In an attempt to clarify that this not intended as a criticism, but a simple observation, I will start with my own story of my mistake. I do have new insights, however, now that I’m on the other side.
One of the top five mistakes of my life, okay (thinking now, that there were so many) maybe the top ten, happened when I was a freshman in college. I had this good friend, maybe my best friend, who was a girl I will call “D.” Now, she wasn’t a girlfriend because I had just become part of a Christian group called the Navigators who forbade dating. Now, present day Navigators would take offense at that stereotype, but it was true. When I joined, I had a girlfriend “S,” and the Navigator leader rode me hard, telling me how bad that was, until I broke up with her. I knew that if I started dating again, I would quickly be pushed out of the group. So, yes, they forbade dating through powerful social coercion.
I used to go to “D’s” house every Sunday night. She was sill in high school. We had a wonderful time (and as I tried to clarify above it was strictly a platonic relationship). I’m not sure of “D’s” motive, but I will say I was probably her best friend as well. “D” had a younger sister, I think by just one or two years, who was very close to her. They behaved almost like twins. Her sister, “A,” therefore seemed like a close friend of mine too.
I will never forget coming home one Christmas holiday from college and my aunt, who ran the beauty shop in town called me on our landline (the only type of phone in those days). She broke the terrible news that “A” had just been killed in a tragic accident that morning. I was devastated. I wasn’t sure what to do. I felt (dimly) what “D” must have been going through. I didn’t call her because I understood that the whole family was in crisis mode and they didn’t need non-family members calling or getting involved at this acute point.
Footnote: Now, I debated in my mind if I should go into a more detail of the story (below) and I decided I would. This detail is true, it adds depth and clarity and certainly adds more interesting drama.
One of the Navigator guys, I will call “G,” was trying very hard to be my friend at the time. He was always showing up on my doorstep, unannounced. He also did strange things like scheduling to take the same classes as me. He also was constantly running interference if I tried to talk to a girl. He was key in my decision to break up with “S” and helped me to do that. I was too naïve at the time to understand that “G” was a closeted homosexual and was infatuated with me. I’m telling you this candid part because it is a key part of this story and it is absolutely true (later events would prove that hunch).
About this time, as usual and without warning, “G” showed up at my house. I was still numb. He voiced his strong opinion that “D” needed her space and I should not bother her with a phone call.
After a couple of days, the announcements were made about the services for “A.” I was prepared to go to the funeral home that night for the open part of the service and reception with the family. There, I thought I would hug “D” and hang out with her, if that was what she wanted. I wanted to be there for her in any way I could. But I didn’t know what to say and that worried me.
To my surprise, again, “G” showed up at my house that afternoon. When I told him about the service, he told me that God had laid on his heart the need of a college guy (we both knew) whose car had broken down in Knoxville (90 miles away) and needed a ride to Sweetwater (150 miles away) that night. He also told me that God has laid on his heart that He (meaning God) wanted me to go with him. I voiced my opposition and how I needed to go to the funeral home.
“G” was a very intelligent and articulate. He voiced strongly how wrong it would be for me to interfere with “D’s” grieving process, amid this personal calamity and I should give her space, and that I should obey God and come with him. We all used the “God card” to manipulate each other into doing what we wanted.
I have no excuses as I fell for “G’s” plot to interfere with my relationship with “D.” I was young, still 19, and immature. I didn’t have any social clue as how to respond to someone amid a calamity, how to behave and what to say. I’m very sorry to say that I never spoke to or saw “D” again and that was 42 years ago. I can’t imagine how abandon she must have felt.
I am now in the midst of a personal calamity like I’ve never known before. I don’t know if I’m going to survive this. It has been very interesting how people have responded. On the good side, and the vast major of this story has been good, I’ve been humble by the amount of people who have showed up to help and to contact me. During the early days, more than 650 people quickly signed up on my blog. A lot of them I knew, many were from my past, and many were complete strangers. They not only signed up to read my blog, but they engaged with me in “conversations” via texts, comments, or private e-mails. I had two old bosses hear about me and showed up at the hospital to see me. They didn’t have to do that. Even my brother, who I have never been close to, started calling me. He, oddly, is suffering from a condition that is like my own.
But I’ve also noticed a group of people within my sphere of close friends and family who suddenly disappeared. Not one word. Nothing but crickets. Some of them have surprised me. I have also observed how some tertiary friends (baristas, people I know in town but not as personal friends) are treating me very differently know that they know. They avoid eye contact and conversations.
Now I don’t blame people because, the purpose of me telling my long story above, is that I’ve been there. There is a social awkwardness of “What if I say the wrong thing?” That’s what I worried about when I never called “D” during her crisis. Then one “Online friend” that I know through a professional website said, “Mike, I don’t know what to say?”
So now I’m on this side, let me be clear. No one can say the “wrong thing” no matter what you say, unless you, foolishly, try to blame me for this. For example, “Mike, you should have taken better care of yourself.” Yeah, that would piss me off. Or from my Christian friends, “Mike, if you only trusted God better or prayed harder, or believed in faith, this would never have happened, or you would have been healed.” That would also piss me off, very, very much.
But beyond those stupid things, I can’t think of any other “wrong thing to say.” I answered the friend from the online professional web site by saying, “Just say, ‘Mike, that sucks.’” That’s good enough for me. Then relate to me the way you always have. Beneath these layers of cancer and renal failure, tubes sticking out of my chest, and pills I have to take, there is still the same ole Mike. He’s not depressed. He’s not cynical, he’s not dangerous. He won’t be offended. It is the same guy, but with a disease that sucks. Mike