I told her that I couldn’t come in to work because I had the stomach flu.
I drafted the e-mail before I went to bed and then pressed send from my phone during the early hours of the morning – around the time you’d think someone would come down with the flu and call in sick to work. I don’t think I have ever called in sick. I muscle through colds, sore throats, and sinus congestion. I know for sure that I have never played hooky. The only reason my mom would keep me home from school when I was a kid was if I was throwing up. If I had the stomach flu.
I didn’t go to work today. And I don’t even have the stomach flu. I lied. But it was the simplest reason I could think to give. It seems like the only acceptable reason for not going to work… well that and funerals. I had a few weeks off after my dad died. It was around Thanksgiving so I only missed a week and a day of my clinical rotations. I made up all the hours I missed in the following month. Then I started a new rotation in an ICU where I saw people die. Where I was at the hospital from six in the morning until some ambiguous hour… four, five, six, seven… The days were so draining, but I did it. Like I’ve done it all along.
I remember the month of November. I had to be at the hospital for my rotation that started at seven-thirty. Seven-thirty isn’t too bad. But it was November. November was the last month my dad was alive. I would wait to go to bed until he went to bed. My mom and sister needed to have a third person to move him from his chair to the bathroom and then into his bed. I was so tired. I was never late the entire month.
I remember driving to Florida the week after his funeral. There was this big pharmacy residency showcase. If I didn’t go, all my future plans would be delayed a year. So I small talked and networked with strangers while wearing a black blazer. I was dying to put on sweat pants and curl up in the red recliner in our family’s living room. I didn’t though. I took good notes and wrote thank you cards to all the program directors.
I remember taking a cardiology final exam the day after my dad’s first surgery. Usually I would go into my shift at CVS after my exams. I remember calling my boss from a stairwell in the hospital. I told her I wasn’t going to be able to come in because I wanted to be with my dad while he was recovering. She asked if I could find someone to cover the shift for me.
This shit has never stopped. It never stops. But I’ve kept going. I keep going.
Today I didn’t have it though. And I couldn’t explain the truth to my preceptor. That I’m not sick, I feel perfectly fine. But in another sense I really don’t feel fine.
I’ve heard this message about the grieving process. That doing the normal tasks of daily living can require inordinate amounts of strength and courage. I guess I didn’t have enough of it today. I only had the strength and courage to go to the grocery store. I ended up going to four grocery stores. I am not sure why. Maybe I was telling myself that if I can go to one, I can go to four. I can do this one task right. Because I can’t seem to do anything else today.
I’m really not comfortable with lying. I rarely lie. I’ve been asked before what is the worst lie I’ve ever told. Sometimes I say I’m okay when I’m not. I’ll say I don’t care when I do. I say something doesn’t matter when it does. This e-mail was one of the most concrete lies I have ever told. Normally when I lie to someone else it is because I am lying to myself. I have warned my friends to never trust my sense of direction. I tend to be very convincing because I have convinced myself. Once it ended up in half our group hiking an extra mile.
I know I don’t have the stomach flu. I can’t convince myself that I do. I feel fine. I slept in and made myself breakfast. Did yoga and laundry. No signs of nausea. But my lie feels equivalent to the truth. I feel just as incapable of talking and interacting, as I would be if I were vomiting uncontrollably. It feels just as hard to get out of bed, as it would be if I had body aches and were running a fever.
So did I lie? Really?
Even if my reasons were valid, what I said wasn’t true.
I felt like I had to though. I couldn’t go in. I wouldn’t have been able to speak. I had to lie. I couldn’t tell her the real reason.
Our society does not deal with the truth very well. We don’t handle hard things very well. We don’t move toward them. We avoid them, we turn slowly to not disturb the peace and then walk in the other direction. And we don’t leave very much margin along the contracts we’ve written on social expectations.
I couldn’t compose an e-mail that explained how I was so emotionally spent it would be beyond counter productive for me to come into work. That I spent the weekend with friends who weren’t really friends anymore. At least not what friends should be. That I kept up a string of bullshit small talk because I couldn’t force anyone to be honest about what was really going on. And when my shit came up, the topic of conversation shifted quickly. Because people move away from hard things, not toward them. And if you are in the middle of something hard it can feel like everyone is running away from you. It’s a lonely spot. It’s a lonely day staying home from work and not having the stomach flu. Maybe you go to four grocery stores because you don’t want to be alone. But you also don’t want to talk to anyone. You want to be seen, but you don’t want people to see you.
I lied today about being sick. If I choose to be honest, I have to say I am sad at you. My sister doesn’t think this phrase makes grammatical sense… But I don’t know how else to say it. I’m not mad at you. I’m sad. And my sadness in this moment feels directed toward someone; it doesn’t feel like the sadness that is no one’s fault. I am sad at you because you don’t ask me how I am. You haven’t moved toward the hard thing when I know you know it happened.
I know you love me. I know you are waiting for me to bring it up on my own. I know that if I say I need to talk about my dad, you will listen. I know you don’t say anything because you are trying to protect me from feeling things that are painful. But there is no bringing it up. It is up all of the time. Clouding my vision, filling my eyes. Pooling in my lungs and dripping out my sides. Can’t you see that I’m crying? Can’t you see it?
I need you to care. I need you. I need someone to move toward this hard, lonely spot. I pretend to write to no one so I don’t have to filter anything out. But I know you are reading this. I need you to hear me. And not for my sake alone – for the sake of all the strangers and friends bleeding in invisible pain right in front of you. Do you see them? Tell me, do you see them? They need you so much.
If being a friend is always enjoyable, you are not being a friend. If being a friend takes nothing of you, you are not being a friend.
I have a friend. I am so worried about him. No one is moving toward his sadness. I know he feels so alone. He doesn’t know how to be loved. He needs a friend who is going to love him. He doesn’t need another person to tell him things are going to be okay. He doesn’t need someone to give him coping strategies. He doesn’t need a hotline phone number. He doesn’t need someone to drive him to the emergency room. He needs someone to ask him how he is doing and then sit in silence as long as it takes for him to answer. He needs to hear someone say the words, “I love you.” And he needs someone to mean those words. I was the only one who asked him. I was the only one who told him. But I can’t be the only one. Do you hear me? I am not strong enough to be the only one. He needs more than I can give him. But I am worried no one else sees that. I am worried you don’t see that. That you won’t be the friend he needs and the friend I can’t be.
I was talking with another friend. She is hurt and angry. I may be sad at you, but she is mad at you. Rightfully so. When I became the center of attention, she was overlooked. Maybe you didn’t totally forget about her, but because you didn’t move in toward the hard thing you might as well have. Do you see how that has broken her? I see what it has done to her. I see what it continues to do. We sit next to each other with the radio on in my car. Our makeup is smeared in ugly streaks from the tears falling across both our cheeks. I don’t know what to tell her. I understand her anger. But I don’t feel it. I only feel sadness and disappointment and hurt. We both have raw wounds.
I tell her what I am only starting to understand.
That people do not move toward hard things. They just don’t. No matter how much they should. No matter how much it is needed. No matter how much we long for them to and how desperately we need them to. Unless someone understands what it is to be in this place, they don’t know to move in. So they wait in expectation to be told what to do. This is not how it should be. It’s not. It is not right. Listen to me say, it is not right. But it is. That is the reality we experience. It is so hard. It is so lonely. It feels like there is no end to it. The lonely days just seem to stretch out in front of you. It’s daunting. It’s terrifying. The thought of having to walk down that open road alone.
But the way to fight this is not with silence.
I can’t keep waiting for someone to call me. I can’t keep expecting for someone to knock on my door. I can’t keep longing for someone to speak the words I want to hear. They are locked on the outside of this circle, while I hurt on the inside. It is up to me to invite them in. I don’t doubt the love they have for me. Truly I don’t. I can’t hold the non-response, the changing of subjects, the general questions, the timid hugs against them. It is up to me to tell them what I need. It sucks that I have to do it. It shouldn’t be this way. But it is.
And the way to fight this is not with silence.
Our world is fractured, cracked, fissured, splintered, shattered, and every other synonym for broken. Angry or sad silence does very little at the other end of all these deep wounds. Grace goes much further. Grace has the substance that can drip through the cracks. Grace has a capacity that bitterness and resentment will never achieve.
The way to fight this is not with silence.
We are living in a world of people sitting in circles of deep and dark pain. Who need help. Who need to be loved. Who need someone who is willing to enter into the reality of not being happy and not being okay. Someone who is going to be a friend who gives something that will be costly. The reality of life is dependence. People are dying because they have no one to depend on, no one to shoulder their burdens. We all see it happen. Everything wrong in the world reported on the news. We shudder at the violence, rage at the injustice, and weep for the brokenheartedness.
But the way to fight this is not with silence.
So I am deciding to tell you. To extend grace. To ask with kindness, will you please come inside the broken circle? Will you choose to feel the hard things? Will you move in instead of shying away?
Because right now I don’t have the capacity for much more than my own grief. Yet in front of my eyes are these sweet souls who don’t have anyone else. And I can’t be what they need. At least not by myself. I need you. They need you. We need each other. Us living souls need each other. In desperate ways. In ways that are long journeys and not quick fixes. Can you commit? Can you give? Can you be a friend?
I am telling you. I am asking you. I am begging you. Please be good friends. Give love. Walk that long road. Sit next to the tears for as long as it takes. I know it’s not the comfortable thing to do. I know it’s easier to move away from the hard things. But please, will you move in? Can you please move in?