Monday, September 25, 2006

Tell Someone You Love Them Right Now

Tonight, the rudeness of death interrupted my world again, as it seems to have so often lately. I learned that Orlando Sentinel business columnist, Susan Strother Clarke, died suddenly and completely unexpectedly today at the age of 47. I did not know Ms. Clarke, except through her words, which I enjoyed. She was a columnist I chose to read regularly even though the business section is not the first part of the paper I turn to. It wasn’t really a matter of whether I agreed or disagreed with her. What I liked about her work was her clarity of thought, her thoughtfulness, and her lively way of presenting those thoughts to her readers.

One of the reasons I am so very sensitized to death these days is that I lost my own sister, also a Susan, in March of 2005. She died at the age of 49, also way too young. But, in the case of my sister Sue, our family had a blessing, a benefit, that the Clarke family did not have. My sister was diagnosed with a rare condition that has no cure and results in death from heart failure. For her, it was hard. She was a very active person, and her disease made her life very restrictive. The expensive and complex devices and medications that kept her alive had awful side effects. I am certain she did not let us know how bad it really was. I know, though, that she valued having the time to adjust, to make plans, to mend fences, to do all the things we don’t, as a rule, plan for or think about in our day-to-day lives. She learned of it in 2001 and had enough time to do many of the things that were important to her. She bought a house that she loved and made it into a home. She developed a lovely relationship with her only grandchild. All of us who loved her got to spend a lot of time with her. Once they told her that it would soon, I made immediate plans to go home. As it turned out, she died a week before I was to leave. I regret that a little, but so much less because we had all the memories we had stored up, the talks we had had, the laughs and the meals. Before she died, she and I got to say everything that was important, everything we needed and wanted to.

The pressures of modern life, the rush, rush, rush that technology enables and feeds too often distract us from what is really vitally important. There is not one Type A workaholic who has ever gotten to the end of life and said, “Oh, my gosh, if only I could have spent more hours at the office.”

Sunday before last, Mitch Albom had an article about his new book in Parade Magazine. It trumpeted on the cover, “What if you had one more day with someone you’d lost?” I knew I wanted to read that article, but before I even opened the magazine to see what it said, I decided to think about that question for myself. I thought about having one more day with Sue. At first, I imagined us taking a trip together, but it really didn’t feel right. I knew that if I could have one more day with her, I would want to do exactly the things we had done so many times, eat a meal she had cooked (she loved to cook for others), look at some new plant in her garden, sit down and play a game (we both loved games), tell each other our latest spider anecdotes (we were both frightful arachnophobes), and, most of all, laugh. That was also the conclusion of the article. Most people would like to have back those ordinary times with their loved ones that they did not remark as particularly special at the time. I found it comforting, then, that during those years we knew our time was measured, we did just those things. We did take a trip once. But the most special times were those everyday, homey things we had always enjoyed together.

I was walking on a trail through the woods in a nearby park a few evenings ago. The house band of insects was just tuning up to prepare to play during the sun’s exit stage west. Suddenly, I heard the soft greeting of one of the resident pair of owls, “hoo, hoo.” He (or she, I’m afraid I cannot tell them apart having only encountered them in the deep gloaming), began this courteous practice after he swooped down quite suddenly and totally silently, as is their way, for a flyby to check me out on the evening when we first met. His wingspan was enormous, much wider than the body silhouette would suggest. Seeing my startlement and being the refined creature he is, ever since, when I come near his perch of the moment, he politely advises me that he is in the neighborhood. I greet him properly and we pass in the evening. So much more civilized than the man we encountered walking his gorgeous German shepherd and completely oblivious to the breeze, the lovely quiet woods, the pine needle duff sprinkled over the pure white sand that passes for soil in Florida, the singing insects and the owl, because he was walking, head bent, talking on his cell phone. He was still talking on his cell some 20 minutes later as I was driving out of the park and he missed all of that evening’s beauties. His loss.

Ms. Clarke’s death is a wake-up call to us. We need to not sleepwalk through the everyday moments of our lives while thinking about something else or talking to someone on the cell or checking our email on the blackberry. Those things will never have any long-term meaning. We need not to rush out the door with a quick peck or no goodbye kiss at all thinking that we will have time later to tell our mate or our child or our friend how very much we love them, how truly special they are, each and every one.

My family, close but not demonstrative before, is changed now. Not one of us ends a call or a letter or an email without saying that we love each other.

My hope for Susan Strother Carke’s family is that they can, when the enormity of their loss eases a little, know that the special shining treasure of the everyday, the football games, the meals, the laughter, that they had with her were what mattered—to her and to them—even though they did not get a chance to say goodbye.

Tell everyone you know and love and value that you do. Tell someone who has touched your life what they have meant to you now before the chance is taken away.

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