My former editor Dixie taught me a ton of things, but one of them was this: Life is short. Spend it on the people you love.
I was reminded of the lesson the other day when I read this post by Ruth Pennebaker at The Fabulous Geezersisters’ Weblog: The Trip I Almost Didn’t Take. I read Ruth’s tale and nodded my head through the whole thing. She’s so right. And it’s a lesson I, too, seem to need to learn over and over again.
But Dixie did a lot to get it into my head.
Dixie was one of those really great bosses who truly “got” life. She’s a cancer survivor, and was always eager to help other people understand what she now understood: Life is short. People are important. She always encouraged us to spend time with our kids, go to their school plays, stop working on the weekend so we could be with them. She knew that those things would make a difference in the long run — not silly details like whether or not we added that second “m” to “accommodate.”
While I was on her staff, my husband’s grandfather passed away in Texas, and he and I bit our lips about attending the funeral. We had two small children at the time (5 and 2); we really couldn’t afford to fly all four of us there from California; we could drive, maybe, but gosh, the 2-year-old gets car sick; blah, blah, blah. Excuseville. I’m sure you know the drill.
When I mentioned to Dixie the next morning that we weren’t going to the funeral, she looked at me aghast. “You have to go,” she said.
I just shook my head. “It’s too far. Rene gets car sick. We’ll never survive with two little kids. It’s probably 105 degrees in Texas right now – I’m sure I’d have to jump out my window at about 300 miles. …” I probably then threw in some blabber about work and deadlines, too.
Dixie, however, would have none of it. She just shook her head. “Find a way. People are important.” I don’t think she even looked up from her desk after that to let me argue any further.
So I sulked away from her office and called my husband: “Hon, I guess we’re going to Texas. Dixie says it’s important. …”
We filled the gas tank, threw a bunch of clothes in a suitcase, tossed the suitcase and the two small kids in the car, and took off for the 1,400-mile drive across the desert. We were already running late. We drove all night.
And do you know what? The trip was magical.
For one thing, Rene never got car sick. We stopped wherever we could to let the kids get out of the car, which led to some pretty strange but quaint roadside park-play. We tossed pebbles. We played in McDonald’s play-places. We strolled desert land of cacti and pretended we were looking for a kitten named “Kiki.” We drank chocolate milk and ate powdered donuts in the car at midnight. Chris and I listened to books on tape (whenever I think of “The Firm” I hear that reader’s voice), and we asked each other questions to stay awake while we drove all night. The stars come out in the desert sky. We listened to music. We held hands across the center console.
We made it to the little church in San Antonio seconds before the wake ended. We reconnected with a zillion cousins, who welcomed us into their homes overnight. The younger cousins played with my kids – the girls braided my daughter’s hair with butterfly clips – and we all sat outside under the big oak tree on folding chairs and talked. We chatted late into the night at the dining table with my husband’s grandmother and all his aunts and uncles. We shared Mexican pastries for breakfast – someone brought them in from a local bakery – and we told stories and comforted Grandma. We visited the gravesite. We reconnected with a family we rarely get to see, and they seemed thrilled to have us there. They loved that my son – a shy, bespeckled boy then – liked stand-up comedy, and they encouraged him to share his “routine.” He performed for about 30 members of his newfound family, right under that oak tree, and they all laughed until they shook off their folding chairs and clapped for him in encouragement.
And the thing is, I would never have known, if I didn’t go, what I would have missed: the reconnection with an extended family, the ability for my husband to express his sorrow, the chance for my own young family to experience an incredible closeness during a long drive through the desert. And my kids would have missed a bond that was formed way back then – a bond to cousins and aunts and uncles who clapped for them and braided their hair.
Ruth and Dixie are right: You should never miss a chance to be with people you care about. It’s a lesson I’m still learning – I still have to remind myself constantly when I let busy days get in the way. I’m always tempted to say no to family gatherings, school-chum reunions, drinks with friends. But Dixie said it well:
Find a way.
People are important.