Sunday, January 13, 2008

Lessons from "Law and Order" About Being There for Someone

"Forced to Sit Still and Shut Up
Last week I was watching an episode of the TV show "Law and Order". A detective was killed, and Eames, a regular character on the show, went to pay a condolence call to the widow. Eames is a female detective, whose police-officer husband was also killed in the line of duty 10 years earlier. Eames' husband and this latest victim were partners. After the death of her husband the then-widow Eames received the obligatory visits from the police officers and widows; but after that, everybody became strangers to Eames, who stayed in the force and had to look at a lot of them every day.

Anyway, when Eames went to see the widow, the widow told her that she was so sorry that she just couldn't come to see Eames when Eames was mourning. Furthermore, she admitted that, when Eames' husband was killed, all she could think about was how grateful she was that it wasn't her own husband who got killed. Now the tables are turned, and Eames is there for her. Then she said those familiar words, "I just didn't know what to say"

That really hit home for me. In 1976, when my mom was first diagnosed with breast cancer, and at a time when people didn't talk about breast cancer as easily as they do today, my mom told me that people said those words to her. She once told me that a long-time friend, whom she ran into a few years after her mastectomy, said "I'm sorry I never called, but I didn't know what to say". I have heard that too.

When a friend is going through a serious illness, divorce, or even a death in the family, we often don't know what to say. I once called a friend, whose father had just died and said "I dont know what to say, but I'm so sorry", and she replied "just what you said was all I needed". Maybe when we don't know what to say, we should express that. But I learned that we need to say something, even if all we can say is "I don't know what to say."

But maybe the conflict is deeper. We are happy it's "not me" who has cancer, found out the spouse is cheating, getting a divorce,lost a job, etc. But another point I think this "Law and Order" episode was trying to get across: it may not be "me" this time, but it might be some day. And Eames, while she was holding the hand of the widow who never came to hold her hand ten years before, was saying "I forgive you for not being there for me." I got the impression that Eames could be a comfort to this new widow.

And maybe, there was an even bigger message here: People cannot always be there for us because of their own personal agendas. And we can't always be there for them. I was forced to think of everybody who went through bad stuff. I paid the condolence calls and sent the cards. But I don't know how much I was really "there". But I do know that after my mom died, I made more of an effort to "be there" when a friend lost a loved one. Because now I can say "been there and done that; I know how it feels". And it's natural that no one knows what to say to me or how to act; they've never been around ALS before. When I cough, they think I'm choking, and probably afraid I am going to die. I just say "I'm okay. It's just ALS".

That said, I have decided to put memoirs on another blog, entitled "Forced to Sit Still and Shut Up", which is another way of saying "ALS forced me to stop running and look at myself, and stop running my mouth and start to listen."

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