“I am not doing very well,” said the voice on the phone.“My husband is doing a little better, but I am struggling. The oldest boy is OK, he is 16, but the 13-year-old is having a hard time.”
Those were the first words my old friend said to me about the recent unexpected death of her 10-year-old daughter. I was—I am—numb.
Occasionally, I use this and another column I write to communicate directly to someone, or some group, the extent of my feelings. A part of me believes that by putting it out there publicly the nakedness of message will likewise remove the defenses of the recipient, allowing them, perhaps, to more deeply feel the emotional embrace that is intended. This is one of those times.
So, please, as you read this—by simply sharing this—you may be helping someone overcome the worst that can happen.
Courage is a funny thing. I have had the privilege of interviewing Medal of Honor winners, cops wounded on duty and firefighters who go in when everyone else is coming out.
One thing they all have in common is that none of them planned to be particularly brave on the day life happened to them in some extraordinary way. Most did what they had to do by fighting off the fear, or rising to match it.
Others felt the horrible terror the entire time thinking themselves to be cowards, all the while doing their duty nonetheless. Only later did all of these noble souls reflect on their deeds.
So here was my friend, in the very midst of her battle with tragedy, being every bit as brave, every bit as noble, and like those others, totally unaware of her heroism.
She spoke about how the surgery was serious, but elective. It was, the doctors said, a common procedure and would allow her daughter to live a normal life span as opposed to almost certain mortality in her early 40s.
Something, though, went terribly wrong.
When the child came out of the anesthesia she became extremely agitated, her vital signs were unstable, and she had to be ventilated and placed back into unconsciousness. In the short few days that followed, the child’s condition got better then worse.
Steps were taken and hopes were raised with each new test or procedure. Sadly, however, complications led to organ failure and the end of a young life.
None of us, save for those who have gone though it, can know the agony of losing a child. As I tried to comfort my friend, I felt somehow not entitled to even try. I feared that my words would be hollow and that any effort I might make to commiserate would fall short.
But it hit me that my friend couldn’t very well change the friends life had given her. We would have to do our best.
My friend is worried for her family, questioning the wisdom of her decision to go ahead with the surgery and dealing with the nature of grieving itself.
Her daughter was her best young friend. They did girl things like getting their hair and nails done together. My friend had her bedroom painted pink—a project long put off—to celebrate the child’s return from the hospital.
Now she has to put these things behind her. She is back to work two days a week and in the midst of setting up a scholarship in her daughter’s name. Like all people of uncommon valor she will have to concentrate for a while on simply putting one foot in front of the other and taking one breath at a time.
As we wrapped up our conversation, my admiration and affection for my friend grew. And now I need her to know how much she means to the people in her life.
I need her to know how special she is. I need her to know that from my distant, if emotionally safe, perch, I can see her happy once again as the strong center of her family.
I need her to know how sorry I and others are for the loss of her child.
I need her to know I am here for her if she needs me.