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Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Falling off the face of the earth

[I don't know who will hate this post more; men or women.  If you fall into either of those categories, feel free to take a pass and stop back tomorrow.]

For whatever the reason, male relationships seem to require less tending/nurturing than their female counterparts.  Having had personal experience with only the XY side of the gender divide, I can't really say with any certainly how female relationships work... what kind of investment in time/effort is required to maintain those relationships... or what it feels like for a woman to lose an old friend. 

I only know how these things work over here on my side of the fence.  Or I thought I did, anyway.

I can go years without speaking with old friends, yet when we run into each other or one of us remembers to call/email, it is as though the intervening time was no more than a few days.  Like a good book that falls behind the couch, so long as the page where I left off remains folded down, it takes only a moment to blow off the dust and pick up where we left off.

But I've noticed in recent years that occasionally I'll fold down a page on a friendship and push it aside, only to find out that someone I thought would be waiting there behind the couch has been picked up by The Housekeeper and thrown away. 

When this happens, it highlights an even more glaring difference between male and female relationships; specifically, how and why each grieves after losing a friend.

Again, I have only second-hand observations on which to base what I write here, but women seem to grieve very differently than men when they experience a loss.  More specifically, they seem to grieve for the the wreckage that the loss wreaks on their world.  I've heard the hushed conversations; "Oh, those poor children... what will her husband do?  How will they manage without her?"

Witnessing this kind of empathy makes me feel shallow and selfish by comparison.   On the occasions when I've heard about the death of old friends, the first thing that occurs to me - even before the sense of personal loss, and before the thoughts of the good times we shared - is my own mortality.

I know.  Selfish.  Shallow. 

Death is something that happens to old people... older than me, anyway.   I mean, for cryin' out loud, I'm not supposed to be getting email notices from my university alumni association telling me that holes in the ground are being filled with people I used to drink beer with!

Yesterday a coworker called me over during lunch and motioned for me to sit down.  When we were seated face to face he said, "You remember ___________ right?"  The name he mentioned was of a guy a year or two younger than me.  We'd both been 'eydim' (witnesses) at this coworker's wedding.  I wasn't close with the guy, but our world's are interconnected enough that we'd always behaved as buds whenever we ran into each other. 

I said, "Yeah sure, but I haven't seen or heard from him in years.  How's he doing?"

I didn't even need to wait for the reply.  Just the way my coworker winced when I used the present tense told me all I needed to know.  But Just the same I waited for confirmation.

"Yeah, I kinda lost touch with him too", began my coworker.  "I've been meaning to look him up but I never seemed to get around to it.  Well I sat down yesterday and started Googling him to see if I could track him down, and the first thing I came across was his name on a 'Refuah Sheleima'  (wishes for a full recovery) list on his synagogue's website from more than a year ago.  I did a little more digging but couldn't find anything else.  I knew he'd gone a couple of rounds with cancer about ten years ago, but the last I'd heard he was in remission and everything was fine.  I guess the cancer came back last year."

"So...?" I prompted him, "Did you find anything else out?"

"Yeah", he began.  "I looked up his phone number and called to see how he was doing.  His wife answered the phone. [a long pause]  When I asked to speak to _________ she told me that he'd died this past year."

I suddenly felt cold and clammy.  To buy time to deal with the icky stuff I was feeling... and to try to make my coworker feel a little better... I fell back on one of my most trusted defenses; I told an 'I can top that for sheer stupidity' story.

I began, "Well at least you didn't do what I once did.  I called up looking for an old friend I hadn't seen in years and chattily told his brother's wife, "Hi this is David Bogner, I'm a friend of __________. I've been trying to track him down for ages but he seems to have fallen off the face of the earth.  Can you give me his current phone number or email address?"   After a long pause she informed me that her brother-in-law was dead, having been killed when he, quite literally, fell off the face of the earth.  It turns out he'd gotten separated from his hunting buddies one night in the Adirondacks, and accidentally walked off a cliff."

My coworker digested my story and agreed that, yeah, at least he hadn't said anything quite that unfortunate to the guy's wife.  But he still felt terrible about calling a year late to accidentally offer his condolences to the the widow of a guy with whom he was supposedly good friends.

We sat there for a couple of minutes in silence.  I was still a bit floored by the way I was taking the news.  After all, I hadn't been all that close with the guy.  We'd run into each other at intervals of about three years... and I think I might have gone out with his sister once upon a time.  But I just couldn't shake the feeling that the emptiness in the pit of my stomach was as silly and inexplicable as Zahava's tears when the screenwriters for 'ER' killed off a pregnant wife in front of her husband and kids. 

What the hell?!

It was that last thought that helped me zero in on what was bothering me.  Walking back to my office I started thinking about what it was that made Zahava cry at certain television plot twists and not others.  The scenes that invariably got to her were the ones where a ragged hole was torn out of the fabric of someone's world.  She cried for the people who were left behind... the ones who had to try and repair the hole in their lives.  I invariably ended up staring only at the ragged hole.

As I said earlier, it may sound shallow and selfish, but when I hear about the passing of someone who could, in any way, be considered a contemporary, my first - and sometimes only - thought is of my own mortality.  And as if that weren't bad enough, my first feeling isn't about things like "Oh my G-d what would Zahava and the kids do without me".  There's no thought of "Goodness, how hard will it be for the kids growing up without me around?"   

No, for some reason I seem to fixate on selfish thoughts like "Think about how much I'd miss out on if it were me taking the dirt nap instead of him!"

I honestly don't know where I'm going with this, but I really got the wind knocked out of me yesterday.  I guess I needed to do some thinking out loud to figure out why the death of someone who could best be described as an 'acquaintance' had been able to shake me up so badly.

The best I can come up with at the moment is the observation that I wish I could be more like my wife (and her XX cohorts) and focus on those left standing at the top of the cliff.  It might also be nice to have a few less shallow, selfish thoughts about how much I dread the idea of being the one who, someday, will miss out by falling off the face of the earth.

Posted by David Bogner on February 12, 2008 | Permalink


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If you fall into either of those categories (...)

*crickets chirps....*

You know, they showed a nice docu here on tv, about some sunny spot in South Italy, about the people there, economy, hardships and the bit of spare luck, about their lives in general. The part where I sobbed was when a guy in his 60's, who looked so healthy and content said, "You know, life here is simple. But look around! I want to be here forever. I don't want to leave this world... why, life is so beautiful."

Posted by: a. | Feb 12, 2008 2:00:20 PM

You are completely right about women. When we think of our mortality, we think of leaving our children motherless, not about our own fear of death. But you guys usually don't worry that much about the "what if"s and "what's gonna be"s. You have a much simpler way of thinking and you deal with the here and now. Which is a not necessarily a bad thing. I think it shows more Emunah than the way we women approach this issue.

Posted by: Baila | Feb 12, 2008 2:33:43 PM

Or maybe it just shows a simple mind :-)

Posted by: Baila | Feb 12, 2008 2:34:34 PM

"I'm not supposed to be getting email notices from my university alumni association telling me that holes in the ground are being filled with people I used to drink beer with"

I'm taking this snippet away with me.

Posted by: Wry Mouth | Feb 12, 2008 5:01:15 PM

Baila... I think your second instinct was probably closer to the mark. :-)

Wry Mouth... Feel free. Just don't show it to any of my old English Lit. professors. You know, what with ending the sentence with a preposition and all. Thanks.

Posted by: treppenwitz | Feb 12, 2008 5:07:44 PM

It can be quite shocking discovering old friends are gone. I recently discovered Facebook, and went on a bit of a binge of looking up old friends (both via facebook and Google). There was one friend for whom Google turned up a notice (from almost two years ago) that he (or more accurately, his body) had been found in the back seat of his car with a plastic bag over his head and pills in his hand. In this case I don't think I felt shock over my own mortality as much as a profound sadness for the loneliness which drove him to do that to himself, and perhaps some guilt (however irrational) that perhaps I could have helped somehow, had I been better at staying in touch. I suppose the guilt is another form of your "male egocentrism" -- i.e. thinking "OK, but how does this relate to me?"

Posted by: Jonathan | Feb 12, 2008 5:13:05 PM

Actually, I have both responses--freaked out by my own mortality and aware that "that could be me" while simultaneously thinking about those left behind. I suspect it has something to do with my experiences; I honestly do not remember how I thought pre-bombing.

Actually--a female friend of mine recently lost a friend of hers to cancer (they were friends in high school and had lost touch etc). She had the same reaction you did.

Sorry about your loss.

Posted by: Gila | Feb 12, 2008 5:47:05 PM

Call me shallow, call me selfish, just don't call me late for dinner. Ba dump bah, thanks folks, I'll be here all week. ;)

I always think better him/her than me. It doesn't mean that I don't have any empathy for the loved ones of the departed either. Death is one of those things that I am not ready to experience yet, I have too much to do.

Still, I have found it disconcerting when I realize how many of my contemporaries are gone now. All you can do is try to live your life now and not wait for later.

Posted by: Jack | Feb 12, 2008 6:43:37 PM

In Hebrew, of course, mercy is Rachamim, from Rechem, the Uterus. (I always thought it was funny that in English, the word that derives from the uterus is hysteria.) Maybe Testosterone and empathy are antagonists, and with the advancing years, your testosterone/estrogen ratio is changing. Have Doctor Bean prescribe some HGH and Androgel. You'll feel better in a jiffy.

Posted by: Barzilai | Feb 12, 2008 6:51:56 PM

When my mother in law passed away unexpectedly, I had to shepherd my wife's siblings through the day of the funeral. With everyone gathered around me as we were about to make our way to the cemetery, I thought I would relieve the tension with a joke. It was a silly little joke. The kind you can tell in mixed company or in front of the kids. Looking back after twenty odd years, I don't think I've ever made as big an ass of myself as I did that day.

Posted by: David Bailey | Feb 12, 2008 7:16:30 PM

I just wrote a post about Death yesterday. My husband's father is dying and we had to make a decision on whether or not we should take our children to see him in the hospital. We did, and we made the right decision, I think, I hope.

One other thought to think about is the other type of mourning - not for the dead, but for friends and family that we have lost or had to say goodbye to. We can be in mourning for many personal reasons; what was and what could be. And yes, unlike the dead, you can still make amends or try to reach out and speak to them again, but the pain, nevertheless, is still very real, very raw, and can take a long time to heal and recover.

Along the lines of your premise on the difference of the sexes, I wonder if there is a difference with men and women in how they mourn the living?

Posted by: Jaime | Feb 12, 2008 7:59:35 PM

this happened to me a couple years back. I had lost touch with a dear friend when our kids were small and we got all caught up in those child rearing years. It wasn't until several years later that I found out he died of AIDs. I thought back to the last time we had seen him and we even discussed how drawn and tired he looked.
My first thoughts and concerns were that I didn't get to see him. To perhaps visit when he was sick - to bring soup or bedside jokes or just hold his hand. I am still sad about that.

Posted by: weese | Feb 12, 2008 8:12:39 PM

This post really hit home for me. Hope you don't mind, but I linked to it on my blog.

Posted by: Raizy | Feb 12, 2008 10:31:41 PM

I too am like you, my friend David. When I hear of such tales I think about what it would be like to die, to be THE one. However, more and more now I think about my kids, both still quite little. Usually these morbid thoughts are quick, passing thoughts. Until recently. On a recent Saturday night, a local women had two children in her car and was taking them home to a sleep-over. They were her twin sister's young son and daughter. After inexplicably crossing the divide of a highway in her car (and missing being hit head on) she pulled over. She then got out, stripped all their clothes off (including her own) and walked back across the busy highway. All were killed. She was sober. Since I have two small children, and my wife is a twin, I was forced to stare at that wreckage straight on. No passing thoughts these. I am still deeply disturbed when I think about this. Needless to say my wife did not sleep well for weeks. I don't pray much but I will tell you I continue pray for those poor people both living and deceased.

Posted by: Andy McCarthy | Feb 13, 2008 4:38:31 AM

This hit home for me, but in a different way:

A couple of years ago, I walked away from a very bad car crash. I fell asleep behind the wheel (I was alone in the car, thank G-d) and crashed head-on into a utility pole. The car was demolished, but I was able to get out and avoid the live wires all over the ground. I don't ever remember being more frightened in my life - both at the time, and in retrospect. While I was forcing open one of the doors to get out, my only thoughts were about my family, and how they would manage without me. I thought about my (then) 6-month-old, and how I might never have a conversation with her. Thank G-d, I got out without a scratch, but I still think about it a lot. My point - I think that when something happens to someone personally - when one is facing their own mortality - they tend to have more thoughts about loved ones, and how they will deal with the loss. When it happens to someone else, I think it becomes more hypothetical, and people don't necessarily take the thought to its conclusion. Except that now, whenever I hear of someone killed in a car crash, that's about all I can think about.

Posted by: psachya | Feb 13, 2008 5:34:54 PM

There's hardly a day that goes by when I don't wonder what I or the kids would do if my husband weren't here. His patience, his wonderful parenting, his love. But we took out a fat life insurance policy for him, so I guess it'd be okay... (Gallows humor.) And now, after a not-completely clear diagnostic test, I'm realizing it could actually be ME who goes first. It's probably nothing, but I find myself torn now between living each day as calmly and normally as possible, and worrying about having to prepare three small children for my exit (if it comes to that).

What an honest post! I never imagined how unifying these thoughts of death could be. The comments are incredible. And you just thought you were thinking out loud...

Posted by: Shimshonit | Feb 13, 2008 10:30:03 PM

Your post reminded me of the many I'd typed, deleted, and retyped 2 years ago, when my friend Liz was so very ill, particularly when you mentioned feeling a disconnect between your age and stage of life and the notion of your contemporaries passing away. I especially recall lying in bed on my 24th birthday, which fell on Pesach, not sure if Liz was alive or not because no one could call me over yontiv. It forced me to do a lot of heavy thinking about my own life and what I wanted to accomplish with it.

I'm undeniably female, and Liz was a very close friend. Yet I did just as much thinking about myself and trying to come to terms with the idea that I might not live long enough to do whatever I was put on this earth to do, as I did coming to terms with the loss of everything Liz could have done and been and the grief and loss her family was feeling.

I don't think it's coincidence that the chuk of the parah adumah resonates so strongly with me. Death is one of those laws of life that we simply cannot ever fully wrap our brains around. The best we can do is find some way to integrate our experiences with death, no matter how far removed, into our schema and go from there. We just each have our own ways of accomplishing that.

Posted by: Cara | Feb 15, 2008 6:59:18 AM

The downside of women being so sympathetic is it leads them to ask questions that have no satisfactory answer: "If I died would you remarry?"

Can you even imagine a guy thinking about such a thing (much less being stupid enough to ask his wife)?

My first thought in response to Joyce's asking me that question was: "If you were dead, why would you care whether I remarried?" But before I could shoot my foot off, Joyce explained, "You really ought to remarry -- the kids need a mother."

So next time Joyce asks, I'm ready with the correct response: "No way! The kids are all grown; they don't need a mother any more."

Posted by: Bob | Feb 16, 2008 5:32:38 AM

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