Can I Hear Me Now?
“Am I a bad friend, Mom?”
My 19-year-old daughter’s phone call found me at my desk. “Katie’s texted me five times this afternoon. I know she’s upset but I’ve just got to get this project done.”
Her question stayed in my mind long after the reassurances I offered her. No, her friend’s breakup with a boyfriend was not an emergency, certainly not one that should interrupt what she was being well paid to do in her college summer research job.
But the question haunted me for another reason. I am as addicted to my email, cell phone and internet as most Americans. I love being able to reach my three young-adult children at a moment’s notice with a quick text or email to say hello or ask a question. But as I watch the increasingly ubiquitous electronic gadgets around us, the psychologist in me is troubled. When the first impulse to a question, a feeling or a concern is to reach outward, are we not missing something?
I was 19 when my father died. A soft-spoken nun, not much older than I was, leaned quietly against the wall just outside of the college classroom when I came out. I’d just finished the last of my mid-year exams. She looked up at me. I did not know her.
“Mary Beth?” she asked. I nodded.
She began hesitantly. “Has anyone in your family been sick?
“No,” I said, then quickly added, “But my mother fell last week and has compound fractures of both wrists. She has casts on her arms and can’t even feed herself. Is she OK?”
She looked stricken, then slowly explained that my father had suffered a cerebral hemorrhage at a business meeting the day before. A few hours later, at the hospital in my hometown, he died.
“Last night?” I said.
“They knew you had an exam today” she explained, “so they wanted us to wait to tell you.”
Two thoughts competed for the space in my head. How could I not have known? How could I have pulled an all-nighter for my music theory exam and not have felt my father leave?
And with her casts, those big heavy casts, how will my mother try on a black dress?
The nun walked me back to my dorm. She offered to stay but I wanted to be alone.
“Are you sure? She glanced at the phone just outside my dorm room. “Your mother won’t be home ‘til this afternoon.” she began.
“Please Sister,” I said. “I’m OK. I just want to be alone.”
I knew it would be a couple of hours before my two roommates returned from their own exams. Other questions were beginning to intrude. I needed to think.
I have little memory of how my roommates comforted me when they arrived. But I do remember that time alone. I sat on my narrow twin bed, looking out at the tree lined campus, and let my thoughts and feelings flow. Facing the worst thing that had happened in my young life, I came face to face with myself and learned a lot in the process.
At moments of crisis, we can reach deep within ourselves to marshal strategies for self-soothing, wisdom for decision making, coping skills for behavior. Often, we do not know they are there until a tragedy forces us to search for them. But the search takes silence. I remember to this day, more than 40 years later, sitting on the bed and negotiating the overwhelming feelings and decisions that faced me.
What role will I take with my mother now?
How can I leave my 15-year-old sister alone at home and stay at college?
And why, oh why, had I stifled the impulse to say “I love you” to my Dad at the end of our phone call two days ago when he offered support in the face of some bad news I’d gotten?
These, and many other questions, I pondered through my tears. Some of my reactions and answers surprised me, some caused me pain. But the clarity that evolved in the days ahead was rooted more in those two hours alone than in any conversations I had later.
It is an opportunity I fear my children are missing. In the trade-off for instant access to the wisdom and soothing of others, they are losing the opportunity to hear their own voices first, to discover what will sustain them from within, what form their strength of spirit will take, and what truths they can lean on in themselves.
On that day when I was 19, I could not text or email or even phone easily in the hours after I was told of my father’s death. I sat, simply, with myself, and I have no doubt that I am better for it. There have been other crises in my life, and each has taken me back to that moment, and in each, I have found the gifts of solitude, silence and reflection as valuable as the strength offered by the presence and wisdom of others.
And so I tell my daughter that her unavailability may be its own gift to her friend, and I feel a sense of sadness at her belief that friendship requires instant availability and response. How much harder it must be to find your own focus and to give it the undivided attention that excellence requires if these are the new rules of friendship.
In all the voices we encourage our young people to heed, let us not forget their own. And let us find a way to encourage them to give each other the space to listen to that voice… not because it will always be right, not because it will be sure, or certain, or without pain, but because, in spite of these things, it is the only one that leads them toward their own strength. And that is where we all need to begin.
Mary E. Plouffe raised three children in beautiful South Freeport Maine, where she lives, writes and practices clinical psychology. She writes essays, memoir and creative non-fiction, and has been published on NPR, On the Issues Magazine, and Survivor Review among others. She is currently seeking a publisher for a memoir, I Know It In My Heart: Walking through Grief with a Child, and a book of essays, Listening Lessons: Reflections on the Grace of Being Heard. Additional information can be obtained at www.maryplouffe.com.