And so this is the lesson I’ve finally learned: to be present and mostly silent and to hold my experiences until the time they are useful. Except, of course, when I mess up and use their stories to help me process my own. And then I have to relearn my own lessons, again. And again.