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Reaching Out to Reply--Before It's Too Late

May 19, 1988

My friend Charley Russell of Ft. Smith, Ark., has a brain tumor. I talked with him the other night on the phone, and he wept. So did I. He has much to live for.

I wouldn't have known about Charley's illness if a mutual friend hadn't called to tell me. My last communication with Charley was a Christmas card from him six months ago. It's on my desk, and has been all this time. It has a picture of a robust, beaming Charley with his wife and his two daughters and their husbands and five young grandchildren. Much to live for.

His card is on my desk with perhaps two dozen others I never answered, from people I love. I didn't answer them because I told myself I was too busy and I didn't want to write superficial little notes and so I would wait until I had time to do it right. That time never came. And so I lost touch with Charley and some other people who are much too important to me to allow that to happen.

One of them called me the other day--a dear woman friend from Ohio who had written me a poignant letter with her Christmas card, a letter that came from deep inside. I didn't answer that either.

She didn't call to chide me. She had been talking with some other people whose Christmas cards are on my desk, and they asked if she had heard from me. "We're concerned," she told me. "We're afraid something is wrong."

Nothing is--but it's that time of life, and the concern is always there, lurking in the background, thrusting in its presence to fill voids and silences. That's one big reason to keep in touch with people who care. Another reason--an even bigger one--is to keep our priorities straight. Mine got pretty screwed up.

I have the good fortune to be busy at an age when many of my friends have retired from the workplace. That makes it easier for me to rationalize such things as unanswered Christmas cards. The price, I've learned the hard way, is to be cut off from people you love, often at a time when your support is wanted or needed.

Another card on my desk is from an old high school friend with whom I had maintained Christmas contact all these years. There was no picture with his card. He had been ill for several years, and I guess I simply accepted that. I got an anguished little note in March from his wife in Florida, who said he was desperately ill and had been talking about his old friends. Could I drop him a note or call him? It would help. I called the next day, and it was too late. He had died the night before.

The rest of the people who sent those cards on my desk are healthy and productive--I think. But that's no reason to lose touch with them. It shouldn't require a personal crisis to force us to get our priorities in order.

I've been thinking about this, wondering why something so obvious should be so difficult. And I think one reason is a subconscious effort to negate the urgency of time. One of the benchmarks of youth is the powerful feeling that there is plenty of time left to do everything that needs to be done. If we don't answer that card this year, we'll answer it next. And good old Charley may be a little miffed, but he'll be there.

It's easy to carry this thinking into later years for two reasons: First, it's pretty deeply programmed in most of us. And, second, letting go of it is also letting go of youth. Admitting that Charley might not be there is admitting our own mortality. Our own vulnerability. And so the cards sit on my desk.

There's another reason too. It's called the Protestant work ethic. I'm not sure why it's called that, because I think it is secular. American Catholics and Jews and atheists are just as guilty as Protestants. We've all spent most of our lives in this overachieving nation convinced that such frivolous activities as writing to friends should be addressed only when our work has been completed. And somehow that never happens.

Well, I've learned the hard way in the past few months the price we pay for allowing these three attitudes to carry over into advanced age and exert the kind of influence they did when I was young. They probably shouldn't exert that much influence for the young either, but at least a better case can be made than it can for older people. By then, the excuses are pretty hollow.

So I'm working my way through my Christmas cards, telling the recipients it is either their last card for 1987 or their first one for '88. It feels good--as if I had somehow put some parts of me that were misfiring back in place.

I'm not giving up on Charley, either. In all my years, I've never known a human being who exuded more energy and enthusiasm than Charley. That life force can't be snuffed out easily, and I've told him that. I'll continue to tell him while I re-establish contact with the people who wrote the cards on my desk--and with a very deep part of myself.

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