One of my dearest friends lost her 28-year-old son-in-law to cancer yesterday. He and his wife, her daughter, celebrated their three year wedding anniversary only four months ago. These two kids spent almost half their marriage dealing with cancer. Imagine that.
I don’t mind telling you that my husband and I conducted their wedding and did their pre-marital counseling. They were one of the most attentive couples we’ve ever counseled. And they loved each other. They never even had time to get to that middle-aged phase when you hate each other, either. All they ever had was that heady, youthful love and friendship, and then his sickness. I feel so sorry.
My friend called me yesterday afternoon to tell me her son-in-law was going downhill, but I didn’t listen to my messages until 7:00 this morning. Of course I intended to go up to the hospital after dropping my girls off at school. But when I called my friend, she said that her son-in-law had already died. And she told me how it went. And we cried and said how unreal it seemed and was.
“I’m so sorry I wasn’t there for you guys,” I said, after a time. And I truly was sorry. I felt terrible, because I know what it means to have your loved ones nearby during hardship. And my friend said, “That’s truly OK, I know you would have come. And the hospital was packed. You’ve never seen so many people there for one person—relatives, his fellow National Guardsmen, friends. It was incredible. We had the family room just packed. It’s truly OK.”
I knew she meant it, and wasn’t suffering from lack of support. I thought what a way to go: surrounded by loved ones wishing you godspeed on your journey.
I thought, too, about my friend’s daughter and how untimely this is. How she will be the only 27- or 28-year-old in her circle of friends to have suffered and lost so much at such a young age. Already. Imagine that. When you’re supposed to be young and naive, stupid and foolishly invulnerable and immortal in your own head. And that’s been taken from her.
I talked to my other friend today, too, my friend who has just had a new baby over the weekend. A new baby who came with flashing lights and EMTs, for my friend didn’t even know she was in labor until the baby decided to pretty much fall out and be born at home in the bathroom, as her daddy dialed 9-1-1 and tried to catch her with a free hand. Exciting stuff, all right. And all turned out well.
So my friend’s parents and brothers and in-laws all crowded into her small house, so that when her darling toddler son woke up the next morning, he was greeted by all those adoring fans, who promptly whisked him up and fed him, and then took him away to granny and grampa’s house to spoil him for a week while mom and dad recovered and fell in love with new baby sister.
I asked how she was doing, and she said, “Oh, it’s wonderful. I’m glorious! I am so enjoying this new baby. I feel so warm and enclosed and loved, and it’s been so great. Everyone is helping, and all I have to do is nurse the baby.”
This friend of mine has always been surrounded by love and has available, loving parents. She’s always had supportive siblings. Though their family has had some very tough times, they have stuck together and grown as human beings. My friend has also always had good friends, because she herself is a wonderful person. She believes and speaks the best of people. She’s enthusiastic about life and about loving other people. She is so filled up within herself that she has an abundance to give to others, and give she does. She’s someone who really never meets a stranger. The worst she ever does is to become cross. That’s what she says, “I felt so cross.”
She’s charming, really. Cross? Cross?! I wax absolutely bitchy on people, but she is merely cross. And she really is that way. Just a good, warm, kind-hearted human being. I don’t know anyone who knows her and doesn’t say that they feel enriched by knowing her. She is that sort of a human being.
So I started thinking about sorts of human beings. I thought about how my friend’s son-in-law died surrounded by love, and about how my other friend had her baby surrounded by love. I thought about how this love wasn’t just hanging in the air, because it came from people. And then I suddenly realized just how much I’ve dealt with in my life without a mother and father nearby, or a brother or any family member there for me. I thought about the hours I’ve spent sitting in a hospital by myself, and how only my husband or the children we were raising sat with us, and sometimes a friend from church. I remembered how none of our parents had the time or compassion or—what is it that you have when you will just sit with people, and help them by just sitting and loving on them, and being there? oh… is it love?—whatever it was we needed (it was love we needed). Didn’t have something to give. And really haven’t. And still don’t.
And I thought about all I handled as a young parent, when I could have used help but had none. The one time when my sixth or eighth child was born and I had an infection, and was in a lot of pain, and had to drive 45 minutes to a hospital to see a specialist and how I had to take my newborn and five or seven little children with me, because I had no help. And I did that myself. And didn’t even think about it ’til later, when I realized how I have so often just plodded on and pushed through and taken care of myself.
I realized then that people who have never had that sort of love or support just do it anyway, survive. Live. They do it and they don’t know any better until they get a vision and put into motion the ways and means that lead to that place of Family. Love. Being-there-ness. Then they realize one day that they are giving their children, and they are giving to us and to one another and to others, exactly what they didn’t have, but knew they needed. They’re pioneers in their own families of origin. It’s rough. But they’re making it because love is real.
Therapy and analysis and education and religion and spirituality can all change the course of a wounded person’s lifetime. Dreams can become reality.
My friend who had the baby told me that her own mother had also tearfully expressed to her how she, as a young mother, didn’t have the family support that she herself has been able to give to her own children. And I thought about how the Bible says “and women shall be saved through the bearing of children.” I thought about how we carry our own selves as we give our children what we know we should have gotten from our parents, but didn’t.
I thought about all those people whose parents or spouses or children die out of time, people who are not finished growing up themselves and absolutely have to go through hell before they are half ready (and who ever is ready? and yet… go we must). And about my friend’s daughter, who just lost her husband… and how wrong that is. And there was no free pass for her. I know she’s strong, though. And she has a good mom.
I don’t have a conclusion. I do know that it’s hard being a parent. It’s hard being a human being. It’s hard being someone’s child. Life is difficult. Life is suffering. There’s beauty in it, too, but it can be fleeting and sometimes the sun is gone for a long time.
The only thing that really compensates for the way life is, is true relationship with other people. God is a big help, and I’m not being weird about it when I write that. I love God and I can hardly wait to die, sometimes. I sometimes am just ready to move on, because it ain’t gonna get easier. I am such a spiritual and mental work horse that death seems like a vacation to me, sometimes.
But God is not really my own personal reason for sticking around. My own personal reason is people. I stick around because loving and beaing loved are meantingful. It means something to hold someone’s hand. It means something to sit in a crowded waiting room and to take turns sitting with a dying young man. It means something to call and tearfully say “I’m sorry.” It means something to show up at the funeral or memorial, tissues in hand. It means something to go to weddings and births, sicknesses, recoveries, anniversaries, drunken dancing parties and christenings, and deaths.
It means a lot. It means a lot to be there for someone. And so I thank God that there has always been someone there for me. How lucky and blessed I am. It reminds me of a verse in Isaiah, I think, where it says, “If even my mother and father abandon me, the LORD will take me up.”