Lori was laughing as she told me something her puppy had done. We were both on our way home after work Thursday afternoon. When I first called her, she was grumpy about the lousy week she’s had, but that changed after a few minutes. She was laughing and happy.
She suddenly sounded mildly annoyed and said she needed to take a phone call from her mother. Her mom had called five times since we had started talking, and that wasn’t like her.
About 20 minutes later, she texted me. She was in a daze. Her mother had been calling to say that her father has brain tumors.
When I called her back, she wasn’t the same happy young woman she had been. Her entire life had just been turned upside down. She still doesn’t know the details, but she’s leaving town first thing Friday morning to drive home — to deal with an uncertain future for the father she loves dearly.
And I’m sitting here thinking — again — just how uncertain our short lives really are.
I have no idea what it would feel like to get such a call. When I did get a phone call — a few years ago — that my father was in a hospital and probably dying, I felt almost nothing. But that’s because I had given him up years before when I had cut off contact with him.
As I thought of Lori’s situation, I had trouble putting myself into her shoes. I couldn’t think of any call I could get that would make me feel the same way. There are people in my life whose deaths would shock me and which would leave holes, but when I think about the category of people whose death would devastate me, well, I realize that I wouldn’t even get a call about the illness or death of such a person.
The only people whose death or illness would destroy me are people who nobody would call me about. Nobody would know or care that I would want or need to know. And as I thought about that, I suddenly realized that I did know what it might feel like to be in Lori’s position.
Nearly three years ago, something terrible was happening in the life of someone I had loved. Someone I’ll always love, it seems. Although we didn’t talk anymore, she let me know that she was on her way to an emergency room with symptoms that scared me. It sounded like something that could kill her.
I was terrified.
I also knew that she was in a position in which she wasn’t going to have anyone to take care of her the way she needed and deserved. She would have medical care, but no emotional support. I felt a combination of rage and fear and confusion.
Over the next couple of hours, all I wanted to do was drive to where she was and take care of her. She wouldn’t have wanted that or accepted that, but I was so upset about her need that I wanted to disregard everything — to just show up and say, “I’m here to take care of you, whether you like it or not.”
I have too much respect for other people’s right to make their own decisions to do that, but it’s the only thing that stopped me. I didn’t want to lose her. I didn’t even want to live in a world where I didn’t know she was there, somewhere. I was terrified of losing her. But if she was going to die, I wanted to be taking care of her until the end.
Yes, it was a ridiculous fantasy. I guess I wanted to be the one to come to the heroic rescue. Because facing her possible death made me willing to act in an absurdly crazy way.
I’m surprised that Lori’s situation has triggered this vivid and emotional memory for me. I guess, though, that it’s really just another way to look at the same issue. We’re all scared to lose the people we love.
And here’s what makes the least sense to me. Even though we are terrified of losing certain people, we often feel as though we will have forever to spend the time with them that we want and need. We’ll have forever to fix whatever needs to be fixed.
We can do it later. Always later. Put the decision off.
If this were a movie, Lori would move back home to take care of her father, whether he has months left or years or whatever. It would be the sort of scene that makes her realize how much she loves him and how much she needs him for the time he has left, so she would pack up her house next week and move hundreds of miles back home.
And if my life were a movie, I would find some way — through some absurd opportunity that only a screenwriter could make up — to go to a woman and say, “This is ridiculous. I have no idea why we’re not together. I’m here to figure that out and make that happen — no matter what it costs.”
Lori’s movie would end sweetly. She would be with her dad until the end, whether that end is next week or 10 years from now.
My fantasy movie would end sweetly, too. Problems would be solved. Communication would be cleared. Fears would be set aside. Truths would be told. Mountains would be moved. And love would triumph. Cue the credits as the happy family lives happily ever after.
But we’re not in movies. We’re flawed and ridiculous human beings who waste our time. Waste our lives. We love people and don’t do anything about it. We get confused about what’s important. And we lose the love we need more than anything else in this world.
If we really understood what matters in life, we would live our lives differently. We would make decisions that give priority to love — long before we’re worried that life might be slipping away from the one we love and need most.
We might be smart people, but we’re rarely very wise.