This Valentine's Day, I went to a funeral.
I met Jessica when I worked briefly at USC as a temp before escaping to full-time work. I labored in the student office for the Dental School, which was almost as much fun as flossing. Jessica and I shared the same sense of humor, and often emailed back and forth across a four-person office when things got weird with co-workers, or heated with pushy students who didn't realize that they were about as much fun as a root canal. She was a freak-magnet who always had hilarious stories like aisle-blocking long-legged men who's i.d. tag on their briefcase said "M. Stork" or other ridiculous encounters. Quirky, smart, and sly, she was my new best friend, and a welcoming face in a new job where I feared I wouldn't fit in.
We shared lunches at the music school down the street, traded commuting stories, and laughed at the absurdity of USC's sometimes bureaucratic way of business. When you first meet someone, you think you know them because of your first impressions. As you see them day after day, week after week, they reconfirm your first impressions because nothing intrudes to alter what you perceive. But first impressions only go so far because people only show you so much on the surface. Beneath is a complexity that can take a lifetime to appreciate. That appreciation is called friendship and you're lucky if someone lets you in deep enough to be considered a friend.
Subtle signs of Jessica's outside life began to sift into daily conversation like flour dusting a cutting board. She would mention that she was going to spend the weekend in the desert with her sister. So, adding to the picture was the image of a sister. I filled in some blanks by imagining parents, and a family home somewhere not too far away. I also thought briefly that maybe she and her sister were spending a weekend in the desert together as a kind of getaway. But as the weeks went by, I realized from the regularity of the visits that this sister must actually live in the high desert that sits high above sea-level Los Angeles and a world away from celebrities and car chases.
As the holidays approached, I was invited to the school potluck for Thanksgiving. I brought squash casserole and carpooled with the office gals, each of us clutching a dish we'd made. Christmas plans came up and Jessica mentioned that her sister, Jennifer, was a twin, and that she had been battling cancer, but was doing a little better with treatment. So all the time that I had pictured family get-togethers and sisterly visits, there was more going on than I could know. Retreats were revealed to be vigils, and visits unveiled as measured time made bittersweet by illness. I wanted to imagine that I'd sensed something... a depth, a gravity to things. But the truth was that until Jessica said something, I didn't know a thing. I remember sitting at my desk the Monday following Thanksgiving and seeing her so differently eyes just visible above her computer monitor. Everything was the same, except now I knew enough to appreciate that amidst the swirl of scheduling student exams, calculating grades and attending to the needs of professors there was a river of emotion quietly running underneath my friend.
I never did meet Jennifer. She remained a fixture in screen-saver photos and stories. Jessica talked about her, the visits to the high desert, and periodically mentioned how her treatment was going. It sounded unpleasant, but like it was being managed, that there was hope. I left USC to take a permanent job at the law firm where I now work, but I didn't lose touch with Jessica. I visited USC for lunch, and emailed. We often talked of seeing each other for dinner, a movie, or just to hang out. But the plans never materialized because, I reasoned, we were both just too busy. But there is the busy of grocery lists and plumber's visits. And then there is the busy of a sister who is sick.
Checking email a week ago, I saw the announcement for Jennifer's funeral service and my heart just sank. All this time I hadn't known enough to reach out, hadn't asked enough to know, hadn't understood what my friend had been going through.
The funeral fell on Valentine's Day. One heart-shaped arrangement of flowers dedicated to Jennifer from her husband made me feel that one can never say 'I love you' often enough. Jessica's family is very spiritual and their faith is helping them through an incredibly difficult time. Made all the more difficult by the the fact that Jessica also has cancer now, as does her mother. There is the saying that God does not give us more than we can handle. I have never been a big believer in this expression because it seems to remove compassion when it is needed most. It isolates and imbues with strength and independence that which is most in danger of loneliness and collapse.
As I wept at the funeral, I realized that my tears were just a tiny reflection of a family's profound grief in the wake of immediate loss, and more loss that may come in the future. The most I could do was be present and share in their difficult time, trying to see it as God letting me share the burden instead of leaving it all to them. I can't say I felt even adequate to the task. And for someone addicted to 'doing,' just 'being' was very difficult. What is there even to say? For all of the truly important things in life, there are no words.
What has stayed with me is that that you can never know what is going on in another person's life. I have been very productive this past year; managing my own family illness with my partner (kidney failure), writing, holding down a job, and squeezing in some travel. But how I wish my eyes had been open wider so I might have taken in a little more of life as it was happening around me. There is a balance between creating lives on a page, witnessing them, and participating in them. Sometimes life seems to intrude on my writing, and sometimes that very intrusion is the thing worth writing about.
Now go tell someone you love them. It doesn't have to be Valentine's Day for that.