Monday, April 20, 2015

The Value of a Hug

Every trip has the potential to be a revelation.

An old friend, more acquaintance really, traded on to my Frankfurt trip this weekend. We've known and known of each other for many years but seldom fly together due to our seniority disparity. Much of our friendship, I would say, is predicated on friendships we share with colleagues and other friends. An airline is an extended family of sorts carrying all of the good and bad connotations thereof. While many of our relationships can bear the superficiality of “Hi. How've you been?”, others go much deeper. Ours is an artificial community whose existence lasts hours, days, decades, or a lifetime, depending on how well the chemistry works!

It's possible to be generally aware of how a colleague's life has been going without ever seeing or interacting with that colleague. Thus was my general knowledge of Sally's (not her real name) life. “Telephone, telegraph, tell-a-Flight Attendant”, working for an airline is much like social media in one regard: once something is disclosed, the right to privacy ceases to exist. You can't put the genie back into the bottle. 

Sally and I shared snippets about our current life situations at different times during our trip: on the van ride, during the walk to the gate, etc. But such conversations suffer unforeseen interruptions and distractions, making it difficult to process the gravity of what's being said. When she came down early from 2nd break on the flight home, I had just finished prepping my B zone galley for the pre-arrival service. So, we shared tea and a real talk.

Sally's husband is a cancer survivor. That is not to say he is well...far from it. His lung cancer with metastasis to the brain has required grueling treatments, including radiation and chemotherapy. Terms like “carboplastin”, “whole brain radiation”, and “gamma knife surgery” were all too familiar from my Dad's cancer battle which ended with his death in 2012. It's grueling for the afflicted. It's sheer hell for the caregiver. Sally's stoic recitation of fact after fact was all so eerily familiar: my mom would recount Dad's interventions, his successes, his losses in the same, matter-of-fact way. How could she do anything else? To communicate how she FELT about what she was saying would reveal just how futile it feels to be in her position: love, material and emotional support, giving all you have are just no match for stage 4 cancer.

I acknowledged what Sally had revealed.  We went on to talk about other family members. Children and grandchildren can be great solace to someone in a grievous circumstance. Sally's interest in my life was as genuine as mine in hers. In a few minutes, we took our relationship to another level. Then, as serendipitously as our chat began, it ended with a call bell or other similar interruption. But it left me with a new level of understanding and appreciation for the life of a colleague and friend. I remember thinking, “I'm sorry we were interrupted. I want to give Sally a real hug before we get off the airplane.” I wanted her to know that I heard her, that I understood what she was saying, as well as the emotions she must be feeling and a hug seemed like the right way to do it. But I didn't. The opportunity passed because of any number of perfectly legitimate circumstances and I'm left to wonder, “Will I get that chance again?”

During our trip, Sally also confirmed that a mutual friend of ours had been recently diagnosed with stage 4 liver cancer. She received the dreaded news that what remains of her life can be measured in months. When this friend retired a few years ago, I remember thinking I might never see her again. She had been such a help to me during my Dad's illness. We flew all-night trips to Buenos Aires together and the chances for meaningful conversation were more plentiful. I found her counsel, her insights, her humor to be just what I needed at the time, in spite of the fact that she and I had no real previous basis for friendship. I grew very fond of her. And then, poof! We haven't seen each other since.

Our lives are pathways that start in the same place and end at the same destination. In between, our paths cross, diverge, run in parallel, offering us opportunities to acknowledge and support one another. That's where we have a chance to make our mark.  There's purpose to every intersection and every divergence. Do we take advantage of the opportunities that come our way? Some are monumentally obvious; others, more subtle.

When I arrived home last night, I happened across this link. It could be a scientific fact or new age mumbo-jumbo. Either way, it crossed my path at a curious time, don't you think?

I've just finished sending a “virtual hug” to my friend who received the liver cancer diagnosis. It was a difficult note to write.  But one of the most valuable lessons I learned during my dad's illness is that some friends don't cope well with mortality.  They're uncertain what words or actions are appropriate.  So, they say or do nothing.  Right or wrong, we value ourselves through the eyes of others, even at the end...maybe especially at the end.  What does it say when lifelong friends "can't cope"?

The next time I see Sally, I think I'll start with a hug rather than lamenting the missed opportunity. I hope that our paths cross again soon.