Friday, March 8, 2013

In Suffering, Connection

To say that Al Klein and I knew one another when we both worked at a Fortune 50 company years ago would be misleading. More like we knew of one another. Despite working in the same department, the corporate culture never quite felt like it supported authentic connections. Clever and pithy exchanges among co-workers took precedence over sincere and heartfelt conversations. Bravado was king, and the shark-infested halls were no place to show fear, doubt or vulnerability. Especially vulnerability.

Twenty years after leaving the company, I received an email from Al. He was almost finished reading my book, and he felt the need to connect with me. Six months earlier – and after years of headaches and misdiagnoses – Al had been diagnosed with a malignant brain tumor. Following an emergency brain surgery, he underwent chemo and radiation, and was now adjusting to the reality of his post-cancer life, which included the strong likelihood that the tumors would return.

Within a handful of e-mails, Al and I had formed a nice friendship. No topic was off limits: spirituality, dream interpretation, relationships, our fears, our hopes, and the many ways that our medical challenges had changed us. Though we’d originally met through work, it was our mutual experience with suffering that truly forged our bond. The details of our respective illnesses were almost irrelevant. What we quickly discovered was that we shared similar responses to life-threatening illness: the difficulty in learning to sit (or more accurately, lie) still and allow others to care for us, the need to embrace the vulnerability that goes hand in hand with serious illness, and the desire to be better people and to help others, especially after receiving all that love and support and help while we were each the ones in need.

I believe Al put it best when he said, “I have a great family and great friends, and I've been overwhelmed by the love and support they’ve shown – that’s the silver lining though this ordeal. Actually, the love is so much more important than the ordeal.”

A couple years ago I invited Al and his wife to join me in New York City for a gala benefit I was chairing, but he told me he no longer enjoyed attending large events with lots of strangers. Instead, he invited me to join him for lunch after the benefit if I could stay in the area for another day. I declined, feeling the need to return to Colorado shortly after the fundraiser, but promising to get together during my next trip to New York.

The minute I received an email from Al’s wife months later, I regretted not having stayed that extra day to have lunch with Al. The email’s subject line read: A Note of Sorrow. The tumors had returned, this time more aggressively. Al had passed away the previous evening.

This life, for every one of us, is filled with suffering. Nowhere is this more apparent than in blood services. Every blood recipient is suffering in some regard, be it with an acute medical challenge or a lifelong transfusion-dependent illness. Every parent of a child who needs a blood transfusion understands suffering – both their child’s and their own.

But amidst all this suffering is that undeniable silver lining – the gift of authentic connection between people. Between a patient and a nurse. Between a blood recipient and a donor. Even between two former business colleagues who were once too clever to be vulnerable.