Thursday, November 18, 2010

Ode to George

George and I met almost 15 years ago when his best friend Mike (who was also his daughter Lisa’s father-in-law) married my mom. We weren’t actually related, but his son-in-law was my new step-brother, so we saw each other often at holidays and family gatherings. George and his wife quickly became part of my extended family, and I was pleased to have them. He was a happy person, always smiling, and had a compliment coming out of his mouth every time he saw me. He spoke to me as if he was my biggest fan, but truthfully, I shrugged it off thinking he was just trying to be nice. I enjoyed being around him, but we never really engaged in deep conversation or spent time one on one. He was 30 years older, so I don’t remember ever labeling him “friend”, nor did I think about him as someone who was in my inner circle. He was defined as Pop’s best buddy and Lisa’s dad. To me, he was just a sweet person who happened upon my life.

It was only about a year ago though that his place in my “circle” changed. It was while I was bedridden for months from a serious illness that I realized how much more of a connection I had with George. During that time my mother would come over or call and fill me in on what was going on in the outside world. “George wants you to know he was asking for you. George called today to see how you were. George wants to know if you are okay. George calls me every day and asks, ‘How is Donna?’” As weeks and months went by, these daily messages meant more and more to me. I had plenty of time to think about life while lying in that bed; about who was there as a friend, and who I could count on. I thought about my prior encounters with George and wondered why he seemed so concerned. Did I affect his life enough for him to really care, or was he just a nice guy trying to be polite? Then I started to think, “Could it be both?”

One of the most beautiful aspects of being human is the connection we can create with other people. When we take advantage of it, we can share great friendship, love, affection, and everything from a gentle touch to a soulful bond. We go in and out of each other’s lives, make contact, and sometimes it is with a BANG, and on other occasions it is just a bump. When we are aware and fully present, we can take and utilize what the person is offering. When we are asleep and not paying much attention at all, we usually miss the beauty and the contribution to our life that each human we meet is giving. George made me think about connecting, about how we exchange energy, and how cavalier I was with his friendship. As I got stronger, my mind became clearer, and I realized he had been offering me a gift all along; the gift of touch. It wasn’t a hand to hand or cheek to cheek contact, it was heart to heart, and it was real. All of those compliments he dished out through the years, all of the warm embraces and questions about my life and kids; they weren’t just small talk and mild gestures. They were coming from a place inside of him that loved people and truly cared. He was a genuine and gentle man, a loving friend who was trying to touch my life, and he was proving it every day of my illness with every phone call he placed.

Months passed, and as I healed, I continued to think of George’s kindness. His actions became a standard I was starting to use to evaluate other’s behavior, including my own, and soon I realized how superficial relationships can be. I decided I needed to adopt his attitude about life, and I made a pledge to go out of my way for others in order to mimic his kind ways. I also vowed to spend quality time with him the next occasion we were brought together. Unfortunately, I would only have a small window of opportunity to make that happen. Just a few months had gone by when I was told George had woken up slurring his words. Days later, surgeons opened his skull only to close him back up and declare he had one month to live. The day Mom called to tell me the sad news, I made her get my step-father on the phone and began to beg, “Please Pop, I have to see him. You have to take me to Flushing. Please arrange it. I really need to make sure I spend time with him before he dies!” Pop didn’t understand my urgency or apparent desperation, but he quickly made the phone calls and within a week, I was having lunch at the diner with him and “the boys” on his first post-surgical outing. Having the guys around made it difficult to speak one on one with him, but I believe we connected on a deeper level. Across the table, for the first time since we met, I allowed myself to feel the full impact of his energy, love, and goodness. I believed in the words he was conveying, and more importantly, I made sure he could feel my genuine concern for him in return.

Over the next two weeks, George underwent an additional brain surgery to try and lengthen his time, but there were complications and he slipped into a coma. Ten days later he died peacefully with his family all around him. I was happy that his ordeal was over. I was happy to have seen him one last time. I was happy to have known him. Closure was forthcoming, but there was a lingering energy that needed to be exchanged. It felt like there was one more message that was going to come through, and I wondered, “What else is left for George to teach me?”

The day of the funeral I woke up not feeling well, but knew I had to go to see him one last time. I left my house in the morning not expecting to experience anything more than sadness and a sharing of support for my step family, but at the church, I couldn’t stop crying. Water was just leaking out of me as if I had broken a pipe in my head, and as I tried to get in touch with the intense emotions, I looked around at all the people sitting near me. My tearful eye scanned the pews at the mourners I never met, to those I knew and cared about, and even to the funeral directors and priest. I realized that no one could possibly know what a profound effect George recently had on my psyche. He went from being an acquaintance I hugged at family gatherings, to a lesson I can embrace for life. A man who held my attention for moments at a time, to a person who captured my awareness and made me re-evaluate how I wanted to live. My heart was fully open and my view of how I wanted to share it changed because of his kind gestures and thoughtfulness.

However, there was more here than tears of gratitude. As the fluid drained, a new message emerged but this time, it wasn’t from George, it was because of George. There was the feeling of shame, of great disappointment in myself for “wasting” years I could have been learning from him and sharing a real connection. There was sorrow for not engaging in more thoughtful conversation and for not recognizing and accepting what he was offering to me. This message was emanating as an intense reaction to his death. Those tears were from regret; not an emotion I find even remotely useful, but it seemed so appropriate at that moment. My reoccurring thought was, “I knew him, but I never knew him. And worse, I never gave to him what he was trying to give to me.”

Funny thing about George is; if you would have asked me years ago to describe him, I would have said, “simple man”, meaning he was uncomplicated. Now, with him gone, I can say the same about the summation of the 81 years he spent here: It’s Simple! Love is not complicated. It doesn’t take more than a smile, a few thoughtful gestures, or a compliment delivered with genuine kindness to create the most positive effect on someone’s life. Now that he is a part of me, I hope to continue the tradition and I will never again take for granted the energy his memory offers. George, if you are listening, I got all your messages, and they finally came through, loud and clear.
XXOO With Love, Donna