Without warning, I found myself in the hospital this past week. And in-between the doctors' visits, lengthy tests, and general fear (I'll deny it!) associated with massive unexpected blood loss, I've dealt with nothing but roommate drama. No, I'm not necessarily talking about my NYC roommates, though you'll see that they provide an interesting parallel; I am talking about my hospital roommate. He is dying. His liver is failing. And is daughter is sitting across the room, helpless, watching him die while I get better.
How do you define the connections in your life? Followers? Friends? Forgivers?
To be honest, she's not watching him die; she isn't clutching that orange armchair, cherishing the last few days she has with him. Instead, she is perched in that orange armchair, carefully considering a breathing corpse. She rode a 10 hour bus to visit her father, and, upon arrival, found no father to visit. Just a living dead body.
For the past few hours, we've been talking. I've been trying to bring a smile to her swollen face and provide sympathy for her tired soul. I've tried to keep her mind off of this major relationship in her life that, without her consent, ended. She showed up for her dad, and he wasn't there waiting for her.
"I just feel so alone," she said to me, "and I don't know what to do about. Sorry, I don't know what you can do about it. Talking to a stranger won't change anything."
"Yes it will," I said, pushing aside the tray of saltless turkey that I wasn't consuming and the MacBook that was consuming me. "You feel alone. You might not know me, but I'm still here. Talking to me proves that. Talking to me proves that you're not alone."
"You don't feel alone," she asserted with the air of a lingering question. Gesturing to my tray, she continued, "I've watched you answer more emails and Facebook notifications than I can count. Your phone has been ringing off the hook."
I reached over and closed my laptop, letting the soft clap send a definitive signal. "Technology is misleading," I began, as I offered her a cup of tea from the $75-worth package Klout sent to me for being a strong social media influencer. "Take this chai for example -- no seriously, take a pack home with you, there's plenty -- I was sent this for my connections, for my online friendships, for my ability to connect with thousands of people thousands of miles away. Do you think Klout is rewarding me for the connections? For my writing and the influence that, I hope, it has on people I'll never meet? They're not. They're rewarding me for numbers. Statistics. The more persistent and pushy I am, the more they reward me. Because they hope I will be persistent and pushy about their brands. It's marketing. I'm using them, they're using me."
"Regardless, you still have thousands of connections, thousands of people who, if you post that you're in the hospital, care enough to say something. My father had me, and by the time I got here, I didn't have him."
"I love the connections I have, but a relationship in real life -- your relationship with you father -- is completely different. Yes, I'm beyond touched by the people that took a second out of their day to wish me well, but you took 10 hours out of your day to travel here, knowing full well that your father might not be lucid when you arrived. You've taken a full week off to stay with him, fully understanding that he might not even be here, not even as he lays in that bed across from us. Still, even though you didn't speak to him, would he have known you were coming?"
"Yes," she asserted, leaving no trace of doubt.
"That," I said as a patient who had lost enough blood to be concerned about his life, "that is everything."
We sat in silence for a second, unsure of what to say to one another. Awkwardly filling the silence with my default anecdotes and personal testimony, I continued, "My roommates live eight blocks away. They're my best friends in NYC. Since I moved here, I have made so many friends and networks and connections. But, in two years, there were exactly two people who I trusted to have my back in this city. They're eight blocks away, a five minute walk, and in five days, haven't visited. It's strange, being admitted to the hospital, having to question whether or not your best friends will come. And yet it becomes less strange when you stabilize and look around and you don't see them. You aren't even too let down that they didn't, because you knew deep down that they wouldn't. It wasn't strange that they weren't there. And that suddenly made those relationships seem, well, strange."
Another silence staked its claim in our conversation. Worrying that I overshared or hijacked the conversation for personal gain, I defaulted to more anecdote and testimony. "I have people all over the world," I said, picking up my iPhone, "who are sending me well-wishes on here. People I've never met -- people who owe me nothing -- asking how I am. And I have best friends, eight blocks away, who knew I was really sick, and they stayed eight blocks away. Best friends, for who the annoyance of a five-minute slight-uphill walk outweighed putting a smile on my face when I really needed one. Something's screwed up about that," as I tossed my iPhone back onto the tray, staring at it. "Something is screwed up about that."
Eager to stop weighing my dead-weight relationships, I turned the conversation to her dying father under the guise of wisdom. "But you took a 10 hour bus to get here. And you knew he might be gone. And he might be gone. And you're still here. That's a true connection. Screw the iPhone. Screw technology. Screw the easy way out. Screw fake people. If he knew you would be here, and if you knew you would be here, the relationship is there even if he isn't. Honest-to-God connections aren't about distance or frequency of talking or whether you text or tweet or visit. A true connection is about knowing that you'll wake up and they'll be there. Or you won't wake up, and they'll still be there. You're still here."
And, I kid you not, her father coughed and smiled.
Barring the results of one more test, I am set to be discharged tomorrow. I don't know whether or not it is her father's time, but I do know that I witnessed true love. It's the same connection that compelled my father to also travel 10 hours overnight when he heard that I was in the hospital (showing up to my surprise, having told him that I was fine!), or compelled my mother to call the hospital every single time I didn't pick up my own phone (I've been a bit sleepy!), or compelled my best friend from high school to send me stupid, silly pictures every 10 minutes just to make me smile (It worked, and I needed it). It's not something they remembered to do, or thought to do, but did because there was no other choice; there was no choice. These are connections that you know are there even when you're not. These are the connections that you can measure all of your relationships against.
You don't pick and choose who these people are in your life, but when you find them, keep them. Cherish them. With them, you can forgive any guilt or worry without a single expression. With them, you can find peace in their eyes, whether you can see them or not.