It was fall 2012, and I was making my final preparations to leave Canada for a yearlong sabbatical in the Caribbean. There were household goods to pack up, services to cancel, and of course, farewells to say.
A particularly tough goodbye took place in a downtown Toronto medical office. Shelley was not only my naturopath, but also my cranial osteopath and acupuncturist. With her wide range of skills, she combined multiple modalities into a unique approach to treatment. But Shelley was more than a one-stop shop for natural healing. In the several years that I had known her, she had become a very close friend, someone to whom I confided my most private thoughts. I had spent many a chilly Canadian weekend afternoon in her cozy office, where I shared with her frustrations and challenges in my work and private life.
Shelley put her arms around me and gave me a big hug. “Katharine, you’ll have to teach me how to use Skype.”
“I will,” I promised.
When I visited Canada at Christmas and again the following summer, Shelley was at the top of my “must-see” list; she and I easily picked up where we had left off months before. After I left the Caribbean and moved back to the US, we occasionally exchanged emails. Shelley was the person I’d reach out to if I had some deep soul issue I felt most people couldn’t understand.
A few months ago, on a Saturday afternoon, I googled Shelley. I don’t know what prompted me to do this. I was stunned to see the word “obituary” after her name. I don’t think she was more than 60 at the very most. The obituary gave few details; she had passed away about three months before, apparently after a brief illness.
My heart sank. Although it had been more than a year since our last email exchange, I thought of her often and had planned to visit her on my next trip to Toronto, although I had no idea when that would be.
I cried for a good part of that day and into the next several days. I wished I had emailed Shelley one more time. I wished I had gone to Toronto for one last visit. I wished I had known she was ill so that I could say goodbye. I wished I had taught her how to use Skype.
In the months since then, I’ve thought of Shelley nearly every day. I wish I could call her up or email her with a question about health or to share some confidence. There’s a part of me that’s somehow in denial, thinking that she’s not really gone and that I’ll met up with her during my next trip to Toronto.
My experience is not unique, of course. When we lose someone close to us, we are once again reminded of the fact that none of us knows how many days we have on this earth. We often feel regret for not having kept in touch. Sometimes, the death of a relative, friend, or even an acquaintance, jolts us into reflection and into making changes in our lives.
In my case, Shelley’s death made me think long and hard about how to keep in touch with friends who are in distant locations. In my adult life, I’ve moved about every two years. It seems as if I am always saying goodbye to friends and vowing to stay connected.
I can’t help wondering if it’s harder now to maintain closeness than it used to be. In my efforts to feng shui my home in recent months, I have been clearing out old papers. Lately, I’ve been working through a large box of letters from friends and family. Most of them date to my time as a high school and college student.
I read each letter before it heads for the recycle bin. Some of the letters are about mundane issues; those are easy to toss. But others have been more difficult—even impossible—to throw away. They are filled with such loving and sweet words, the kind people don’t seem to express through text messages, emails or Facebook Messenger.
“You are a special friend,” wrote a female friend from college. “I miss your way about you,” wrote another. A third, feeling anxious about a personal matter, and hoping we could talk on the phone, wrote, “I miss your soothing voice.”
These days, we have more ways of keeping in touch with one another than ever before: letters, email, phone calls, text messages, Facebook, FaceTime, Skype, and more. Yet, somehow we struggle to connect at times. We’re caught up in our jobs (many employers expect us to be available 24/7), in juggling our busy schedules, in raising families. Women, especially, often feel they hardly have a moment to themselves. Communication can be superficial, brief, and hasty. We put off catching up with friends until it’s too late. When that time comes, we feel the searing pain of regret.
It seems as if it ought to be easier to keep in touch and to be closer than ever. But with all of the communication tools that we have nowadays, we are challenged to connect, and we still face brutal reminders that our time with our loved ones is limited. We can’t go back, of course, and I doubt I’ll ever pen letters the way I used to. But I wonder if we can find a way to make better use of the multitude of tools available to us. While we still have time.
What can you do to foster connection with your loved ones, especially people who are far away? Share your thoughts in the comments section below.
© Katharine Spehar, 2017-2018.
Photo credit: www.pixabay.com