CLEARING THE DECKS
Back in the late eighties when AIDS was a death sentence, I had a profound experience with a friend at Century City hospital. He had written a play for teenagers about safe sex and AIDS, they were performing it in schools all across the Los Angeles area, when he started to feel sick. He called me that evening and said he was having trouble breathing. I could hear it in his voice.
“It might just be a bad cold,” I said. “Everybody gets colds.”
I knew what was happening. He was worse the next morning so I took him to the hospital where they diagnosed him with pneumocystis pneumonia, an infection brought on by the AIDS virus. His prognosis was bad. He tried to make light of it. “The good news,” he said,” is that I don’t have to find parking places any more.” I tried to laugh.
His condition went downhill. He was allergic to the first IV antibiotic they prescribed, and the knowledge that he had a fatal illness was extraordinarily anxiety producing. I was devastated. This was the first time someone this close to me had contracted AIDS and I
didn’t know how to cope with it. It was new and there wasn’t much information available and when I think back, I had a hard time containing my emotions.
They changed his medicine and when he began to breathe more easily, he starting making phone calls. Over the next two
weeks, he asked a number of people to come visit him who were not in his close circle. I was stumped at first. I didn’t understand what he was doing. But when I was present for one of the visits, I realized what was going on. He was seeing people with whom he had had misunderstandings or unresolved arguments and he was making peace with them. He didn’t want to die with grudges and regrets. He wanted to heal the wounds, some that he had caused and others that had been done to him, and he talked it out with each person.
He looked lighter and more at ease with each visit. He was clearing the decks, letting go and finding compassion for his friends and for himself. One day when I was leaving the hospital, in awe of the healing that he was doing, something occurred to me. I didn’t have
to wait until I was dying to make peace with the people in my life. I could start where I was. We just never know how long we have here. We don’t know our expiration date. We don’t know if we’ll have time to work things out or if we’ll die suddenly and leave things unfinished. I made a vow to myself to clear up misunderstandings right then and there and make sure that whenever I said
good-bye to anyone, on the phone or in person, I made sure my friends knew that I loved them.
I’ve been doing that ever since and it feels right. But it isn’t always easy. When I decide I need to make peace, there are some things I keep in mind.
1. When someone criticizes me, they’re talking about themselves so there’s no reason to take anything personally.
2. If something is bothering me, I speak up. I try to do it in a gentle way. Sometimes I succeed and sometimes I don’t.
3. If I say something that is less than kind, I apologize.
4. I try not to lie. If I have to lie about something, I probably shouldn’t be doing it.
This brings up the complicated topic of forgiveness. We all engage in petty spats that are easily cleared up. But there are also mean and aggressive actions that seem unforgiveable, no matter how you look at it. In this case, clearing the decks seems an impossible task.
It might even feel like we shouldn’t have to do it. Why shouldn’t people be held responsible for actions that hurt us? Why should they be let off the hook?
It’s a fair question. It brings up the sentiment that I’ve heard so often: if you don’t forgive, it hurts you more than the other person since you carry that burden in your heart.” But that doesn’t always sink in with me. Some things are simply unforgiveable so the only path that feels doable to me is what I once heard a spiritual teacher say: “Forgive the actor, not the act.”
When you make an attempt to release your bad feelings, it’s not a finite thing. Often, the anger and blaming rut has been etched so deeply in our consciousness, we have to revisit it every day and throw another shovel full of sand to fill in the hole. We have to forgive over and over again. This takes time, another reason to start the process now. Just like it doesn’t matter who says “I love you” first, it doesn’t matter who reaches out to clear things up. Some people are not good at reaching out so whoever finds the courage to do it needs to go first. In the end, the lightness of being returns to both people, no matter who initiated the process.
My friend left this earth at 32 years old, soon after he had made peace with himself and his friends. I’m glad for him. When I think of him now, he feels light and at ease, but I still have some self-forgiving to do. Sometimes I think I was too overbearing and I
smothered him. Sometimes I see that I was his best friend. But whichever is true, he’s gone and the forgiving is up to me. A friend told me that when someone dies, there is an opportunity to begin a whole new relationship with the deceased. So I talk to myself and him, I try to soothe my heart, and I do my best to be a compassionate listener and a good friend. What else is more