A colleague was standing outside my door this afternoon talking to another co-worker of ours. As he was doing so, he was thoroughly examining the Cutie orange he had just peeled. He looked at it quizzically, cocked his head, grimaced and choked half of it down. He swallowed hard, then shook his head. His most unusual response to eating this delightful little nugget of almost pure sugar generated an inquiry on our part. I mean, who doesn’t like fruit? Unless, of course, we are talking about overly ripe bananas (a topic that was thoroughly covered in Bananas Are All the Rage) or papaya (because I think we can all agree, that shit is just gross.) Otherwise, fruit is pretty awesome.
So when we asked why he was so troubled by eating fruit, and moreover, why he was forcing himself to do it he said, “Oh, I just eat fruit because I have children.” I remarked that it was noble of him to serve as a role model to his children, even when they aren’t around to witness his behavior. To which he replied, “It’s not that. It’s that my old man died at the age of 49, and I’d prefer to live to see my children as adults.”
My ears immediately perked up and my posture straightened. I motioned him into my office and asked more questions. How old were you when he died? What did he die of? How was your relationship with him? Do you think his untimely death has made you more aware of your own mortality? Do you think it has given you fuel for your passions and your drive in life? He sat down on the couch in my office and answered my questions, one by one. He was unfazed because he knew in that moment what I knew, too…we are in the same tribe.
Isn’t it strange how our pain can join us? And yet, I would offer that there are few things in life that can bond us together more. I suppose that is true for everyone; I know it is true for me. I am blessed with more friends than I am even sure I deserve, but the ones who understand the darkest, saddest and most sacred corners of my soul are the ones who lost a parent too soon. They are the friends who understand that no matter how joyful my spirit is – no matter how silly, how funny, how passionate, how wise I am – I carry with me a well of grief that never, ever goes away. Ever-present, it’s just there. I hardly notice it most of the time and for practical purposes, I’ve learned to live around it. But I’ll be the first to admit, there are some circumstances that can tweak me in just the right way and my grief will come pouring out of me with the force of an uncapped fire hydrant on a hot summer day. My grief is a comfortable, old friend or an angry, jilted lover depending on the day.
As my colleague and I talked through our feelings in an impromptu therapy session of sorts, we concluded by reminding ourselves how reassuring it is to find someone who has had a similar experience as you. I am not the only one who has vacillated between feeling grateful I’ve not had the same fate as my mother and then wondering if I am on borrowed time. I am not the only one who sees the beauty of my determination to live passionately, strong, smart, and hard in a way that could only come from an awareness of the impermanence of life. I am not the only one who wants to make sure I make my best and most important mark on the world as soon as I can.
That is the beauty of finding a member of your own tribe. You remember that you are not the only one.
My nieces are in your tribe. My brother in law (Jim’s brother) died three years ago at 47. My nieces were 15 and 13.