The Silent Friend

A few weeks ago, my husband and I got a phone call that no parent ever wants to get. Our oldest son was diagnosed with a brain tumor. This post is not about him. There isn’t much to write because we don’t know very much. It is a complicated situation, as these things usually are. The tumor’s location and my son’s age dictate that we must wait to get a biopsy and, in the meantime, carefully watch its growth. Without knowing what type of tumor it is, treatment is impossible. We are reassured by his doctors that the tumor is slow-growing and we have every reason to think it is treatable. And so we wait.

In the days following my son’s diagnosis, I reached out to close friends and family. Partly out of necessity (somebody needed to watch our younger son while we made repeated trips to the hospital for follow-up) and partly because I was floundering emotionally and needed support. As I shared the news, I was amazed at the  range of reactions: complete anguish to absolute silence. Having never been in a situation like this, I didn’t know what to expect of others or myself and often found myself babbling, reassuring me as much as the the other person that, “we are fine.” I was overwhelmed and so grateful for the outpouring of support. Many people were seemingly boundless in their generosity and willingness to help. I was humbled.

(Yes, here it comes – ) But, there were many people I didn’t hear from. I was so buoyed by the support from others that I didn’t give it much thought initially but as days turned to weeks and I still hadn’t heard from some very important people in my life, I had to wonder, “Really?!?! I send an email telling you my son has a brain tumor and your response is to delete it from your inbox and move on with your day? Even after I send another email and message you on Facebook?? Really!?!?”  I have heard the phrase, “It’s times like this when you really learn who your friends are”. Mere acquaintances sent heartfelt notes of encouragement, dear friends offered warm hugs and shoulders for my tears. Yet, others said nothing and offered nothing.   Indeed, it’s times like these…

Then I came across an essay by Margaret Feinburg, “The Three Worst Things You Can Say To Someone Battling Cancer or Any Kind of Adversity…”   (I’ll save you the trouble: 1-  I’ll Do Anything To Help; 2- Been there, done that; and 3- Silence). Yep. Check, check and a big fat check. Amen, sister. There it was, someone else validating the dark side of sharing bad news. Yet, something bugged me about this list. I realized I had said the first two things to other people in the past.  Even though I cringe to think that words I spoke may have been insensitive or even hurtful, at least I said something. But the third reaction, silence, is just plain callous.

Then I thought of the reactions from my friends and family. I heard the first two phrases many times but I found I was not actually bothered by them. Most people are not purposely going around saying hurtful things to people going through a tough time. I like to think they are saying those phrases because they believe them to be true or maybe they don’t know what else to say.  Surely, they don’t intend to hurt or be insensitive. I know when someone says they would do “anything” to help they don’t mean it. They are not going to pay our medical bills. They are not going to entertain my son for four hours while we wait in the doctor’s office. “Been there, done that” is a poorly worded attempt to connect over a common experience. Even if it usually is a misperceived commonality, it’s still an attempt to connect.

Some of the hardest experiences in life are moments we must face and endure alone.  It is through meaningless phrases like, “I’ll do anything to help,” that we are trying to acknowledge the loneliness of hardship. I can easily forgive well-intentioned, if mostly empty, offers of support but I can not forgive silence, can I?

Then I heard from a friend who had remained silent in the wake of my news. She apologized for not calling sooner but she had just decided to leave her husband and was trying to navigate the initial stages of separation. She simply didn’t have the emotional capacity to talk to me. Soon thereafter, another silent friend emailed me and said she simply didn’t know what to say and so said nothing. Likewise, our son’s situation can evoke very real fears for other people. One friend told me she didn’t sleep at all the night she received my email because she was petrified something was wrong with her own child.

It was then that I realized two things: 1) a friend’s expression (or lack thereof) of support likely has very little, if anything, to do with me and everything to do with their own emotions or circumstances; and 2) lots and lots and lots of people are overcome with their own life whether it’s a million little things weighing them down or a couple of emotional catastrophes. The burden of my news might be too much for them to deal with at that time.

In reality, it’s not for me to decide if a friend’s silence is a legitimate reaction to bad news. Silence is a legitimate choice for them. It was easy for me to sit in judgment and say that if I could get up every morning and get my kids to school and plan Halloween parties while my son has a brain tumor, someone else should be able to send me a three sentence email. But each person’s ability to cope with their life circumstances ebbs and flows, changes and morphs, depending on all kinds of things I simply know nothing about. Sharing our devastating news, though it is our devastating news and our story to live, impacts those I tell, too. Even silence is okay.

“It’s times like this when you really learn who your friends are.” I’m not so sure about that. Friendship spans greater lengths of time than a single life-event. Someone may not be there for me now, but maybe next week or next year or when they live closer or after they change jobs or…or…or…the permutations of life circumstances are infinite. I cannot make or break a friendship on one life event. My list of friends is intact, growing even.  I have deep gratitude for the people in my life – even the silent ones.

Advertisements

Bouquets of Dandelions

Mother’s Day held many traditions in my house growing up but my favorite was picking a bouquet of flowers from our yard to present to my mom with her breakfast. My mom has a beautiful flower garden that blooms March through October. The appearance of the first crocus in March is always a remarkable event. It’s followed by the daffodils and tulips. May brings the lilacs and the roses start blooming as the lilacs start to fall off. The variety of summer flowers is too plentiful to name.

Spring in Colorado can be unpredictable with snow, rain and sunshine all happening in the same week (or day). But Mother’s Day usually marks the official end to the possibility of snow and my Mother’s Day bouquet started the season of fresh-picked garden bouquets on the breakfast table. When I was really little, my bouquets were a huge handful of dandelions, so big that my hands and the stems would be covered in the sticky dandelion milk. As I got older, my bouquets were more varied with lilacs, tulips and daffodils. If I was lucky, the peonies would be blooming too, and my bouquet would be something to rival that from a European flower market (at least in my mind).

Without fail, my mom would say to anyone who stopped by the house the week after Mother’s Day, “Oh yes! Aren’t the flowers beautiful! Jennifer picked those for me for Mother’s Day! I so look forward to my bouquet every year.” As an adult and before I had kids, I wondered if my mom loved my bouquets as much as she seemed to. Looking back they were asymmetrical, had sticks and random pieces of long grass and dandelions were still the predominant flower. They really didn’t look anything like a flower market bouquet.

Now that I have kids, I have no doubt that she loved all of them. When my kids actually have the thoughtfulness and take the time to make me something or to express their affection, I revel in it. It’s the stuff moms wish they could bottle up for those other, more plentiful days when their job feels thankless.

DSC_0053

Today, my boys took me to the flower shop to pick out flowers since our flower garden is comprised exclusively of mostly faded roses and, thanks to our gardener, there is not a dandelion in sight. They told me to pick out whatever I wanted. I looked at some roses and lisianthus. There were a few Gerber daisies and sunflowers and lots of tulips and hydrangeas. Then I spotted my flowers. Tucked in the back of the shop on a little shelf, I found two vases, one full of lilacs and the other full of peonies. I took them all.

Now, we just need to find some dandelions.

Mother’s Day is such a bittersweet day for me. I so appreciate the affection and thought my boys have put into today. I will absolutely soak it up. But, my mom is far away and I would love to walk in her garden this morning and pick flowers for her. I’d give just about anything to hear her say, “Oh yes! Aren’t the flowers beautiful! Jennifer picked those for me for Mother’s Day!” Only now do I understand how much those bouquets of dandelions meant to her. There aren’t enough flowers in the world to tell her how much I appreciate all she has done for me over the years.

I love you, Mom. Happy Mother’s Day.

I’d Like to Thank the Academy

I’ll admit it. I’ve practiced my Academy Awards acceptance speech. The problem is that I’m not an actress. I have no aspirations to be an actress, but I think it would be amazing if regular Joes or Janes would receive public recognition for their own accomplishments, no matter how ordinary they are:

“And the Academy Award for Best Husband Response to the Question, ‘What Do You Think Of My New Haircut?’ goes to…” (I know there are some contenders out there.)

Besides those benefit dinners that everyone except me seems to get invited to recognizing a “Volunteer of the Year” or “Humanitiarian of the Decade,” there isn’t a lot for a stay-at-home mom to aspire to in the “Awards and Recognition” department. It’s been five years and I’m still waiting for a cost of living adjustment to my salary. So I’ll take Mother’s Day as my “I-Am-Finally-Winning-Something” Day. Consider it my yearly bonus. Let the party planning begin!

Since I’m a shoo-in (I think my only other competition in the house is the spider hanging out in the corner of our stairwell whose babies hatched last week – shDSC_0032e promptly ate half of them), I think I should have my acceptance speech ready. So, I’m going to put on my best pair of black yoga pants and favorite hoodie and thank away. (pic of my party shoes.)

Any success I have as a mom, most notably not dying of embarrassment or imploding from frustration, is owed to many people – but mostly I’d like to thank some kick-ass moms who get me through my days:

-My mom. Duh. There isn’t enough time in the world to list all of the ways she is amazing. That’s a whole other post.

-My mother-in-law. Your son’s ability to love me reminds me how important it is for me to teach my sons to show and express love. Thank you for giving him that ability. It is such a gift to me and our sons.

-My sister for being brave and smart enough to leave a broken marriage and setting an example for your kids (and mine) that sacrificing your own happiness for the perceived happiness of someone else is never a good idea.

-My sister-in-law for putting up with my countless phone calls every week. And, your child sleeps less than mine so I always take comfort on my sleep-deprived days knowing you have it worse than I do.

-My friend whose husband left her last year when she was seven months pregnant with their third child and is now facing a life she never saw coming with amazing strength and courage. You leave me speechless.

-A mom I know who is working a full-time job, volunteers at all three of her kids’ schools, sits on the board of several nonprofits and runs marathons. You give me hope that one day I will be able to do more – or I should at least reconsider my decision to not drink coffee.

-A friend whose husband has terminal cancer and is grieving the “last time” every day while still raising two beautiful, active, inquisitive boys with more thoughtfulness than I can ever conjure up. If you can do that, I can manage to get my preschool registration forms in on time.

-My next door neighbor growing up who raised five boys and a girl without any of them going to jail. You give me permission to let my boys be boys and my house be filthy dirty.

-My friend who has one child and doesn’t volunteer for anything and doesn’t have aspirations of going back to work because you feel best when you are only focused on your son. You give me permission to say “no” and not get sucked into things out of obligation. You inspire me to be more focused and present when I’m with my kids.

-My friend who makes the time to exercise almost every day, even with three kids, and is healthier than ever before. You remind me that my health and getting exercise must be a priority. I’m a much better mom when I take an hour to make my muscles, heart and lungs work hard.

-The mom who I don’t know but was sitting at a table next to me at a restaurant and brought over a pile of napkins after my four year-old hurled his milk at my two year-old’s face for no particular reason, soaking me, my two year-old, and the entire table. I was stunned, horrified and embarrassed. You simply saying, “I have two boys,” probably saved me from starting a full-fledged food fight with my four year-old. Thank you for the gentle reminder that many, many people have walked in my milk-drenched shoes and I, too, shall survive – and so will my kids.

-The many friends and neighbors who have offered to babysit, drop off food, run errands or pick up my kids when they know the other parts of my life have become more demanding than my kids. I cannot do this mommy thing alone and you make it easy to ask for and accept help.

My boys wouldn’t be the spunky, funny, and loving little beings that they are if not for these and many other people because, if I had to do this alone, I would have dropped my kids off at a fire station months ago and headed for a Caribbean island. Yes, I am their primary caregiver and I will happily take my one day of recognition but I am filled with deep gratitude, too. Thank you moms, and Happy Mother’s/I-Am-Finally-Winning-Something Day.