Do I Know You?

Recently, I attended a celebration of life for a friend who died unexpectedly. Such a ceremony provides a positive sense of closure for those who mourn. It also marks an axis in life where we, the living, move forward recognizing that we have left a part of us behind. During the ceremony, individuals shared what was meaningful in their relationship with the deceased and ushered out the departed in the spirit of friendship and love.

 

After the ceremony a friend commented, “ Why do we extol the virtues of our friends or hear their story only after they die? Why are we not more curious when they are alive”? I had to think long and hard about that statement. What did I not know about those that I love? What had I never bothered to ask? Why had I not taken the opportunity?

 

My closest friend, confidante and connection on this planet is my husband, yet do I know him as well as I could? We have been married and worked side by side for over 3 decades, we have raised 2 adult children and shared many adventures but did he feel known to me in our relationship, did he feel supported and understood?

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That prompted questions, ones that I had never asked him, and it began with a favorite color. If my husband had a favorite, I certainly did not know. Imagine my shock at discovering it was aquamarine. Such a small thing, but overlooked. Benign questions led to ones that were more introspective. Questions like:

  • If you could invite 8 people, living or dead, over for dinner, whom would you pick?
  • What activity have you never done that you would love to try?
  • If you could have a superpower, what would you choose?
  • If you could change your job, what would you do?

 

Superficial questions lead to deeper ones, ones that plumb the inner experiential world that defines us, ones we may not verbalize unless asked.

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Such questions as:

  • What is one thing about you that I do not know?
  • What are your deepest shame and your biggest regret?
  • If you could change one thing about me what would it be? About yourself?
  • If you could give your children 1 gift in this life, what would you choose?
  • What sentence would you want written on your tombstone?
  • What do you think your friends will say about you when they attend your funeral?
  • In an ideal world, how would your life look 5 years from now?
  • What are the 3 life experiences that gave you the greatest joy? The greatest sadness?
  • What do you dream about most often?

 

It turns out; I do know my husband very well. That does not mean that I have not learned a great deal and grown closer to him in the sharing. Who knew he likes aquamarine? We continue the exercise, asking question then answering them for each other and in the sharing we are feel closer and better understood. If I truly love and respect another, I need be curious about them.

planet_earth_catman78_water_outer_space_sky_hd-wallpaper-1211968The greatest gift life has to offer is to share the planet with another who knows who you are and to someday leave the world as one who has been seen.

 

 

Photos from Tumblr

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The Brothers

On the way to Everest I met two remarkable brothers. We were all part of an international group of climbers destined for the big Himalayan mountains and trekkers whose goal was to make it to Everest Base Camp. The trek itself is not to be underestimated. It is no small matter to get to Base Camp and most who tackle it train beforehand to withstand the physical burden of an upward climb in thin air.

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The eldest brother, in his early 60s, was at an age compatible with Everest trekking, if you are fit. If you are overweight, out of shape and usually frequent five star hotels, it might be fair to ask whether your destination was Everett, WA and somehow you got on the wrong plane. Younger brother, at 57, had been a mountaineer in his 30s but since had a stressful and busy career managing a company. As life is prone to do, it had left him with a CPAP machine for sleep apnea, a significant waist circumference and an arthritic back. Never before outside the USA, younger brother was travelling on his first passport, and so, the first logical place to go must be Everest. For them, seeing Everest was a trip of a lifetime and a chance to bond following the death of their mother, but at our first meeting, I had my doubts whether they would ever reach their goal.

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As is often the case, looks deceive and it is the heart and will that counts, qualities the brothers had in spades. Each day we would set off as a group and every day the group would decompose into a fast group, a slow group and the brothers. Every day the brothers arrived late, exhausted but euphoric, surprising themselves and us with their physical accomplishment. Higher and higher we went and when it seemed impossible they could go on, they showed up. Their enjoyment and wonder at the surrounding vistas was infectious and younger brother’s first view of Everest encapsulated the combined joy of a child at Disneyland on his birthday. I was moved by the realization that for him, the trek was as much spiritual journey as it was a physical one.

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Somehow, the brothers made it to Everest basecamp. For one, the nights required supplemental oxygen and after two days at the foot of the highest mountain in the world, they decided to return by helicopter, as making it to this point, they had given everything that they had to give. What had been a warm up for some had been a peak experience for them and it was time to go home. I was sad to see them go. What they had given of themselves to get there, and what they had given us in inspiration, was everything that they had and in doing so, had gained my admiration.

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Climbing in the Himalaya was exhausting and it will be a while before I return, but not so for the brothers. They recently emailed to say that they will to do it all again in 2015!

Remembering Jack

I might say I lost Jack, and lead you to believe that I somehow misplaced him, like I do my car keys. The fact is, Jack died, and lost is a euphemism, a soft, proxy word for death, to cushion the pain of its reality. I don’t like euphemisms. They detach my grief, and so, where I could say I Lost Jack, I prefer to say Jack died. He was important to me and when I write about him now, I want to feel as connected to him as I did when he was here. He was my friend, my best friend, and he is dead. That is a statement that I can feel.

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Back in the late 1970s, in spite of a 30-year age difference, Jack and I commenced a close and active friendship. Thirty-seven years ago, when I was young and vulnerable, he probably sensed that I needed a father figure and without hesitation, he and his family took me in. At the time I was a fledgling teacher and he was my Science Department Head. For me, he exemplified everything I admired in a man: intelligent and wise; patient and kind; principled yet non- judgmental. (It is no surprise that years later, I married such a man). Jack was a role model for me professionally, but more importantly, in life. Backpacking, hiking and skiing were passions he, his wife and I shared and together we spent many weekends exploring the Kootenay backcountry.

tumblr_m8ffogaq3p1rdod86o1_1280 In 1993, after I had moved away, changed careers and married, our friendship remained. Then, just as my step dad was dying from a protracted, and for him, humiliating illness with prostate cancer, Jack was diagnosed with the same disease. While I grieved the future loss of yet another father figure, Jack carried on until one day, at Kokanee Glacier on a great powder day, Jack breathed in the cold mountain air, carved a turn and was swept forever away.

After 30 years in medicine I have witnessed many ways to die and some are better than others. Early in my medical career, I felt a special grief for those who succumbed to sudden death, their goodbyes stolen away, but over the years, as I witnessed many more undergo the protracted, painful deaths of chronic disease and cancer, sudden death seemed less tragic than it used to,especially when juxtaposed with the prolonged suffering of so many.

 

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As I have aged, I have resolved the bulk of my grief over Jack’s death by recognizing that he died as he lived: fully engaged in the moment, before it became the last moment he ever had. I miss his solid presence but his spirit is very much with me skiing the back country and in the mountains.. It makes me smile to think how happy he would be to share these adventures.

 

Photos off Tumblr of Kokanee Glacier

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Friendship

And let your best be for your friend.
If he must know the ebb of your tide, let him know its flood also.
For what is your friend that you should seek him with hours to kill?
Seek him always with hours to live.
For it is his to fill your need, but not your emptiness.

Khalil Gibran

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Sometimes when I don’t expect it, the TV news breaks my heart. Recently, a woman described her anguish over a daylong interruption in her Internet service. She sat with her computer, alone and small, in her drab living room and relayed to the reporter the story of how, for an inconceivable 24 hours, she had been unable to contact any of her 800 Facebook friends. This was not an inconvenience for her; it was a wound that left a gaping hole in her life. As I listened to her experience, I was profoundly affected by the story beneath the story, the real one, about loneliness. Why was no one discussing that? Here was an individual who, when severed from her virtual “friends”, did not have a living human being to call upon. That to me, was news.

I tired to imagine a day in the life of an individual with 800 Facebook friends. Alone in cyberspace, logged on to Facebook mining other people’s lives for the hope buried in inspirational quotes, the vicarious happiness of other’s holidays, families and parties all with the nasty bits of real life (the parts where you are at odds with your family, work at a stressful job, have a mood disorder or are alone) scrubbed out. Or perhaps instead, I’d imagine being someone who preferred to zero in on cyber friends who aren’t shy about their chaotic lives and talk nonstop about painful issues. That might make me feel more together and thus, superior.

Regardless of which path I chose, I hope at some point I would take a step back from my virtual life and remember that real friendships unlike virtual friendships, are not free of commitment. Real friends want me to share with them my presence, my support, my time, my love or just a phone call. A friendship exists because two people have chosen to invest in each other and in the giving, are both rewarded. It is the reciprocity between two individuals that cements the bond of friendship and makes it one of the most rewarding of human experiences.

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Never before the advent of Facebook could a single human claim to have 800 friends and at the same time, none at all. I am lucky to have a handful of friends and for me, they are everything that I need. When it comes to friendship, if the Internet was down, I would not notice. Along with my family, my friends guarantee that I am never alone.

Last photo from Tumblr

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