Tuesday, February 24, 2015

The Client

I'm out of town with my family. I hoped to have a relatively work-free few days so I could be "tuned in." I thought that would happen. Then this morning I found myself wandering Disneyland, the happiest place on Earth, holding a phone up to my ear while my nieces and nephews tugged on my other three limbs.

I felt guilty, and before long, I put the phone in my pocket, reminding myself that I was definitely not important enough that the world would explode if I stopped working for a few a hours.

Not much time passed before I felt my phone buzz. I resisted the temptation to check it for a moment, but curiosity got the best of me so I pulled it out.

I had a voice message from an unknown number. This was surely work related. Against my better judgment I had my office phone set to forward all of my calls to my cell phone while I was gone.

I put the phone back into my pocket, reminding myself that I had already decided to just be with my family and I could check my messages and emails at the end of the day when everyone else had gone to bed.

For some reason, I just couldn't shake the nagging feeling that I should listen to the message. So I did. Standing in line for some ride with Bob and Cathie, my sister Krishelle, and my oldest niece Kaylee, I listened to the message while the others chatted with one another.

It was the last person I expected the message to be about. I heard the voice of a nurse on the other end informing me that someone I know was "not doing well" and that he "will probably pass today" and that he asked this nurse to call me and let me know so I could "hurry down as quickly as possible and visit him."

The nurse explained that this man was too weak to come to the phone and that he was sort of in and out of consciousness. She sounded perfectly apologetic and remorseful, like this wasn't the first time she had ever broken news like this. But she also sounded sincere, like the repeat gesture wasn't something canned or rehearsed.

The man she was calling about is a pro bono client of mine. His story is a sad one, and it has been an honor to get to know him over the last year.

To be totally honest, I sort of accepted this case inadvertently. I wish I could say I was out wandering the slums, looking for the opportunity to raise up the downtrodden. But that's not the case. Someone passed me in the hallway one day when I was in a hurry to get somewhere. He mumbled something about a person who needed help and "pro bono work" and "do you have time" and without thinking I basically agreed to whatever he was asking.

I had no idea that I had just agreed to something that would take as much of my time as this has. There were moments, early on, when I was frustrated by this. In addition, my relationship with the client built slowly. From time-to-time, he may have become frustrated with me. Some communication obstacles made our working together more challenging than many other cases might be.

Eventually, things got better. And after I got to know him a bit, I started to really adore this man. He was kind. He had a hard life. He had some huge obstacles. And yet, he was grateful. He was optimistic. The last time I saw him in person was a few weeks ago, and I realized then that I had learned a lot from my experience with him.

I last spoke with him over the phone on Friday. He sounded really tired, but he told me that he was starting to feel well after having a few rough days. We spoke for ten minutes or so. He sounded happy, and he asked whether I thought I might be able to talk or visit again soon.

And now, today, just a few short days later, a nurse from a few states away was asking me to come visit him as soon as possible.

My heart dropped to the bottom of my stomach. I've known for some time that his days were numbered, but I didn't know they were this numbered. I had no idea he was within days of the end when I spoke to him four days ago.

I suddenly felt a tinge of guilt for somehow not realizing that he was that sick when he told me how he was doing on Friday. I quickly replayed that conversation in my mind and searched for clues in what he said that should have suggested to me he was essentially on his deathbed. I wondered if he thought I was careless when I didn't instantly begin planning a visit after he told me that his health had been bad last week.

Then my heart dropped a little more as I realized that there was no way I could get out there to see him today. Even if I was somehow able to leave my family and catch a direct flight right away to Salt Lake City, he was still a few hours from the nearest airport.

I quickly texted my assistant and asked her to inform another attorney in my office who had worked with him. That attorney arranged an emergency visit, a visit about which I haven't yet heard. I called the nurse back and got an answering machine. I left a message, asking her to please explain to this man that I was out of state and wouldn't be able to make it back to him. I asked the nurse to please pass a personal message on to this man for me.

I haven't yet heard back from the nurse. I'll call again in the morning to find out the status, hoping, somehow, that the status is not what I anticipate it might be.

And tonight, I'm feeling a little heartsick.

This isn't a family member or a best friend or even someone I see on a daily basis. It's not really an unexpected thing. But I feel heartsick, wondering who, if anyone, was able to visit him today.

I've been thinking throughout the day about the people I've known and loved in my life who have passed on. And I've been thinking about what kinds of things I might say to them if they were still alive. Or what kinds of things I would say to my loved ones who are still alive if a nurse called and invited me to a farewell visit.

Would I ask them to tell me stories I've never thought to ask them to tell me before? Would I beg them to forgive me for any way in which I may have wronged them but was too blind to recognize until faced with finality? Would I replay every inside joke and fond memory so our final moments would be spent in laughter? Or would the conversation be solemn and serious, filled with tears and hugs?

I think the farewell would somehow be all of those things. But not just that. Permeating the visit would be a constant expression of love. Of appreciation. Of gratitude. I would be inclined to tell them how much it mattered to me that they taught me what they taught me and how little it mattered to me that they may have ever crossed me in any way. Underlying all of the expressions of good feelings would be some kind of regret that I ever missed opportunities to show kindness and love to this person.

And after thinking about all of those "last visits," I wondered why I don't make more of an effort to communicate those things to the people I love, even if it doesn't seem like they're going anywhere any time soon. It's true that you never know when it might be someone's time to go. But shouldn't we be loving one another, even with a guarantee of longevity? What's wrong with treating all of our encounters like they might be our last?

There's no harm in putting the cell phone away when it's time to be with family. Or telling our friends we appreciate them again, even if we just said it on Friday. Or listening to someone tell a story they are excited to share, even if we've already heard it.

I don't want to be the guy who spends his life regretting missed opportunities for connection. For forgiveness. For sincere expression. For recompense. For charity.

So I'll hug my family a little tighter today, and thank a man I can't visit for making one of his final acts a priceless one: unknowingly giving me a refresher course on love.

~It Just Gets Stranger


  1. Oh Sweetie. I'm so sorry.

    Every once in a while, I see a comment here from someone accusing you of being too silly or too shallow or whatever. They aren't reading the right posts. You are a kind and thoughtful man. Kiss all the kids on the forehead for me. Even Emrie, if she will let you anywhere near her.

  2. I can relate to this so well today. My grandpa passed away yesterday, and he lives out of state with my parents. I did say goodbye last time I talked to him, but not goodbye forever! I didn't know it would be the last time I spoke with him. There was nothing left to be said or discussed as he had a full, wonderful life and was in a good place, but I still feel regret. Regret that I didn't get to talk to him one more time before he died peacefully at home, with loved ones around him and a dog on his bed.

    Love really is the most important thing.

  3. That really sucks Eli. I'm sorry you won't be able to be there for him. Here's two things to remember, and I don't know if it will help you or not, but I'll say them anyway. Firstly, you can't be there for everyone. Period. It's good to be there for people, and people should try and be there for others, but you just can't be there for everyone all the time. And sometimes, you even have to take time out for some you time. You just have to say no to people and take that time for yourself. Also, I'm sure that he appreciates that you were there for him in the past to do pro bono work for him. And I bet, if the nurse or your partner, did explain things to him, he will totally understand the situation. Secondly, this is family time that you're being a part of right now. If this should teach you anything, it's that you're there with your family now, so turn to them and tell them those things you want to say to them now. Be with them...like REALLY be with them now and put that damn cell phone away. You're not being fare to them, or yourself, by constantly checking in on things.

    Detach yourself so that you can feel life. Life is around you...not inside of an electronic box. Enjoy it while you can.

    1. Oh, one other thing I forgot. I'm going to send a prayer out to him and yourself. And just remember footprints in the sand. No one is ever truly alone.

  4. Thanks Eli. A welcome reminder today. I hope you have fun with your family! Tell your mom hi and give her a hug from me!

  5. Thanks Eli. A welcome reminder today. I hope you have fun with your family! Tell your mom hi and give her a hug from me!

  6. You could, if you have the time, do a Skyp type visit with him. Have someone from the office take a laptop and he could at least see you and you can speak to him.

  7. It's too bad that it takes situations like these to remind us to reach out and keep close the people that matter to us.

  8. John Powell shares this touching experience: “It was the day my father died. … In the small hospital room, I was supporting him in my arms, when … my father slumped back, and I lowered his head gently onto the pillow. I … told my mother … :

    “‘It’s all over, Mom. Dad is dead.’

    “She startled me. I will never know why these were her first words to me after his death. My mother said: ‘Oh, he was so proud of you. He loved you so much.’

    “Somehow I knew … that these words were saying something very important to me. They were like a sudden shaft of light, like a startling thought I had never before absorbed. Yet there was a definite edge of pain, as though I were going to know my father better in death than I had ever known him in life.

    “Later, while a doctor was verifying death, I was leaning against the wall in the far corner of the room, crying softly. A nurse came over to me and put a comforting arm around me. I couldn’t talk through my tears. I wanted to tell her:

    “‘I’m not crying because my father is dead. I’m crying because my father never told me that he was proud of me. He never told me that he loved me. Of course, I was expected to know these things. I was expected to know the great part I played in his life and the great part I occupied of his heart, but he never told me.’” (The Secret of Staying in Love, Niles, Ill.: Argus, 1974, p. 68.)

  9. As a 19 year old still learning about life, death, and love I'm beginning to see that this deeper understanding you gain with each experience is the greatest and most unfortunate part of growing up. When my grandmother passed away when I was 11 I was upset, I cried, I remembered past happy experiences, and I moved on very quickly. Death at the time didn't seem so permanent and tragic. I believed I would see her again in heaven and that it was her time to go. Last year when my best friend's cousin, someone who I was merely acquainted with, died in a car accident I denied sorrow for a week and then bawled. I still believe I'll see her again, but it feels much more definite and sad. I think that as you grow older the sorrow and pain of other people, even people you don't know that well, becomes much more real to you. You are more capable of understanding what that pain would feel like if you were experiencing it and consequently feel more deeply for others.

  10. Life takes many curves. Thank you for caring for him as you did. Even if it wasn't perfect at all times from your perspective, that is not relevant. You cared. And that matters.