Years ago, when I asked a clerk in one of Oakland’s independent bookstores for a book about migraine (since I’d been having them more often, and medication didn’t work, I thought, like a good academic, I’d at least read about them). She rose from where she’d been sitting behind the counter—an older woman, a little bent, with the kind of rich voice that made me think she probably sang in the gospel choir at her church. “You get migraines, Honey?” she asked, as though she really wanted to know. I nodded.
“I used to get those,” she said. “But then I just decided too many people think they need somethin’ from me. So I got rid of some of those people. Now I got fewer people. And I don’t get headaches.”
I think I walked out without a book, but I went home with a piece of advice I revisit regularly. Some days I wake up with tremendous gratitude for all my friends, for good colleagues, for children who like introducing me to their friends, for college roommates who stop by on their way through town. Other days I remember that woman and wonder how to decide when the dance card is full and, what’s harder, how to tell the people who didn’t make the cut.
More and more, I neglect my friends. I learned this morning that Heidi, who often tell us when she needs a ride to UCSF med center for another excruciating procedure, has been in pain for the past two weeks. She evidently got a ride to her last desperate procedure—burning the sciatic nerves to disable the pain communications while trying to leave her motor nerves intact. I’ll call her tonight. I meant to call her. She’s near the top of the priorities list, but not quite in the half dozen slots that occupy the hours of any given day.
I want to have been there for her. I will be, now. But it’s late, and I’m guilty, and again I wonder how many people it’s possible to extend lovingkindness, compassion, and attention to. I don’t write Suzanne because it takes me ten minutes to write an actual card in human handwriting, and I know she loves those. I don’t call Vicki, one of the wisest, funniest friends I have, because she loves to talk, and it’s hard to make a conversation with her shorter than 45 minutes.
My mother visited the sick. She was a compassionate listener and people called her. She sat by our beds when we were little, and by my grandmother’s when she was very old. She worked full-time. She made time.
She also didn’t live with the ratcheted up expectations most of us have of ourselves now—an ethic of staying in touch multiplied to impossibility by the technologies that extend our touch worldwide. An ethic of loving one’s neighbor that stretches “neighbor” to a far-flung “network” of newly accessible people.
When I agonize about all the people I neglect, my husband smiles calmly and says, “You can’t do all the good things you want to do. If you’re reading Dostoevsky you’re not playing the cello. (He read that somewhere. I don’t play the cello. And I’d rather read Tolstoy. But then, if I’m reading War and Peace, I’m not reading Moby-Dick. And I’m not visiting Heidi with homemade soup.