You have to be a friend to have a friend. I believe that. I am not the only person traveling this road. I have family and friends who are walking with me.
On October 29th Barb’s sister called to say that their mom was not waking. Barb’s mom was on dialysis for a couple of months before she decided to terminate treatment. It only took about a week for her body’s toxicity to bring her to the brink of death. Barb had been out to see her mom only a week before that. She wanted to be there again, but she had work to do. She was thinking that she could fly out to see her mom in the coming week. First she had to go to court on two different matters. She wished that were not the case, but, like anyone who lives far from family, she was not free to drop what she was doing and go to her mom’s side.
I have been in similar situations several times in my life. I have stayed at my desk working. I have dropped what I was doing to fly home. I have flown home and been pursued doggedly by a partner who did not respect my family’s need for my time and attention. I have refused to sacrifice family for work and been punished for it. There is no easy way to be the person you want to be when your time has ceased to be your own. I have met few people whose time is their own.
Barb and I met the next day to go to mass together. We lit candles for our families and prayed for strength to handle whatever might be coming in our lives. In the minutes before the mass started a “senior” rose from his pew and walked slowly up to the church’s beautiful grand piano. He sat on the bench and studied the keys. Then he began to play Amazing Grace.
Both of us cried. We bent our heads forward so that our hair concealed our expressions, but we could not help but identify for own reasons with that plaintive and yet graceful expression of thanks for God’s love. When he finished playing, the man returned to his seat. He was not part of the mass, but he was part of its ministry to my soul.
An hour later we were at Barb’s office. We sometimes get together on weekends and work on our respective matters separately in the same space. We call this “study hall.” We had picked up some lunch at Whole Foods and were seated at her firm’s conference table eating. Barb checked her phone messages. Her sister and brother had called to say that she needed to fly out that day to be sure she could see her mom before her mom died.
Barb could envision a way to reschedule her Wednesday court date but not her Monday hearing. She wanted to call her partners and ask if one of them could appear for her the next morning. One partner was traveling and unreachable. The other had personal reasons for being unwilling to appear in court the next morning. Watching a good friend struggle over her desire to be with her family and her responsibility to her client was difficult.
A colleague from Roosevelt University has told paralegal students that there are three things you do not trust to the care of an attorney: plants, pets, and people. That is an exaggeration, but not a falsehood.
I worked with a partner who once received a call from her boss who said, “I understand you are home today because you’re having a miscarriage. You’d better be bleeding to death because I needed your help today.” I told a partner that I needed to take it easy after my father’s death. I wanted to be taken off of a client’s case so that I would have time to handle my grief and family matters. The partner said, “We’re your family now. If you can just focus on work for the next six or seven years you can become a partner here. Then you can spend time with your family.” When my Grandma F died, a partner from my firm insisted that the sexton rush a fax to the graveside so that I could comment on it. The deal to which it related would not close for five more months. I once went to the hospital thinking I was having a heart attack. It turned out to be a seizure of my esophagus. A client called during the hours when I was at the hospital for evaluation. He said to my secretary, “In the event she dies today will someone else get my memo out to me tonight? I’d really like to have it tomorrow.” My ex-husband worked for a partner who used to say, “A friend in need is no friend of mine.”
I volunteered to go to court for Barb because she matters to me.
She changed her tickets from a Wednesday evening departure to a departure for later in the day. She asked the airline to waive a reservation change fee for compassionate reasons. It refused to do so. I guess lawyers aren’t the only insensitive people. She handed me her file to review. I also looked at an employment policy manual to identify support for the termination of an employee. Barb had to submit something the next morning for an unemployment hearing for a family business. She contacted the other counsel on her Wednesday court matter and arranged for a continuance of the matter.
An hour later we were in my car. I drove her to her home so she could pack a suitcase. I was not yet able to walk up the stairs in her home so I sat on the sofa in her study and waited while she packed and searched for some photos to post at a memorial service if her mom did not survive.
Then I drove Barb to the airport, drove to my house to pack a bag, and drove to my mom’s house. It was easier to drive to the courthouse from my mom’s home than from mine.
Barb’s “Mim” died the next evening with her three children and other family around her.
This is what love is all about. Whether we talk about family or friends we need to help each other do the things that matter. Barb has visited me in the hospital, joined me for doctor’s appointments, and supported me in troubling times. I do the same for her.
I like to say that life is like air travel. We may encounter some turbulence during our flight. In that event that we lose air pressure oxygen masks may drop. Take your own mask and put it on before helping someone else don her mask. That makes sense, but sometimes we don’t have to choose who to put first. I am reminded of an entry in one of my favorite books, Hugh Prather’s Notes on Love and Courage. He wrote:
Is your first responsibility to yourself? The question is misleading; that is, it misleads the person who takes it to heart. It’s like asking, must you shift your weight in order to walk. Of course you must, but anyone who concentrates first on shifting his weight will not walk well.
I know Barb feels alone now. Her brother has his wife and daughter. Her sister has her ex and her two children. Barb is single. She feels that keenly now that both of her parents have passed. But she will not always feel that way because she has opened her life to friends who love and support her. All of us have opportunities to reach out to a friend in a moment of need. No matter how much suffering we experience in our own lives we can still give to others.
I look around me and see lots of people smiling through pain in part because of the support of others. My mom is suffering from gout and arthritis, but she shops almost every week for a friend who must stay home on a respirator. My sister Kathy has been dealing with some health problems. She has a business to run and some employees who refuse to work together. But she is busily writing letters to protest my treatment at work. My brother Danny has to live in Texas by himself until he and his wife can sell their home and live together in Texas. He makes himself available for late night calls from a friend going through divorce. My friend Roberta has already supported two parents and a sister through the end of their lives. She is settling her sister’s estate. But she sends me a funny card every couple of days to cheer me up. My cousin Susie has a new grandbaby, her own health issues, and a recent experience of helping a brother through his battle with cancer, but she calls every few days to see how I am doing. My friend Kim is a single mom with a busy life, but she has offered to come up to help me during radiation and chemotherapy. My friend Dominique has kids at home, a busy job, and various opera engagements, but she has offered to take a day off to take me to treatment. My friend Mary has a family, a very demanding job, and a mom and a brother she is trying to look after. She calls every couple of days. She has paid for a housekeeper to clean my home while I’m in treatment. My friend Paul has just stood by a friend during a long battle with cancer. His father is not well. His mom needs his loving support. He is about to move to a new home. He is extremely busy at work. But he calls to see how I am doing. He drops what he is doing to listen when I call to talk about how I feel about how my life is changing.
I could go on, but have made my point. As they say in the Bounty paper towel commercials, “Life is messy.” You can wish it were different or you can accept life the way it is and make the most of it by opening the doors and welcoming others to share your journey. I am grateful for the people who walk this road with me. I hope they know that I am available to help them if they need me. It’s not all about me. It’s about us. All of us.