For you and me this is a hypothetical question, because in that way we’re lucky.
But the rhetoric is real for my friend.
A couple of weeks ago, I went to get a fast food dinner to support some of my favorite families, because the restaurant was giving half the value of anything purchased that night to their school. I’m all about the two-toned beauty of take-out and showing up when it counts, so to me, it was a win-win.
Based on the ginormous line snaking out the door when I got there, half the neighborhood agreed. Regardless, I dutifully stepped up, wrenched my phone from the ankle-biters, and hummed We Want the Funk under my breath to pass the time.
We want the funk! George Clinton Image via Flickr
It seemed that the lady behind me, who was clutching two kids wearing the uniform of the school I was there to support, didn’t like old-school hip-hop. Or me. She was mad, and she wasn’t singing a decades-old song under her breath. Instead, she ran off a litany of rants that sounded a lot like:
“This line is ridiculous!”
“Do people (me) think we have all night to order?”
“I can’t believe,” heavy sigh, “that someone (me again) would be on their phone in the middle of a restaurant.”
My son, Taylor, was at basketball practice, my husband out of town, I had two straight-from-the-pool, dripping wet daughters next to me, I needed to be three places at once, I wanted to be a good friend, and I quickly glanced at my phone to place the order Taylor had texted about an hour before.
She probably thought I was playing Fruit Ninja, or trolling Safari for articles about Demi Moore. But I wasn’t. I was just doing my job as short-order cook and chauffeur extraordinaire for the fam. Oh yeah, and supporting her kids’ school.
As the back of my head absorbed her string of accusations, it became obvious she was frazzled. But no more so than anyone else. Her kids were probably hungry. Ditto that. And she obviously didn’t mind taking the news ticker of complaints running through her mind straight to the street.
That’s where I stopped short.
I was this close to going there, and shoving my phone down her throat. But my soggy girls, wilting by the minute and aware that something was off, stared up at me with a look that questioned a lot more than the menu. So I kept my mouth shut.
A rotary phone is hard to shove down someone’s throat. Image via Wikipedia
Instead, I stood there and thought of twelve things I’d say to her if I were alone. That night? I woke up at 3:00 a.m. and thought of twenty-three more. I completely obsessed over ways I could fictitiously tell her where to go and how to get there until the next day, when I found out about my friend’s brain tumor.
And then? That lady disappeared, and instead of stalking my every thought, took up zero percent of my space. Which is where she should have been all along.
I tell anyone who will listen, but especially my kids, that it’s the small things in life that matter. What I don’t often let on, because I forget it myself, is there are many smaller ones that don’t.
With that in mind, I’m asking you to help me with one of those small things that matters most. Whether you pray, think positively, or wish upon stars, please keep my friend in your heart. His surgery really is tomorrow, he’s one of the good guys, and the world is a much better place with him around.
What was your first thought when you found out about your tumor?
Am I going to die? Be paralyzed? Permanently brain-damaged? What am I going to tell my oldest daughter, Maria?
What is your present state of mind?
That my life is on hold. I’m worried complications may draw out what I expect to be an unpleasant experience, and I’m not looking forward to a hole being drilled in my head. I’m also hoping that I’m not too much of a burden on my wife.
What is your idea of perfect happiness?
To be healthy, financially independent, and spend my days reading, skiing, trail running, cycling, traveling, and playing with my kids.
What is your greatest fear?
Disappointing the people who rely on me.
What is the trait you most deplore in yourself?
My quick temper.
What is the trait you most deplore in others?
Intellectual arrogance and physical bullying.
What would happen if you elected not to have surgery?
The tumor would continue to grow over the years. It would cause more hearing loss and balance problems, as well as ringing in my ears, and double vision. It would damage nerves that would make the left side of my face droop. I would lose the ability to close my left eyelid and my sense of taste. I could have difficulty swallowing which would make it difficult or impossible to drink or eat, and I might have to be fed through a stomach tube. I would suffer fine motor control problems in my left hand. The tumor would eventually grow into the brain stem, which controls involuntary muscle like the lungs and heart. My lungs and heart could stop functioning.
What do you consider your greatest achievements?
- Graduating from West Point in the top 5% of my class.
- Successfully leading my Army unit on long deployments in Bangladesh to build schools, the Kingdom of Tonga to build water desalinization plants, and Micronesia to complete various civic action projects for the islanders.
- Finding a great woman to marry.
What have been your greatest struggles?
Growing up in poor in Harlem Heights, NYC with an alcoholic, chain-smoking, wife-beating father. I hated being poor, so I resolved at an early age to do well in school so I could secure a more stable future. I try hard to be nothing like my father.
What do you admire most about your mother?
Despite living a life filled with abuse and hardship, she is a patient, forgiving, and caring person.
What do you admire most about your children?
- Maria’s sweet sensitivity (age 10).
- Michael’s resilience and independence in the face of three surgeries (age 8).
- Alberto’s easy-going personality (age 8).
- Andre’s sense of humor (age 5).
- George’s tenderness (age 3).
- Ann’s rambunctiousness (age 2).
What do you regard as the lowest depth of misery?
First, the fear of losing a child. Second, being jailed in a small cell forever with a beautiful view of mountains that I will never be allowed to explore.
Has your prognosis changed the way you look at life?
I worry less about things that don’t really matter. I worked way too hard and traveled too much last year, so I’ve changed that and am spending more time with my family.
What is your motto?
I have two.
The Seven Ps (from the Army): “Proper Prior Planning Prevents Piss Poor Performance.”
“Life is good.”
As I look back at these questions and my brave friend’s replies, I’m struck by something I’m embarrassed to admit. Before this week, I didn’t know the majority of his answers. I’d never bothered to ask.
In our daily sprint against a fading clock, it’s a lot easier to say, “How are you,” in the form of a statement rather than a question, because society is conditioned to respond with a unilateral “fine.”
“Fine” makes things easy. It’s an all-encompassing reply that rests in the gray matter of our conscience and allows us to smile, nod our heads, and move on with our day. “Fine” is a free pass that someone stuck under the windshield wiper in the grocery store parking lot. It’s when you wave to a neighbor from the porch instead of meeting her at the curb to talk. “Fine” is convenient. It’s Facebook…a click, a thumb’s up, quick comment, and I’ve done my job. “Fine” is one of the small things in life that doesn’t count.
There’s something wrong with a world where I‘d rather shove my phone down a stranger’s throat than stop to ask what’s the matter, or that I go deep with a friend only in the face of pending danger and loss. Or maybe there’s just something wrong with me. Either way, I don’t like it, and from now on I’m replacing “How are you?” with “Who are you?”
It’s a small change that leads to a big question, and I, for one, would really like to know. If I were having brain surgery tomorrow, that’s the first thing I’d do differently today.
02/16/12: I’m happy to report that my friend’s surgery was a success. He’ll spend the next week recuperating in the hospital, and then he’s homeward bound to rest some more. All of your thoughts, prayers, and positive wishes made a difference. Thank you.