The most important lesson I have learned in life.

Image from Pinterest by Clara

Never take for granted that you will be with your loved one tomorrow.

My friend Adiba mentioned the other day that I had not posted anything recently, and I replied that I had to wait until my muse came to me with something that she insisted I write. Then on Facebook there was a post, “It’s a Saturday night in the summer of 1976 . . . tell us what you are doing?” Not really a question, but it did stir something within me.

Back then I was in my 7th of 8 years as a firefighter, driving the truck which responded to all emergencies, but primarily first aid and rescue runs. I had been trained by the army as a medic and when I returned to the fire department I accepted the challenge of driving the first aid truck, trying to save people, but it came at a cost. As my fellow firefighter Tony Ballatore observed, “Humans are not supposed to be exposed to this much carnage.”

Let’s be clear, I was no hero. I didn’t do more than any other firefighter, although I was exposed to more than some because my truck went on every run, while the other truck in the station only responded to structure fires or major first aid incidents with multiple victims.

But what I witnessed on first aid runs attacked my belief structure because Catholicism had no explanation for the cruelty I was witness to.

One evening a woman is driving down the highway, planning her Hawaiian vacation, then someone swerves in front of her, she loses control and crashes head-on into the center divider, and she is jammed between the broken front seat and the steering wheel, choking on her own blood. When we arrive the other firefighters get to work trying to cut and bend enough pieces of the car to remove her from the twisted wreck. My job is to crawl through the passenger window and kneel on broken glass as I try and find her mouth so I can insert an airway as she struggles to breathe, coughs blood in my face, and fights me. She dies before we get her out. When we get back to the station, I lay in my bunk, and stare at the ceiling until dawn.

She didn’t intend to die that day, but she did. A few days later, we are back at work and her father stops by the station to ask about her final minutes. I tell him she was calm and passed quietly. I always say that. But his words between sobs haunted me. “I never told her enough that I loved her. I just wish I could hug her and tell her one more time.” His regret changed something in me.

By 1976 I was in full-blown PTSD caused by the shame I felt over the children I had failed to save. For the next 14 years that shame trailed me, caused me to suffer panic attacks, hallucinations, insomnia, nightmares, and was constantly looking over my shoulder, stalked by suicidal thoughts. For some reason I couldn’t process tragedy as successfully as the other firefighters and it nearly killed me.

But in retrospect, I am grateful for those 14 years in the darkness because they awakened a compassion in me that allowed me to move on, escape the fire department, and dedicate myself to helping others, relieving suffering. I became a lawyer and helped battered women, students in a disciplinary high school for bad boys and girls (that I still love dearly), refugees fleeing persecution from civil wars, and people detained by ICE who were trying to avoid being returned to a country where people waited to kill them.

In addition, I developed my ability to counsel and mentor my interns and staff members with their personal struggles and worries about the future.

But the most important lesson I learned in life came from the manner in which I was snapped out of PTSD one morning. We were down in Harlingen, Texas, where I had recently started the ProBAR project and I worked closely with a self-described “recovering psychiatrist” who had abandoned that field to become an artist and made a sideline of helping us represent refugees with severe mental issues. One day he asked me for a favor. A friend of his, a psychiatrist in New York City, asked if she could talk to people working with detainees in the Rio Grande Valley about their experiences. I said I would gather the troops and we were to meet one Sunday morning in a church basement.

At that time Rebecka and I shared our house with Jennifer Bailey who helped start ProBAR. I am perhaps a little obsessive about arriving places on time but Rebecka and Jennifer did not share that passion, so by the time we arrived at the church 20 of my co-workers and friends were sitting in a circle, with my artist/recovering psychiatrist friend sitting next to a woman I assumed was the psychiatrist from NYC and she was engaging a young woman who was a paralegal working with detained children. And my head snapped around when she said that when she was 12 she was walking down the street, holding her Dad’s hand when someone came up behind them and shot him dead. I was shocked, I knew her to be a delightful, hardworking, cheerful life of the party, yet she was carrying this?

Dr. NYC moved on to the next person who said she had been sexually abused by her brothers starting when she was nine years old. And that’s when it hit me, Dr. NYC was testing her hypothesis that people who choose to work with people in crisis have something dark in their lives that compels them to help others. It turned out her hypothesis was not 100% accurate, some people shyly said they had no personal horror to share, but I knew one thing for sure, she was not getting anything out of me. In 14 years I had built an impenetrable barrier for my sorrow, buried it deep in my chest where it would remain. But as the good doctor worked her way around the circle, my friend’s stories softened my heart. Finally it was my turn.

“All I can tell you was I was a firefighter and I was supposed to keep children alive and sometimes I failed, I am ashamed of that. And I am not telling you any war stories because they are sacred to me and none of your business.”

“Have you ever cried over the children that died?”

“No, because if I started crying I would never stop.”

“You know that is physically impossible. You will cry and cry and cry until you are so exhausted you fall asleep. Then you will wake up and feel great for 30 seconds, then you will remember why you were crying, and start all over again. But soon you will cry less, and the periods between tears will be longer, and slowly you will cry very rarely. It won’t hurt any less, just not as often.”

She asked a few more questions and got me to admit that I was worried because Rebecka wanted to adopt a child but I knew if that if something happened to that child I would lose my mind. Again.

When the meeting broke up, Dr. NYC came over to me, patted me on the cheek and said, “You are going to be okay, and I want you to send me a picture of the baby you adopt. But first you need to see a psychologist about this dead baby problem of yours, that’s just not healthy.”

I cried that day, and the next, but then the spell was broken and we started seeing a psychologist. And as Rebecka recounts that time, “It’s the same old story, five minutes chatting and he is Bob’s biggest fan.” But what came out of our sessions was the most important lesson I learned in my life.

The lesson. He told me, “If you want to mourn dead children, don’t avoid them. Find one who needs you and take him or her under your wing and try and do your best to help them grow up to be a strong, loving, person. But you of all people know the sad truth. Every time your child walks out the door, you may never see them again. You may die, or they may die. And you need to spend the time you have with them showing how much you love them and paying attention to their needs so that if you are the one that dies, they spend the rest of their life knowing how much their father loved them. And if they are the one that dies, you hope that all the love you showed them is poured into their last conscious seconds. If you live your life like that, it will still be a tragedy, it will still hurt, but you will live without regrets.”

I followed his advice, the people I love know how much I love them, and I hope I face the loss of my loved ones, or my own exit from the world, with as much grace and peace, and with as few regrets as possible.

And we sent Dr. NYC the picture she requested,

How I have implemented the lesson I learned.

1. I cry. Following the prescription of Dr. NYC, I cry as needed. Since most of my work has been done with people in crisis, I spend much time talking to people who are distraught or desperate. I can usually make them feel much better, but it takes a toll on me, I often feel drained after they feel better. And Dr. NYC taught me that the best way to cleanse my spirit and rejuvenate my compassion, is with a good cry. I have often told my interns at the end of a hard day, “When I get home, I’m going to have a good cry.” And the way I do it is to watch the opening scene of “Love Actually.” I imagine that the arrivals gate is to the Hereafter where we are greeted by the people who went before us, and gave us so much love in our life, the ones we cried over.

2. I listen. Leadership is extremely important to me. Hundreds of people have entrusted me with years of their life, with the expectation that I will do everything I can to put them on a trajectory for greatness. And all good leadership starts with listening and in a series of posts about leadership (beginning with “Leadership, an art that can be learned” a series that only the most dedicated student of leadership, can wade through) I have three posts about listening. You can read first the post about the importance of listening post later if you wish, and it can be found here:

3. I try and show kindness to everyone I meet. The Dalai Lama emphasizes growing our compassion by recognizing that everyone person we meet is just like us, they desire happiness, and want to avoid suffering. Therefore, they deserve our compassion and whatever help we can offer. When I see someone doing a thankless, invisible task, like sweeping up the sidewalk and pushing a trash barrel on wheels, I stop and thank them. “I just wanted to say I appreciate your hard work. With all the people who come through here it is amazing how clean you folks keep it.” That never fails to elicit a smile and a thank you. I also am an early riser so if I stop in a 7-11 at 5:30 am for coffee, or show up at the airport at 6:00 am I always greet the clerk or TSA agent with, “Thank you for working the early shift.” Most of them seem to appreciate the acknowledgement of their sacrifice. And I talk to amenable homeless people, I treat them with the dignity and respect I would show a friend or co-worker, because, while they may have fallen on hard times, we are walking the same path, toward the same destination. I learn their names and they know my name. (Sherbie, the security guard at the old ABA building once called me down to the lobby because a homeless person was asking for me. When I came down, my unhoused friend Chet told me that the sandwich shop owner had just given him four sandwiches, and he rushed over to let me choose which one I wanted for my lunch. After he left Sherbie said, “I guarantee you are the only person in Washington, DC that has homeless people coming to their office to give something to them.”)

4. I created opportunities for my daughters to confide in me. When I drove somewhere with one of them, after I backed into the driveway we would just sit for a while in the pickup and chat, or we would lay on their bed, staring at the ceiling. They had my complete attention and I could give them the time to talk about what was concerning them.

5. And finally, breakfast in bed for Rebecka. I must say people are unduly impressed with the fact that I have given Rebecka breakfast in bed every morning I could since I have known her. Part of the explanation is that I am an early riser, but more importantly for me, Rebecka works harder than anyone I have ever met. She often has the first call of the day at 6:00 in the morning, then be on calls until 4:00 in the afternoon, with the occasional call at 10:00 pm, then she goes to sleep and the cycle begins again. She rarely rests. But when Rebecka is waking up and I can bring her breakfast in bed, she usually stops working on the computer, picks up her kindle, and for 20 minutes she reads, eats, and pets the cat. That tranquil scene makes me happy, because I have accepted the undeniable fact that I won’t be able to do it forever. One day I won’t be here to cook, or she won’t be waiting in bed. When that day comes, I will be thankful I did it as often as I could.

In conclusion. I tried to write this post in the fall of 2019 but abandoned it because I had learned that people didn’t want to be reminded that they will die some day, or that their loved ones will die. And in particular, they didn’t want to be reminded that death can strike swiftly and without warning, and their loved one may die alone. They want to put it out of their minds, and then are struck senseless when death suddenly intrudes. They would come to my office in tears, begging for words of comfort, and I try to help, but I would think, “Sorry friend, the only advice I can give you would have required you to start expressing your love for them years ago.” And then Covid-19 struck and I heard about people riddled with guilt because they took a loved one in to the emergency room with a cough, they got a Covid test and were whisked away, and they never saw their loved one again. They were filled with regret, they wished they had just one more chance to hug them and tell them how much they loved the. Perhaps my lesson is more relevant today.

So you know who you are, the ones I love. I hope you feel it, and when you need me , I am here for you. We are walking the same path, toward the same destination, I will be at your side as long as I can. And if one day you can’t see the light at the end of the tunnel, I will sit in the dark with you.

I beg you, be sure to show kindness and love to those around you everyday, just in case.

Published by Robert Lang

Social Justice lawyer and mentor, nurturing calmness, kindness, and adventure. Just trying to leave something good behind.

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