A few months back, I was scanning through my Facebook feed, killing time while waiting in line at Starbucks. It was pretty standard fare: a potpourri of kiddie pix, instagrams, cat memes, food porn and the occasional rant about politics or the weather. My thumb scrolled up and up, occasionally gliding across the “like” button as I caught up on the details of my friends’ daily lives. And then came a post that caused me to pause.
It was an image of a watercolor depicting a faint landscape: earth, air and a star-speckled sky. Over the image, in a handwritten typeface, was a quote from Buddha.
“The trouble is, you think you have time.”
It was posted by a friend, a mother of two beautiful children, who had just completed a course of chemo after being diagnosed with breast cancer.
I froze for a second, deeply touched by this simple, yet profound—and for her so very intimate and personal—truth. I took a deep breath, tilted my head back to suck back the tears, and moved to the front of the line.
Though I went on with my day that post and the emotion it triggered stayed with me. As a parent, it’s something I reflect on often. In the past week, it’s been all the more visceral.
You can plan and strive and dream and live…and in an instant, you could leave this earth.
The other day, I watched a CBS “Sunday Morning” segment entitled, “If Only.” It focused on the utter fragility of life—how inexplicable, unexpected circumstances like 9/11 and more recently the Boston Marathon bombings and Texas fertilizer plant explosion, can not only end lives tragically, but leave those that remain with guilt and regret for words left unsaid, paths not taken, feelings left unshared.
The question was posed: ”What would you do differently if you knew? What would you have said to a loved one, a spouse, a parent, a brother or sister, a mentor, a friend or even an enemy?
They then profiled people who filled in the blank.
“If only…I would’ve had the chance to thank the family that hid me and my parents from the Nazis during the Holocaust…”
“If only…I would’ve told my grade school teacher ‘I’m sorry for making fun of you—the clothes you wore and the way you walked. You taught me so many things…and inspired me to become a teacher’…”
Each person wept as they read out loud words they had written but would never be heard.
"The trouble is, you think you have time."
The truth is, most of us waste it—buried in the weeds, busying ourselves with activities, scanning, surfing, doling out trivial tidbits that pass the time, and only skim the surface of true emotion. We miss the opportunities we have every single day to thank someone, to say I’m sorry, to encourage, to praise, to appreciate.
Usually it takes a catalyst (an illness or a tragedy) to push us over the edge. To step out side of our comfort zone and into vulnerability. To truly see another person and tell them how you feel. But doing so can become a catalyst for something so much bigger than yourself.
My mom was the youngest of fourteen kids. Her mom died during childbirth so she never knew what it was like to have a mother. She grew up in a culture where emotions weren’t expressed, so a terse “Be good.” “Study hard.” or “Love you.” were the extent of feelings shared. I knew she loved me through her actions, not often through her words. But at some point along the way, 13 years ago to be exact, she wrote me a letter—astounding, unexpected, so genuinely heartfelt—and I will cherish it for the rest of my life.
Though I am truly blessed with an amazing family, great friends, a solid job, a home in a city that I love, I also have doubts, insecurities, questions about what I’m doing and what the future holds. I am, like we all are, simply trying to do my best, vacillating between clear direction and completely winging it.
I came across the letter randomly, tucked away in a shoebox full of pictures and miscellaneous mementos I had collected through the years. I found it—or it found me—at a time when I needed a nudge, a little reassurance, words of encouragement when I started to doubt.
We didn’t always see eye to eye. She wanted me to be a lawyer and I chose a career in advertising. She was no frills; for me, the fancier, the better. She came from a country and a mindset thousands of miles away from where they raised us. But the letter bridged the gap, revealed a depth of feeling that I never knew she had.
My Dearest Celia,
I have been wanting to try this new stationery for a long time now, so…finally I found the box and put it on my desk and started writing to you.
I can’t believe you are so grown. To me, you are still my baby. I guess I cannot believe either I am as old as I am.
Cel, you have grown to be so mature, so charming, so beautiful, so loving, so responsible, etc., etc., etc. Your dad and I are so proud of you. We are so lucky to have a daughter like you. We love you very much.
We’re happy you enjoy and love your work. I did not doubt for one minute you would achieve such advancement. So fast! I have seen and witnessed how talented to you are. You are such an incredible being. I have always admired you. You can always attain what you strive for once you put your effort into it. As you know, I have consulted you about different things even when you were just in high school.
I just want to emphasize once more that you make us happy with what you do and we are proud of you…Stay as sweet and as wonderful as you have been. Follow your instincts. Always be thankful for the gifts you have. God bless you.
I'll never know what caused her to put pen to paper that day. It was so unlike her. Yet here she was, a successful neurologist who built a practice filled with patients who loved her, expressing how much she admired me?! It was shocking, heartfelt…and so, so beautiful. Years after it was written, it still had the power to cast a whole new light on our relationship. The letter was a gift—tangible, real, something to hold onto despite the fact the she is gone.
We think we have time…but nobody knows for sure. Write a letter. Pick up the phone. Say the words that need to be said. You have nothing to lose. And the person on the receiving end has everything to gain.