As you will no doubt recall, I provided a bit of solace to a woman on the bus in October. It was accidental, but surprisingly fulfilling. Since I spent so much time pondering that interaction, I thought I would give you an update.
I ran into her again on the bus, perhaps a month or so ago. I sat down in my usual spot, at the front, behind the driver, and looked to my right. To my surprise, there she was. I leaned over a bit and whispered, “bonjour” in her direction. Hello. Without looking up, she twitched a bit. I said it again, “bonjour.” No, really, hello. She looked up and for a moment did not recognize me. But in a flash, and it felt like one transpired between us, all of it clearly came back to her. She smiled the biggest smile I’d seen from a stranger in months and repeated the greeting, “bonjour!” Conscious of the many people around, I simply wanted to hear how things were going, “Ça va?” “Oui, ça va. Meilleur. Meilleur.” Yes, better. Better. Smiling back, “Bon. Très bon.” And with that, we were done. As she got up for her stop, she reached over and patted my arm, “À prochaine.” Until next time.
I’m struck in these last few months on how powerless we can be, yet how powerful we can feel. Since slightly before leaving New Orleans and continuing after my arrival here in Brussels, I have experienced a series of losses.
- My dear friend, Patsy Phipps, passed away before I even arrived here in Brussels, but I did not know it until I was here. I found out on Facebook, haphazardly. To this day, I still do not know the cause of her death.
- A very kind friend, someone who gave me great love and compassion and guidance and training, Jeremy Johnson, passed away right before I left … he drowned at Navarre Beach on an annual vacation … an incredibly unexpected and grave loss, not just for me but for the entire New Orleans community.
- My Mentor and Life Coach of 12 years, Nadine Henneman, passed away since I’ve been here, just a week after I spoke to her … a heart attack. Nadine was a unique, thoughtful, radical woman who did not care what others thought. She lived for herself, and she instilled so many wonderful habits in me and nurtured out the ones that needed a little tug. She guided me to where I am today. I wake up each day with the goal of being a better person, friend, companion, professional, than I was the day before. One of our defining moments as Mentor and Mentee was when she told me that in all of her years of practice, she’d never had a client who worked as hard as I did to be the best “me” … and I believe her. She helped me to listen to my voice, follow my heart, and to do what was right for me and no one else. And if that wasn’t enough motivation, the mere fear of her wrath was enough to make the right decision in any situation. My motto for life is now, “What would Nadine say?” Trust me; if I didn’t do the right thing for myself before, I always do the right thing now.
- Then, as if the above losses weren’t enough, in a devastatingly twisted punch in the heart, I lost one of my very best friends, Christopher, to suicide, on January 22nd. I have never lost a person to suicide … rather, I have only lost simply by death, in all of its other forms. Christopher’s loss was perhaps the worst of all of the others. Though I miss Nadine and Ms. Patsy regularly, and I see Jeremy’s smiling face next to my mirror each day, Christopher’s death was one I am still having trouble reconciling. Unlike the others, I think this is because his death was an avoidable one. I won’t go into the details, but suffice it to say that there was a way, but I didn’t realize there was no will to find that way. In fact, I thought we’d found the will and the way together … but I was wrong. I do not take responsibility for it, but I do feel the void in a way like no other. With Nadine, it was time to move forward; I was ready. But with Christopher … there are no words.
- As though these four aren’t enough, we’ve also lost two people in the family: one to “natural” causes and the other to suicide again. This totals six deaths in just six short months. I’ve spent a lot of my time here in Brussels grieving, and it’s been difficult not to be able to be there for my friends and family and to have the comfort of home. But, in the last week or so, I have come out of the fog a bit and started to feel more like myself. So, when you see that I haven’t written since October, it is not that I did not want to so much as that I had no words.
An attorney has an immense amount of power: the power to change people’s lives forever. Though most of us strive to do the best good with the least we have, others abuse that power, and the rest simply go through the motions, practicing, arguing, following the book to the T. Yes, the book is necessary to achieve the goals, but using the book for the benefit of the whole is usually the purpose of law. An attorney that I worked with for many years once said to me that being a lawyer held more power than any job in the world, in politics as President or Prime Minister or otherwise. He would reiterate, we are all just actors, reading our lines, playing our part. Although I can acknowledge this to some extent, I think we have a greater purpose than a simple theater act. When the audience cries for an encore, you know you have done well. With that privilege of being an attorney comes a great deal of responsibility, and an even greater amount of power.
However, despite all of this power and ability, we are truly powerless in “natural” death. Yet even the term “natural” transcends some bounds. Last night, I woke from a dream with a start. I was standing on the top of a mountain, looking out over the greatness of a beautiful range. The sun shined bright and there were only a few clouds in the sky. As I stood there in a trance, reveling in the cool breeze and the breathtaking view, I saw what appeared to be a missile, a bomb, something flying through the air to a pre-determined destination. It hit, and as I watched with wonder and thought about whether it would be able to touch me, the shock wave came closer to me, covering everything in its path, and when it hit me, a deafening sonic boom.
For those who know me, you know I am not religious. I find it enlightening that the day I experience this is Ash Wednesday. I was raised strict Roman Catholic, going to Church several times a week and I even served as an Altar Server for many years. But, after my father’s death and then my mother’s, I stopped going to Church except for special occasions. I could not be there anymore, and until Nadine, did not realize why. But over the years, I have come to terms with many things, not the least of which is the acceptance that “going to Church” is not necessary to be a good person and to have a kind heart. We can be good to each other for the sole purpose of just that. So, as I woke from this dream with a start, my immediate concern was whether anyone else had heard that boom, and more importantly, whether I had escaped death. I suddenly realized that all of the power in the world could not save us from our subconscious, or even our super-subconscious.
It’s true, I enjoy my professions. I love the ability to critically analyze and to really impact people, to find that one line that sets us all free … and therein lies the bridge and the closure to the gap of connected-ness. As an attorney, a social worker, an educator and a community organizer, I can very plainly, and sometimes very quickly, see the impact I have on others. To be conscious of that effect is more than half of the responsibility each profession entails. Power is a defiant skill; we must treat it with care.
Unlike Nietzsche’s old adage, what doesn’t kill us makes us stronger, perhaps, maybe better said is this: within that which kills others, lie lessons to learn. In each of these six deaths, we have stumbled upon something about ourselves that we did not consciously know existed. It may not make us stronger, per se, but it certainly made us more aware. Aware of our mortality, our fragile states, our opportunities to grow and love and become more united. Surprisingly enough, these six deaths also led me to realize some other things about myself and my parents’ deaths, revelations which occur, usually, on a simple bus ride.
And so, perhaps the title of the last substantive post on this blog was true in more respects than I originally intended: compassion truly knows no boundaries. Despite the ocean, the time, the money and the distance, we have pulled together and been there for each other. We have poured our hearts and souls out over every imaginable mainstream chat program and via Skype, face-to-face. But what strikes me most is that although each day goes by and the loss feels a little less grueling, little by little, I grow. We all grow. We find the powerhouse within ourselves to continue on our path and though some of these deaths may not have happened “for a reason” … we can find a reason. And that reason is us.
Call an old friend today. Help a stranger. Become the best person you can be. Therein lies your true power. No one can ever take that away from you, and it will still be there in the hearts of others when you are gone.