In the midst of candy wrangling on Halloween I received a heartbreaking text from one of my best friends who was about to hand his oldest son off to God. We do not feel old enough to have adult children, and yet we do…mid-life catching up with us. My breath caught and I pulled away from the group, the world going silent as I reread the text message.
In the weeks following, I kept hearing “a parent should not outlive their child. “ On TV, in the movies, uttered by random strangers at random restaurants. As if this phrase was invented just for this situation. And I felt my friend’s grief as if it was my own. Crying, sobbing, not for the son I never met but for his father whose heart was broken.
The details emerged – a phone call in the middle of the night. The explanation – or lack of one. One moment prepping for tests, 35 minutes to resuscitate, then life support. The two day trek, arriving to the endless beeping rhythm of the heart monitor, and the flat line of the brain wave monitor.
I believe he reached out because he needed me. I know if it were one of mine I hoped he would be beside me. And yet life had become incredibly complicated through our joint and individual choices. I struggled with the decision.
There were, of course, many reasons to go – to pay my respects, to confirm a life lived. Funerals after all are not about the dead – not really. They are more a placeholder in time, a gathering of souls facing our own mortality, a way of confirming that the life mattered. Supporting the family left behind. And there was only one reason to stay.
In the end I didn’t go. Even though I had made all the plans, arranged and paid for the flight, the car, the place to stay. Even though, 10 years ago, nothing could have stopped me from being there.
Instead I woke at precisely the moment the service was set to begin. And I knew he was looking around, wondering if I was there. The same way he found me a dozen years ago in a crowded auditorium where he was the keynote speaker. Sitting in the back, a quiet observer of his life. A friendship that has spanned decades, boiled down to a glance across a crowded room. But this time I’m not there.
In the end I spent the day driving the Pacific Coast Highway stopping only to buy water and cheese. I sat at a picnic table on a cliff overlooking sunbathing sea lions, and said goodbye to my friend’s son – someone I had never met. Wished him well on his journey with God. I prayed for him to find the peace in the afterlife that seemed to escape him in this life. I took pictures of the churning water that felt like my relationship with his father and wondered when life had become so complicated.
It seems unfair to give us babies, have us raise them to adults and then rip them away, suddenly, without warning or explanation. I want to be a friend, a wise friend and offer words of solace, some comfort in this time of heartbreak. But I am mute. I cannot help my friend. I sat at that table and I wrote a note saying I was sorry. It was not enough … But it was all I had.