Heavy but moving words from Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg, who just completed a month of mourning her husband Dave Goldberg. He died suddenly while on vacation in Mexico. Excerpt:
I have learned that I never really knew what to say to others in need. I think I got this all wrong before; I tried to assure people that it would be okay, thinking that hope was the most comforting thing I could offer. A friend of mine with late-stage cancer told me that the worst thing people could say to him was “It is going to be okay.” That voice in his head would scream, How do you know it is going to be okay? Do you not understand that I might die? I learned this past month what he was trying to teach me. Real empathy is sometimes not insisting that it will be okay but acknowledging that it is not. When people say to me, “You and your children will find happiness again,” my heart tells me, Yes, I believe that, but I know I will never feel pure joy again. Those who have said, “You will find a new normal, but it will never be as good” comfort me more because they know and speak the truth. Even a simple “How are you?”—almost always asked with the best of intentions—is better replaced with “How are you today?” When I am asked “How are you?” I stop myself from shouting, My husband died a month ago, how do you think I am? When I hear “How are you today?” I realize the person knows that the best I can do right now is to get through each day.
I have learned some practical stuff that matters. Although we now know that Dave died immediately, I didn’t know that in the ambulance. The trip to the hospital was unbearably slow. I still hate every car that did not move to the side, every person who cared more about arriving at their destination a few minutes earlier than making room for us to pass. I have noticed this while driving in many countries and cities. Let’s all move out of the way. Someone’s parent or partner or child might depend on it.
I have learned how ephemeral everything can feel—and maybe everything is. That whatever rug you are standing on can be pulled right out from under you with absolutely no warning. In the last thirty days, I have heard from too many women who lost a spouse and then had multiple rugs pulled out from under them. Some lack support networks and struggle alone as they face emotional distress and financial insecurity. It seems so wrong to me that we abandon these women and their families when they are in greatest need.
What have you been doing today? I have spent a big part of the day standing outside in the heat and humidity with a man from a sewerage repair company, who was trying to figure out why our system has gone kaflooey (with a house full of guests about to arrive for Walker Percy Weekend too!). It’s funny, and kind of embarrassing, how losing your ability to count on the water going down the drain and the toilets flushing can throw everything off kilter.
The young man today had his shovel and tools, and worked hard for a couple of hours, sweat pouring off of him. He thinks he knows what’s wrong with it, but we can’t be sure without digging up the whole thing, which is going to require a backhoe, and lots of money. Great, just great. I couldn’t help him at all because for some reason, prolonged exposure to heat dramatically affects my lingering mono, and causes me to feel faint. (It was nearly having a heatstroke in the summer of 2012 while mowing the grass that led ultimately to my diagnosis.)
But I did bring him some water to drink, and while he was taking a break to drink it, we made small talk. He wanted to know what I did for a living. I told him I am a writer. And as I told him about my work, I immediately felt awful, because I make my living sitting in the air conditioning producing words, and he makes his living with his back, in the scorching sun, turning dirt with his shovel and prying the lids off of shitholes.
“I would like to get my GED and get out of the sewer business,” he said quietly, rivulets of sweat pouring down his sunburned face.
Every day he has to do this work. “Grease traps are the worst,” he told me. “Man, the smell of grease traps at schools? I can’t even stand to think of it.”
And there I was, feeling put out because my family and I are mightily inconvenienced by the disruption to our home drainage system. Yeah, that’s a hassle to deal with, but my life is all about Willy Wonka Golden Tickets compared to what this hard-working young man faces.
And yet — and yet! — neither that young man nor I are remotely as poor on this day as is Sheryl Sandberg, a billionaire, and one of the most powerful women on the planet, but also at the mercy of death, the great impoverisher. Sandberg writes with such a weighted heart. I feel so sorry for her. God bless and keep her and her children. She writes:
I have learned gratitude. Real gratitude for the things I took for granted before—like life. As heartbroken as I am, I look at my children each day and rejoice that they are alive. I appreciate every smile, every hug. I no longer take each day for granted. When a friend told me that he hates birthdays and so he was not celebrating his, I looked at him and said through tears, “Celebrate your birthday, goddammit. You are lucky to have each one.” My next birthday will be depressing as hell, but I am determined to celebrate it in my heart more than I have ever celebrated a birthday before.
Think about that. As a ridiculous First World person reduced to peeing out back by the compost pile, I tell you that you should be thankful for your running water, your toilets that flush and your bathtubs that drain. As a pampered First World person, I tell you that you should be thankful that you have an education, and your job does not require you to stand out in 95-degree weather day after day, digging up and slopping around in other people’s cesspools, listening to fatsos with foo-foo glasses talk about their leisurely, air-conditioned vocation. And as a man who has been given his wife and his children for another day, I tell you that if you are as fortunate in that way as I am, be thankful, because after reading that Facebook post, I bet you world-famous billionaire Sheryl Sandberg would give away every penny she has, and go dig up cesspools in south Louisiana for a living, if she could only have her husband Dave back.
Tomorrow morning my niece Hannah will drive away from Starhill, headed for northern California, and her new life. On the way out to Highway 61, she will drive alone past the country cemetery where her mother lays buried. The mother who is not here to see her firstborn leave the nest and fly.
Let us celebrate what we have. No matter how rich and secure we are today, we may not have it tomorrow. Thank you, Sheryl Sandberg, for reminding us.
I’m thinking just now of Raymond Carver’s words about his own life:
No other word will do. For that’s what it was. Gravy.
Gravy these past ten years.
Alive, sober, working, loving and
being loved by a good woman. Eleven years
ago he was told he had six months to live
at the rate he was going. And he was going
nowhere but down. So he changed his ways
somehow. He quit drinking! And the rest?
After that it was all gravy, every minute
of it, up to and including when he was told about,
well, some things that were breaking down and
building up inside his head. “Don’t weep for me,”
he said to his friends. “I’m a lucky man.
I’ve had ten years longer than I or anyone
expected. Pure gravy. And don’t you forget it.”