A man with whom I work, Jeff, has a quiet demeanor. I do not know him particularly well, except that he is the type of man that exudes a confident warmth, a gentle humanism. Never superfluous in his speech, he has a calm disposition, soft spoken but also articulate. When I have the opportunity to see him a few times a year, I am happy to talk with him, usually about work or how he fared his three hour commute that particular day. He is the sort of man that when I see him, I smile and greet him warmly - something that does not always come naturally for me in my current work environment.
The one thing I know about Jeff, outside of his professional character, is that he has a wife who has cancer. He has talked to me about her several times. I don't know her name, I only know of her disease. Having not seen him in several months, I recently asked him about her health. He shook his head with a somber resolve that expressed without words that she is not doing well. He said, “We are enjoying our time together.” He went onto briefly explain that the medical attempt to cure her through chemotherapy had failed and her prognosis to live is approximately 6 to 12 months. Jeff appeared stolid, composed while talking about his wife, leaving out the emotional details. The balance of her life would be about bringing her physical comfort and “enjoying their time” together.
Jeff talked with me about an upcoming trip that he and his wife were especially looking forward to. A business trip would afford them the chance to visit Charlottesville, Virginia - a beautiful town with shops and old buildings and home to a classical university designed by Thomas Jefferson. Cobblestone streets and sidewalks abut antiques stores and cafes. Amorous couples walk slowly, arm-in-arm, through the streets. There is a romantic and laid back air to the place.
While in Charlottesville, Jeff, in his understated enthusiasm, shared with me that he and his wife would be seeing Cirque du Soleil for the first time. There was a detectable upbeat giddiness to his voice. They had seen it on television, he said, and it looked wonderful. As he spoke, I recalled my own experience seeing my favorite Cirque production several years ago and how it consumed and overwhelmed me emotionally to the point of tears. I was amazed that what I was seeing - an elegant and gorgeously choreographed, stunningly costumed, intelligently written, beautifully woven patchwork of talented dancers and skilled and courageous acrobats - could be derived from the soul of another human being; that the creative charge from a person's vision could be turned into a tangible, visual, and beautiful expression. I have never felt so overjoyed before or since by any other form of art. I felt thrilled for him and his wife to be able to share a moment of sheer enjoyment - visceral and emotional - and for my coworker to have a memory like this to forever hold on to.
While I listened to Jeff and related to him my Cirque experience, finding myself with choked back tears for this man and his wife, I felt deeply compelled to say all the things of sympathy and condolence that one should, somehow muster words of eloquence that offer solace and wishes for emotional peace. What I wanted was to show him in his time of need that I was human too, that I cared and understood. But in that moment, filled with my silence, he offered a prolongued, gentle glance back at me graciously letting me know he heard me and he understood without me having to say a word. It was a compelling display of his forgiveness, grace, acceptance, and connection that given his circumstance was a powerful deed. All I could do later, finding myself safely alone, was cry for him and my lack of courage to express all the things I only wished I was able to say. The weakness of words might not have done justice anyway.
"You can't feel compassion for someone unless you can personally relate to their experience", I heard a high school teacher once say to our class while discussing "Les Miserables", the classic story of love and redemption. I recall being suddenly angry all those years ago to hear such a blatant admittance of selfishness. But, as life has proven, there is much truth to these words. By way of selfishness or not, it is essential, like breathing in air, to relate whichever way we best know how. What else is there, other than to relate and connect with others?
Of the things that I think of doing should I ever find myself with mere months to live, several things come to my mind. I think I would be painting more to create a legacy on canvas about what I was most passionate. I might want to hike, if I was physically capable, in India or South America or Asia. Maybe I would spend my last hours with my head on my loved one's chest, listening to their heartbeat or go camping in Africa, drink wine by candlelight and read my favorite book for the last time. I’d think about how I would tell my friends and family how much I loved them so they would always remember. Or maybe I'd see one final performance of Cirque du Soleil to know again how it feels to be delighted, enraptured, and amazed.
There are those people who I admire that give and love courageously, without barriers and fear, express freely without second guessing themselves. I hope to learn something about courage from my coworker who showed me so much of it.