Never “Just Listening”
The roses were just starting to bloom. She bent down several times to take in their scent, commenting on each one that was particularly fragrant. Row after row she observed, excitedly, their diverse colors and particular beauty. At every turn she glowed with their magnificence and splendor.
Before that day, when we got together to talk each month, we had met in her small living room. Several times over the course of many months she’d expressed her phobia of going out in public. This was our first visit with her outside her home.
Sitting on a bench under a big, shady tree in a far corner of the gardens, the conversation unquestionably got started in depth, as it moved from her delight of the flowers and gardens to her admission that she never felt as if she had much worth as a person.
She was apprehensive to meet with us that day. We wondered why. She said she was reluctant to “bother” us. She felt as if there were so many others who deserved our time more than she did, that she wasn’t important enough. This was a mantra throughout her life. She’d never put her interests and needs first, always doing what someone else wanted her to do before she’d imagine doing something for herself.
She never felt she was worth it.
Her two divorces, the recent dissolution of a third relationship, her children who are distant from her and who have all but cut her out of their lives, her years of profound weight issues, the chronic fatigue syndrome she endures, intense social phobias, a house that is overflowing with far more paraphernalia than she can possibly use—all have contributed to and are symptoms of her feelings of unworthiness.
But we remind her she is worthy. She is worthy of our time. She is worthy of sharing an afternoon in a beautiful garden. She is worthy of being known and cared for and loved.
Our good friend Tim Madigan, author of I’m Proud of You: My Friendship with Fred Rogers, told us how, during a low moment in his life, he questioned why well-known Fred Rogers would make the time to talk with him. After all, wasn’t Fred a very busy man, with more important people to talk with than Tim? But this was Mr. Rogers’ reply:
“Do you know the most important thing in my life right now? Speaking to Tim Madigan on the telephone.”
We shared Fred’s words with her in the garden as we rested on the bench. At that moment, she was the most important person in our lives. She needed to know this reality, this truth.
During one of our visits to her home many months later, as we sat with her, tears welled up in her eyes. It was shortly after the holidays. The emotional strain of the season had been too much for her to bear alone. In the safety of our presence, she finally let it all out, like an enormous gale: “I need to be honest with the two of you. In the last few days I’ve had serious thoughts, more strongly than ever before, about ending my life.”
Her lifelong dreams of having a happy and mutually loving marriage, of being a stay-at-home mom, of sharing the joy and excitement of holidays—these things are nothing but a distant reality. In recent years, she has become more and more isolated. She feels profoundly lonely every day. It isn’t that people haven’t tried to reach out to her, inviting her to their own family dinners and gatherings. She knows those gestures are thoughtful and well intentioned, and she is very grateful for them. But they are all far from the ideal she wants. As a mom, she yearns to be needed again, providing the care and support to her own family as only moms can do—as she once did.
“Every morning I take my pain pills, and for the first time, I’ve had serious thoughts of taking the whole bottle, ending it all. I don’t know why I’m here anymore, the pain is so deep. Life is so excruciating; every day seems worse than the last. I’m scared to get out of bed every morning because I’m waiting for the other shoe to drop one more time, and I don’t know if I can handle it anymore.”
We keep listening—and we celebrate and confirm her decision when she voluntarily checks herself into a psychiatric program to confront the deeper demons in her life. As a result of such care, she’s gotten to the place where, in her words,
“I no longer need to ask why. Why has all this happened to me? That just keeps me in the past and I simply can’t change the past. I have to move on. I can’t keep living there. I believe God is real. But sometimes I just need a physical presence here to remind me of that. You do. You help to remind me.”