“I NEVER KNEW HOW IMPORTANT THAT WAS TO YOU”


I had a depressing holiday season.  Too much death.  Not in my family but in the families of two people that I know.  The three of us were once riding buddies, but after my bad accident in 2006, I gave up the sport, and while we stayed in touch, calls became less and less frequent.  I basically let the friendship go.

Shame on me.  I kept the friendship alive with Mike Manlove from my days in the Forest Service by stopping by every time I was in Minnesota.  Mike died at 52; I had visited him two weeks prior to his sudden death and he expressed his gratitude for my coming by.  It was important to him that night.  And to me.  But at the time I didn’t realize how very important it was.

The first death was Don’s son, in an accident.  I’ve known Darrell for 8 years.  When my mother was dying, in 2002, I had to bring her and my father back from Oregon.  I had to fly up to Portland, get their car and bring it back.  On his own, Don told me he would pay for his flight up and help me drive back.  I was astounded that anybody would do that.  But that’s the kind of friend Don is.  So, when I read about his son’s death in the paper and called Don, I didn’t know what to say, except that my wife and I never forgot what he did for us, and we were going to be there in any way we could for him.  I reminded him of our 1500 mile old guy road trip, and got him to laugh, even briefly.  Don has many friends, so there wasn’t much I could do to help except attend the funeral, where I saw several other people I knew.

One of them was Rick, the oldest of the three of us,  fifteen years my senior, and a nationally ranked cyclist in his age group who could outride me on flat road any day of the week.  Rick and Don are really tight.  They and their wives had dinner together every week.  But a month earlier, Don told me that Rick’s wife was dying from cancer.  I didn’t know Rick as well as I had Don, but I still should have called him.  I didn’t.  At the funeral, I had to not only express my sadness at his wife’s illness but apologize for my behavior.

Right in the pew, I gave Rick a hug and in tears told him how sorry I was about his wife and how much I appreciated his support for me back in late 2005, when my father was dying.  Back then, I was running ragged with visits to the hospital and then to his care facility.  One Sunday, Rick called me and said, “Hey Mike,” in his great booming voice, “you need a break.  We’ve got a bike ride with your name on it.  Come out with us.”  I don’t remember much of the ride, except that once again Rick whupped me.  But I never forgot the fact he had called me.  Such a little thing.  But in relationships, the little things are the big things.  I owed Rick big time.  But good friends never keep score, they just find a way to help each other when it matters.

Four days after the funeral for Don’s son, Rick’s wife died.  Don was the one to call me.  One can only imagine how he was feeling, given how close he and Rick were.  I asked when it would be appropriate to call Rick.  “He’s sleeping, now, Mike,” Don said, “but he really wants you to call him tomorrow.”  I suddenly felt like a friend again.  Somebody needed me, and I needed to step up.

I called Rick the next day expressing my condolences.  Yes, it was a blessing his wife died quickly, but she was still dead.  He then asked, “Do you have a few minutes?”  I had all day if he wanted it.  For a half hour he went through the last few weeks of his wife’s illness, the support he received from his children and his closest friends.  I just listened, because I knew enough that all he needed was somebody just to listen.  But he then blew me away:  “I never knew that day when I asked you to do that ride how much it meant to you.”

“Rick,” I said, “it meant the world to me.  I was so grateful to you.”  We had a good conversation and agreed to meet later in the holiday season.  Out of this hell will come a rekindling of a friendship that I let go.  I really bumbled, but one of the things I’m good at is not ignoring people after a death.  I also try to say something specific about the person who died.  I’ve long known how much those small details mean to the bereaved.  You see, small to you may not be small to somebody else.  What appears to be a few insignificant trite-sounding words to you may make somebody else’s day.  Sometimes, you never find out how important those words mean.  Other times, it may take four years to discover that what you said really mattered to somebody, as it did with Rick.  Don’t ever forget that.

I have every thank you note a patient ever wrote me.  When I left Ely, Minnesota, after my leave of absence from practice in 1992, I didn’t get to say goodby to my boss, because he was helping in Florida after Hurricane Andrew.  But I later got a post-it note from him, along with a framed picture of a two man handsaw, a hardhat,  Pulaski, pack, radio gloves and a broom leaning up against a tree.  They symbolized what I did as a trail crew volunteer in the Boundary Waters for six months, and I still view the picture fondly.  But what I never have thrown away after 17 years was that single yellow, small square post-it note:

All it said was, “Thanks a lot for your help, Mike!”

Such a little thing.  Such a big thing.

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