H. Nahin, 33
Beverly Hills, California
In the rush of daily pressures, we too seldom pause to think in terms of what may seem such a minor, everyday act as being a friend.
One night recently, I was lying in bed unable to sleep, and thoughts at random passed through my mind. I had read an article earlier in the evening about the importance of paying attention to people and to their needs, not their material needs, but rather what one might call their “being there” needs, just to “be there” with your friends when they need you.
As a lawyer, I deal with so many problems during the course of an average day that, generally, I can seldom pause to think in terms of what may seem such a minor, everyday act as being a friend. Yet, one of the most important things I have ever done in my life occurred during Grand Lodge week in California in 1981 and relates directly to the idea of “being there.” I was in San Francisco commencing what would be a wonderful year as the Grand Orator of California. We, the new Grand Lodge officers, were there for some preliminaries before our actual installation which was to take place on Thursday. We had finished our lunch on Tuesday with a group of our new friends of the Grand Lodge for 1981-1982, when I received an urgent telephone call from our home in Los Angeles advising me that a dear friend had passed away. Under our religious customs, he had to be buried quickly, and so the funeral was going to be the next day, Wednesday.
I was also asked to perform the Masonic memorial service for this fine Brother whom I had known for so many years. For a moment, after receiving the call, I just stood there paralyzed. Then I tried to figure out what I should do. How could I leave Grand Lodge so abruptly, fly back to Los Angeles for the funeral, and then get back to San Francisco in time for the Grand Lodge ceremonies?
My wife, Alice, and I knew where we should be although there was nothing we could really accomplish in Los Angeles. Justin had died. He was only 56 years old. There was nothing we could do about that. Be there for moral support? Well, maybe. But I knew that both Justin and his wife had many family members and many, many friends. Justin was that kind of guy. I knew his family would be surrounded by relatives, friends, and Brethren who would provide comfort and support, whatever happened.
As for the memorial service, somebody else certainly could do that. Also, we had a full schedule at Grand Lodge with our new Masonic family of Grand Lodge officers and their wives.
Yet with no doubt and little hesitation, we quickly called the airline, got an immediate flight back to Los Angeles, and sent our apologies to the incoming Grand Master, a most understanding man. When we got back to L.A., we immediately went to the home of our friend and there approached his wife and children. For what seemed an eternity, we embraced in pain and stunned silence, oblivious to anyone else around us. The wife of our dear friend looked at me, hugged me still closer, and started to cry. Leslie said very simply, “Thanks for being here.”
For the rest of that day and the next, we were at their home helping, with heavy hearts, as best we could with what was left to do and what had to be done. It was our way of saying goodbye to our dear friend, and for me it was one of the most important actions I think I have ever taken. The experience taught me three lessons.
First, the most important thing I had ever done happened when I was completely helpless. Nothing I had learned in college, in law school, or in many years of legal practice was of any use in that situation. Something terrible had happened to people I cared about, and I was powerless to change the outcome. All I could do was stand by and watch it happen. And yet it was critical that I do just that-be there when somebody needed me.
Second, the most important thing in life that I had done almost didn’t happen because of things I’d learned in classrooms and professional life. Law school taught me how to take a set of facts, break them down, organize them, then evaluate the information dispassionately. Those skills are critical for lawyers. When people come to us for help, they are often stressed, and they depend upon a lawyer to think logically for them. While learning to think, sometimes I almost forgot how to feel. Today I have no doubt that Alice and I should have leapt into the taxi without hesitation and come right back to Los Angeles where our friends needed us.
Third, I was reminded that life can change in an instant. Intellectually we all know this, but we think the bad things will happen to someone else, so we make our plans and see the future stretching in front of us as an assured reality, as if it has already happened. While looking to tomorrow, we may forget to notice all the todays slipping by. We may forget that a job lay-off, a debilitating illness, an encounter with a drunk driver, or a myriad of other events can alter that future in the blink of an eye.
Sometimes it takes tragedy to regain perspective on one’s own life. From that one experience, I learned to seek balance between work and living, to understand that the most satisfying career isn’t worth one missed vacation, one broken relationship, or one holiday not properly spent with my family. I learned that the most important thing in life isn’t the amount of money you make, the status you attain, or the honors you achieve. The most important thing in life is the poem you write, or the wrestling you do with your grandchildren, or holding your wife’s hand in a movie theater or, maybe, the time when you are just somebody’s friend.