Several months ago, I got a letter from a friend, a very old friend who was one of my classmates in high school and a roommate in college. I’ve been keeping this letter in my mind since then: I can even see his handwriting, which is unbelievably familiar to me—we’ve been friends since 1957--his handwriting has not changed one iota in the half-century since then. It was a letter about trying to write something consoling to me. He said he’d been following the blog and writing letters in his head; but unable to actually write them down; nothing on paper, he said, doesn’t communicate anything. (I don’t think that’s entirely true; just knowing someone is out there is a kind of consolation in itself.)
He said he’d been looking in religious books he has on his shelves for what authors he truly respects have to say about suffering and consolation. “The general wisdom I’ve received from these authors,” he says, “is that sometimes, especially in serious injuries like yours, there is very little one can say that truly helps. Just being “present” to the person suffering by talking or visiting or helping in some way seems to be the best advice…”
Last week, when I was having such sustained and horrible pain, and when I couldn’t see any future and was about as low as I’ve been, a friend came to visit me numerous times while he was in town. On the last night, he brought me dinner. Despite the fact that he had an enormous amount to get done before he caught his plane in the morning, he sat with me. I wasn’t having pain, but of course I was lying in bed as I almost always am, not able to get around in life. He gave me dinner, and I thought, well, he’ll probably be going home after that. But he didn’t leave. I kept thinking he’d say, well, I’ve got a lot to do. But he never did say that, he just stayed. He stayed through all my treatments, cathing, cough assist, trach care, boots and splints on, until just before I went to sleep, and that made me realize what the word “presence” meant, being “present” to a person; it was his very presence that was all that mattered, that comforted me so much, that stays in my memory despite the fact that I won’t see him again for another seven or eight weeks. I loved him for it.He wasn’t the only person who was present last week. Another very old friend, also a classmate in high school and a roommate in college, whom I’ve also known over half a century, also came out from the east coast with his wife to be with me while Peggy was at a conference in Singapore. He was here a great deal, mostly silent during the worst moments of that week, but I’d open my eyes and there he was, standing at the bottom of the bed, or standing next to me while I was in the bed, placing his hand on my arm, very modest gestures but they meant so much, a form of presence that it is difficult to describe because so much of it is nonverbal, but deeply and mutually understood. I loved him too for coming all the way out here to be with me. It’s from these two friends (and many others, including those already here) that I’ve really come to understand the full weight of what those authors of religious books were saying about presence, and about what it’s like to see the word presence in the handwriting of someone you’ve known for so long and so well, and to have friends—many friends--who in their many various ways embody presence in what they do.