This past weekend I drove with my husband Ben to Kansas State University, the home of his alma mater. The occasion was a reunion of the folks in his dorm from many moons ago. We had a lot of fun, enjoyed some great food and met some nice people. Several blogs ago I introduced you to one of those people as “The best friend I never met”. Well, this past weekend, Mo and I finally met in person after 20 years of being pen pals.
As we started to get into the weekend, my husband who knows me well asked “Is there going to be a blog that comes from this?” I answered “Probably several.” I gleaned many observations over the weekend, not the least of which was watching how a group of people that meant so very much to each other long ago could pick up right where they left off as if time had never passed. I did not have a traditional college experience, and so it was interesting for me to watch and learn about how they really had become a little family during those developmental years and still remembered each other’s stories even after the passing of much time. Sadly, when they toured their own dorm this year they noticed that unlike their era, the once always open doors were now all closed. Gone were the days of feeling free to drop in on each other and grab a piece of pizza without an invitation. Presumably the current dorm mates are each in their own space talking via technology rather than leaving a message in full view on the dry erase board. The times; they are a changing.
So as I said, Mo and I have been exchanging emails, text messages, an occasional voice text, letters and cards for over 20 years. We’ve learned along the way that we have so much in common. We each had our first child the same year, just a couple of months apart. I went on to have my second and then a year later Mo did the same. I have two boys, she has two girls. Mo’s younger daughter was born with Down’s Syndrome. This is clearly not an area that I have much training or personal experience with, but I do know that watching Mo over the years from afar has been an act of witnessing grace in action. Sometimes I delude myself into thinking I also have a relationship with her daughter because I sometimes send her little notes or trinkets and she always delights me with a return card that she has made. But it is a delusion, because I only see a minuscule fraction of what life must really be like both for and with her daughter “S”.
As we walked along the campus Mo made a comment to me about the anticipation of empty nesting. Once we got to a more settled spot I decided to ask her for clarification. As much as we have shared via our pen pal relationship, I have never felt comfortable asking some questions without first meeting her in person, and to be present when asking them. Basically I wanted to know what she thought the longer term outlook meant for S. Mo’s comment about looking forward to empty nesting gave me the opportunity and I plunged.
Mo was both thoughtful and candid as I’ve come to expect from her. But she also began to get tearful. There we were sitting in a meeting room in the architecture building with people nearby and I was making Mo cry. How’s that for adding a happy memory to your husband’s weekend? I made a feeble attempt to give Mo an out so she could end the conversation but she declined. And then she said the most important thing of all. “Actually, it’s good to be able to talk about this. Most people really don’t want to.” She continued to share a little bit more, we exchanged some thoughts and then moved on to rejoin the rest of the group. But it was only after that conversation took place, I finally felt as if I actually knew the actual Mo rather than the person I had developed in my mind based on our written dialogue.
There are two points I think worthy of highlighting. First, while grateful that technology has allowed us to connect these many years, it has also been a limited connection even when it has felt like more. That is why I think the observation about the kids in their closed door dorm rooms seems significant. All too often we can feel as if we know someone because we talk to them a LOT through technology. We think we say all of the same things we would if we were in person. But my experience has taught me that, there is a very big difference between hearing someone say “That makes me cry”, and watching the tears fall down their cheeks. There is also a difference in feeling someone actually see you cry (or laugh) than simply telling them about it with an LOL or emoji.
Second, as we spend less time face to face, there are fewer opportunities for someone to ask and answer those deeper questions. But even when we are face to face, most of us don’t want to ask “What does fine mean?” And as a result, more of us are reluctant to answer anything except the perfunctory “Fine” to the question of how are you?
The death of a spouse, the illness of a child, the collapse of a business, a divorce and many other life altering events have an impact on us long after the funeral, positive test results, bankruptcy filing and removal of the wedding band on our finger. But people on the outside know only when the “event” has ended. Or perhaps we have even cried on their shoulder for “awhile” and then tell ourselves or they tell us it’s time to move on. But just because a person has moved on, doesn’t mean they yet know how to move forward in a life re-defined from their previous plan A. Mo wasn’t lamenting about having a child with Down’s. She was long past that, but she is trying to figure out how having an adult child with Down’s looks like as she and her husband also get older. The woman who’s husband passed away 3 years ago accepts his death, but still has to figure out how to pare down the house they shared on her own so she can move forward. The mother of the ill child now recovered may be grateful, but she now has to live with a reality of fragility she may not have considered previously. And the divorced partner may be sad or relieved by the dissolution of a marriage, but they still have to figure out a new normal that will continue to evolve over many years ahead while still carrying remnants of a past life with someone who is no longer present. And often, so very often, all they really want and need is for someone to give them the time and space to allow them to clear their minds and set the burden down for just a little while. For someone to go beyond “fine” and let them process their thoughts so they can continue to not to stay stuck, but rather to find their footing forward.
How many people do we interact with daily in only pretend communication because we text to avoid speaking. How many people do we possibly encounter that we keep conversation only to that which does not make either of us uncomfortable?