The signs on the New Jersey Turnpike taunted me during a recent visit to the Garden State. Expect delays: Multiple lane closures ahead. Night paving. Seek alternate routes. Easier said than done. A good friend and former colleague had lost her mother suddenly and I was trying to get from Massachusetts to the wake in southern Jersey. If only there were an alternate route bypassing death. If only we could delay the loss of the ones we love, or close ourselves off to the multiple ways we lose those closest to us. If only…
According to my GPS, the trip was to take 5 hours–each way. I hemmed and hawed for a few days before I left, debating whether I would make the trip at all. When my friend sent the details of the funeral arrangements, she made it clear that she didn’t expect me to come: “Don’t feel obligated,” she wrote. I pored over my calendar and noted my list of appointments and upcoming tasks; there was much to do here at home and in the office and spending 10 hours in the car surely wasn’t the best way to accomplish any of it.
Two competing voices duked it out in my mind. First, the voice of reason: “This is a poor use of of your time. You know, you’ll only see your friend for 10 minutes, if that. Are you crazy? You have actual work to do.” Then, the opposing voice which suggested simply, “You can’t not do this. You can’t not be present to your friend who has lost her mom. You can’t not be there for and with her.” This second voice, the voice of care and friendship, eventually won out. I rescheduled my appointments and got in the car.
The drive was rather uneventful, and fortunately I missed the heavy traffic near New York City. As I passed the many hours of driving I thought about what I’d say to my friend who had lost her mother. I thought about how her father and her brother, whom I had never met, would be holding up. I thought about my own mother and about the health scare she suffered a year ago when we almost lost her.
The wake was like many others I have attended. There were some tears, some laughs, a lot of heaviness and countless offers to talk and help, “if you need anything.” I spoke with my grieving friend and her family. I prayed at her mother’s coffin and picked up a memorial card. I said hello to some friends who had also listened to that voice of care and friendship, and who stepped aside from their own obligations to be there. After my short visit I turned around, got back in the car and made the 5-hour drive back to Massachusetts.
A day later, sleepily back in my office and conscious of the sea of paperwork on my desk and the bottomless laundry pile in my closet, I know that I didn’t accomplish any of the actual work I had. But I’m glad I made the trip, that I saw my friend and could be there for her and pray with her and her family. I’m glad I ignored the specious reasoning that tried to convince me that I had “work” to do, the voice that suggests that relationship-building isn’t real or worthy work. Paperwork and laundry be damned. I’m glad I went. But I wonder. Why does it take a death to remind me that relationship building is the only work worth doing?
As I was recounting the trip to some folks in the office, a colleague interjected, “Are you crazy?” Perhaps. But I’m glad that the voice that insisted that I couldn’t not go won out. If I had paid attention only to the voice of reason I never would have made the trip. Efficient use of time is the advice the world gives, but efficiency doesn’t easily lend itself to encounter, care or love.
To choose efficiency is to brush aside suffering, to ignore friends in times of need, to prefer the familiar to the true. But to choose love–to listen to that other voice–is to choose an alternate route. Loving means waiting, sometimes for hours. To love is to waste time, to expect, even seek, delays in the work of establishing or maintaining relationship with another. Loving is terribly inefficient and always will be, and, I suppose, there’s no way around that.
– // –