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          Volume 10 |Issue 35 | September 16, 2011 |


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Writing the Wrong

The Compassion Competition


It is extremely hard to be a decent person. I realise this is not news to some of you–the self aware ones, that is. I know there are many people walking around, labouring under the illusion that they possess great character simply because they slipped 50 extra bucks into an already grossly underpaid maid's Eid envelope. I am not talking about being polite, or refraining from gossip, or donating to charities. I am talking about the complex stuff that trips up even the most well-intentioned and generally good folks. The stuff that forces one to really look at oneself and wince and go, “Ooh, did NOT expect that ugliness to surface. Is this really me?” This has been happening to me a great deal lately.

A year ago, a good friend of mine lost their son to an accident. The child was left on life support, and it was my friend, the boy's father, who would have to make the terrible decision to let his son go.

Their relationship was unusual. Most parents love their children and are bonded to them, but this connection between a father and a son seems to me to be remarkable. I think (at the risk of sounding new agey) they might have very well been soul mates. My friend is an artist and writer and extremely expressive (and opinionated). Success came to him, if not effortlessly, then consistently. From what I observed this is in part due to the fact that he forges head first into everything he undertakes, work, artistic endeavours, even relationships. This requires tremendous fortitude and optimism (and perhaps a certain child like naiveté). It was these powerful attributes that allowed him to return full time to a project that needed completion after his son passed. The nature of it was such that only he could complete it–it was his baby. I watched him work and marveled at his strength. He did keep warning me that he was walking a knife's edge, but I did not see too much evidence of it. I knew, however, that as the year anniversary of his son's passing approached that something could give, and it scared me. It scared me for two reasons, because I worried for my friend's well being – anyone who works relentlessly to avoid stillness and hence the pain of loss will inevitably, spectacularly crumble and giants, when they fall, shake the firmament. But, truth be told, I was also scared because I knew it meant I might be shut out.

Mohammad Iqbul, Unfettered, oil on canvas, 2010.

Last night I kissed my own son a great deal and he allowed it (a small miracle). He told me he was feeling inexplicable anxiety and sadness. I think he was nervous about starting school. Because of hurricane Irene, he missed the first two days. He started to cry and that made me cry and my first thought was, my friend will never again be able to hold his son as he wept. What a gift that is to be able to hold your child. My second thought was I wish I could tell him I know how he feels on some level. So I go to message him on facebook and on his page I see that he has written a heart rending tribute to his son. There are already many likes and comments–some of which are very moving. There was one especially lovely comment having to do with faith that he acknowledged at once (as I knew he would). His response indicated that he felt alone and needed their faith in him as he had lost his. I see this and something in me freezes. I think, “But I am here. I have always been here. You must know how much I believe in you.” It was sort of heart breaking to know he felt that much alone. This type of grief is at its heart, very solitary, but I had hoped that our friendship had alleviated some of his aloneness. Based on what I was reading, it seemed he was mired in loneliness.

So, this is where I am struggling: it is terribly hard not take this personally because we are so close. I know it is selfish of me to worry about not being needed in this person's time of incredible despair. Given my friend's infectious, and attractive personality, they have a myriad of friends and admirers. Also, their willingness to express their pain always leads to a rush of heartfelt condolences and palpable collective emotion. This is probably one of the best ways to heal but sometimes I cannot help but feel that my heartfelt condolences and good wishes are getting lost in the din of others' ululations*. In short I felt my empathy was inadequate, which is so counterintuitive. Empathy just is. Who gets competitive about empathy? Fools like me, that's who.

I take myself in hand and say, this is not about you, you narcissistic freak. This is their pain and despair and they will mourn in the way they want to, and if it means you fall to the wayside, even forever, so be it. Perhaps I am reacting to a past hurt. This happened to me once before: upon the death of a close friend, his widow cut my ex husband and I out of her life, and we had introduced them. I have not heard from her in 13 years, yet she corresponds with other mutual friends. I have wracked my brain trying to figure out where my ex and I went wrong and have concluded that being with us was too painful.

When I think about the past and now, the present situation, I keep telling myself: this is your own fear of being lost in the shuffle. It is astonishing how situations like these throw light onto one's own fears and limitations. It struck me, you may, girl; you may very well get lost in the shuffle. The haze of his grief will most assuredly obscure his vision of you. Moreover, the fog won't clear for a long time. Further, maybe he will come to know he doesn't need you specifically; he needs the collective condolences of his community of friends and family. As my friend Frances so poetically pointed out, when he writes about his son and puts it out there it is like he is wailing into the wilderness.

Since I pride myself on being good at offering emotional support, indeed, part of my personal construct is informed by this, the idea that I cannot offer my friend anything more than anyone else is a difficult realisation. The truth of it is humbling. And again, not about me. But it sure feels like it is. I guess that's the illusion, and illusion can lead to ignobility. I actually found myself being annoyed that I may not be the number one condoler in the friend sub group. Somewhere in my subconscious I thought that being close to the one in mourning somehow bumped me up into the VIP condoler status, meaning my words and comfort must be the most efficacious, most inspiring, offering the most succor. Then someone comes up with what is arguably a fantastically inspirational line that even I have marked as “like” and I scowl, and it comes rushing to me that I am inappropriately envious in this terrible time. It seems no matter how hard I try I can't get this wild ego under check.

I recently met a wonderful couple who had lost their son in an accident 12 years ago. In the wake of his death, they moved to an island in the Caribbean. The mother of the young man told me that processing her child's death was never ending, even though they left all that was familiar behind. I gathered from what she said that there is no running away, no respite. I think about my friend and know that the pain, even years later, relentless, will find him, when he least expects it, quicksilver and burning hot; in a restaurant, or a snippet of music, or in the wind when a familiar scent wafts into his memory, and washes over him. It might toy with him, and make him hear his child's voice suddenly on the street and turn towards it, knowing there is no way, yet magical thinking takes hold of him for a moment, and then he remembers. The abject cruelty of it can knock the wind out of a person.

Still, I want to be present for them, so I asked the mother of the boy killed in the car accident, what can I do for my friend, what will help him? She said, “Just listen, when he is ready to talk to you.” That's all, I said? It seemed hardly sufficient. “Oh, that's a lot,” she replied. Well, it will have to do, I thought, because it's all I got, and in the face of this kind of despair my words are obviously inadequate.

*To howl, wail or lament loudly.


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