I have not written on Medium in quite a while. But on Wednesday, I did a storytelling show called “So What Happened Was…” This is a show run by Asher Novek where the idea is that you tell a story of something that happened to you in the last week. I’ve done it twice and both times I found it to be a really great exercise. I’ve never been a journaling type, so I can’t quite explain why what Asher has created works for me when deliberately trying to keep a diary or blog never has. But, it inspired me to try to do something similar on here. I would try to make a story out of whatever significant thing has happened to me in the preceding week. We’ll see if I can stick to it. It will be hard because I am not going to publicize the first entry. It’s about a friend of mine dealing with a death in his family and to post this all over social media would feel exploitive to me. But that also means that this venture will have to start off its existence without the little life giving sarotonin boost of the likes and hearts and retweets and comments we’ve all come to rely on. It will just have to live here for whoever might find it and I will have to suck it up and dig up my own motivation to dive back in next Friday. So, if you’ve found it, I hope you enjoy it. — Brad
Dec. 2nd — 8th
There are three things, about me and my life, that are pertinent to what happened this past week.
First, I was raised religious, but am not anymore. I’m also not an atheist. Oh, I was when I first got free of my childhood religion. Loud and proud, marching around letting everybody know. Then one day, I was looking through a National Geographic or a Nova or something and there was this graphic that was meant to illustrate Earth’s place in the known universe. It was this series of telescoping maps. Here’s Earth and the moon. Then it zooms out and here’s the solar system. Then out to the local group of planetary systems, then galaxy, then local group of galaxies, then the visible universe, and then the best possible guess at the general shape of the whole enchilada. By the time you got to the solar system graphic, Earth was little more than a dot. Beyond that it was too small to even consider.
It occurred to me in that moment that a race of people who have never been off their home planet in any meaningful way professing any sort of belief about the nature of such a vast universe was nonsense. We were the cosmic equivalent of the High School kid who’s read three chapters of A People’s History of the United States and now can’t wait to really let his uncle, the Vietnam Vet, have a good dose of the hard truth over Thanksgiving Dinner.
Assholes. We’re assholes.
Which brings us to the second thing you have to know, which is that I have grown a mustache. It started off as a prop for a bit that my wife and I were doing on stage. When I didn’t shave it off the next day, Cyndi was so disturbed and uncertain in such a delightful way that I thought, “Oh Yeah. This is a keeper.”
Of course, I’m a man of my age, and I naturally harbored dreams of Magnum PI and Robert Redford in Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid. However, the best review I’ve gotten so far has been “suave Commissioner Gordon.” Good enough for me.
The third thing you need to know is that I have outlived a father, three siblings, a couple of close friends, and most recently my Step-father and my Brother in Law. So, death doesn’t freak me out. I’m not cold or jaded. I am still capable of compassion and human feeling. But when death comes up or happens to someone near me, I’m not taken wholly off guard by that. I’ve ridden that bike before and I know what lies ahead for them.
Which brings us to Saturday. I was somewhere I was not supposed to be, which is to say, above 14th street, when I ran into my friend Robert (name changed). This was weird for a variety of reasons, not least of which was that Robert also should not be above 14th street. — But who knows what you’ll find when you leave the map of the known world. — It was also weird because Robert and I work together on a lot of projects. Also, he and I and a few other friends get together maybe twice or three times a month for dinner. So, this is someone I am very used to seeing deliberately and in certain places at certain times. Seeing him suddenly at 25th street in the middle of the afternoon has a running into your teacher outside of school kind of vibe.
But also, there is Robert’s appearance. He is white. And his eyes look raw and flat. And when I come walking up to him, his expression seems disjointed, like it’s on a seven second delay.
We both say some version of “Weird seeing you up here” and then he gestures towards a car that is pulling away and says “You just missed Sarah.” Another member of our dinner party group. Then I say, “What’s up with you?” And he turns back to me and he says, “My father just died this morning.”
Now I recognize the raw, flat look in his eyes. It is a question, that look. The question is, “Do you or does anyone, anywhere, know what I am supposed to do with the giant boulder of loss and pain and confusion that has just crashed down on me from the upper atmosphere?”
The answer to that question is “No.” But it is hard to say that to someone who is hurt and in shock and so people tend to fill that space with what I refer to as The Burden of Other People’s Empathy. With the best of intentions, they ask you The Questions — Was it sudden? Had he been sick? How did it happen? How old was he? Were you close? How is your Mom? These are the questions that you are going to be answering over and over again for weeks, if not months. It’s totally natural, people are trying to empathize. They want to feel your pain and be there with you. I had a girl one time feel my pain so much she burst into tears. They’re trying to get the information that will let them feel like they can put themselves in your place. It is a good impulse, it’s well meaning and perfectly natural in the best of humanity kind of way.
Except for the girl who cried, she needed to get her shit together.
But, for however natural or well intentioned, it gets repetitive and intrusive. Not because it’s wrong, just because it’s imperfect. And human.
But the experienced at death can do one thing for those who visit the territory less frequently and that is to not do that.
So, I asked Robert none of The Questions. I hugged him. I let him sort of lay out what his next steps were. Then I hugged him again and I said, “I love you. I am sorry you’re in pain. If you need anything, you know how to get a hold of us.”
Then I let him get on with doing some really hard shit. There are just a lot of things in this life that you have to go through alone. The best anyone can offer you is that they will be near at hand.
I moved on with my day, but I thought a lot about Robert.
Later, our mutual friend Sarah started sending around updates and info about how we could send condolences to the family and all the rest. In the middle of this, she sent me a side message. She said “You were the perfect person for him to run into, he talked about that a lot. And about how you recently lost your step-father.” It felt good for me to hear that. This above is written like I have an on-hand strategy for coping with the bereaved. But this is me looking back and reverse analyzing my own instincts in the context of my own experience. The moment I walked away from Robert I was wondering if I had handled that well, if I was the friend he needed me to be, or if I had come off as uncaring or cold because I hadn’t asked The Questions and that is what you’re supposed to do. Maybe I had left him feeling let down and even more alone with all of the horror that had fallen in his lap. I was very gratified to hear that that was not the case.
Then Sarah said, “He also talked about how he felt calmed and drawn in by that beautiful mustache.”
I don’t believe in an interventionist God. I also don’t not believe in an interventionist God. But if by chance there is one and he put me on the right strange corner at the right weird hour with right bizarre thing on my face to be the right person to provide my friend some comfort when he needed it, then I am grateful.