This message is not my typical message. It has nothing to do with leadership (or maybe it does); it has nothing to do with our professional life (or maybe it does); it has nothing to do with building communities (or maybe it does); and it has nothing to do with other people but me (or maybe it does, indeed). This message is about what I feel inside and the fact that who I am is not just about my title, job, family, hobbies or beliefs. This message is about the principle that my true self must be reflected in all that I do, in how I deal with things and with people, and in how I treat myself. It is about how complex I am and not definable by labels even if others prefer to use them.
This message will be different. It may offend some people – and for this I apologize in advance – and it will make think others. It will certainly not make anyone indifferent. I have to write it because I feel that someone in my circle of influence needs to read it. It is my duty to listen to that prompting and hope that that person will read it and find solace and benefit from this.
This message begins about two months ago, when a friend of mine is suddenly facing a painful reality: his brother is dying and he is on the other side of the world and there is nothing he can do. He feels helpless, powerless, concerned. He is told his brother may die any moment, literally: it would be ok to wait until the funeral to fly back to Europe where his brother lives. He is torn. Something is not right. He feels he needs to see his brother alive for the last time before he passes away. But the doctors, the nurses, and the rest of the family keep telling him that he will not arrive in time. What should he do?
This story begins about 18 years ago. I have been in Canada for more than one year now and it is time to go back to Italy and visit my mom and dad there. It is exciting. The preparation is filled with anticipation and the fresh memories of a life left behind for an adventure in a new country and with a new culture. The adaptation is not easy but not difficult either. Many good people have helped and the word ‘hope’ can be still read in the eyes of many in this part of the world. It is now November 1994 and I take two weeks of vacation and fly to Rome where my brother is picking me up at the airport. The flight is uneventful. I like flying, watching movies, spending time reading and thinking, especially thinking. I arrive in Rome early in the morning and after collecting my luggage I give a quick call to my wife and then to my parents. ‘Hallo’, my dad says. His voice seems tired and a bit distant. ‘Hi dad, I am here at the airport waiting for Massimo to come. Can I talk to mom?’ The answer does not quite register immediately ‘She is in the hospital. This morning, at about 2am she started to have convulsions and was throwing up so badly that we had to take her to the emergency.’ I am speechless and quickly recover to say goodbye and that I would be there in a couple of days not realizing the seriousness of the situation. When my brother comes, it is clear that something is not right and that I need to go home immediately. He paints a bleak picture of what’s happening but I am in total denial at this point. I need to see her. I need to go… I take the first passenger bus to my hometown and I take a seat. It is the longest trip of my life. Slowly a sad realization ensues: my mom may be dying. My head is spinning and tears come quickly to my eyes. I can’t help it. After 9 hours I am home…
My friend makes a decision. He knows that he needs to go. He knows that he needs to see his brother and he needs to tell him something important that he needs to hear. But will he hear? Will he still be there? It doesn’t matter: inside, a little voice is telling him that he has to leave now and that his brother will not go until he has seen him. Hope, not for a recovery, but for a last glimpse of life in an exchange of eye contact that has not happened for some time, takes shape and powerfully becomes faith that he will see him alive and he will be able to utter those words that his brother needs to hear. It is heart wrenching though, and the full humanity of his situation hits him many times almost to the point of breakdown. But he needs to resist and move on. His brother needs him more than ever and needs him now. Soon he is on the plane. A few hours later he is back home…
The hospital does not receive visits until the morning. I am taken back to a restless night. I blame it on the jet lag but the truth is that my mom is probably dying and I am powerless, helpless, concerned. My father is like a little child. He is scared. He looks like a deer in front of an incoming car: terrified and unable to avoid the collision. He loves her so much. Their love and relationship has been the crowning experience of all my life. They lived love and I breathed it with every pore from them. Thanks to them, their example, I always felt invincible. Their goodness was such that I always thought there is no need to be mean. You can still survive in this world if you are good. This all came from them, not much in word but certainly in actions. Finally, morning arrives and my dad and I go to the hospital. My aunt Anna, my mom’s sister, is also there. When I enter the room, I am shocked: in front of me there is a person that does not even look like my mother. She is half the size of what she used to be and her body is emaciated and yellow with jaundice. But the thing that hits me the most is her eyes. They are big, surreal, lost in thought, scared: nobody told her but she knows that this is it and it seems that reality has hit her extremely hard.
My friend is on the phone calling his brother at the hospital and telling him to hang in there, that he is coming, that he is going to be there momentarily. His brother can’t speak so text messaging begins. He texts to his brother from the airport on the way out: ‘I’m on my way’. From the train after he landed: ‘I’m on my way’. From the cab after the train reached the destination: ‘I’m on my way’. When he arrives at the hospital, his brother is still alive. What he sees he cannot speak without breaking down…
Nobody has the courage to ask the doctor what’s happening to my mom. My dad, my aunt, and the other relatives there ask me to be the one. The doctor is clear: my mom has cancer in its final stage and has weeks to live. Is this really happening to me? Is the doctor talking of someone I know? Yet, I am not dreaming – it is true, and I tell the rest of the family. I also call my brother and my wife. It is so difficult but it has to be done.
My friend’s brother is still alive. He cannot speak but his face glimmers with joy once he sees my friend – his brother – there. He longs for words from him. My friend promptly tells him what he feels and what comes from the Spirit that unites us all in the end: he tells his brother that all is well and he will be fine. A rest from the tribulations, pain, and sorrows of this world is awaiting him. For as difficult it is to believe, life is not over for him. Certainly it is over the way we see it but there is more. And with that, two hours later, he is gone.
I spend two weeks with my mom knowing that it is the last time I will see her alive. I am scared and angry. I am also very sad in a most overwhelming disposition. I return home to my life, but life is not the same. On Christmas Day, the feeling is unbearable. I have to go see her once again. I make arrangements to travel back to see my mom with my wife. The evening prior to my departure, I am outside a store when I see my mom next to me smiling and waving good bye. She is gone…It is 8:17pm. I return home and my wife tells me that my brother called: my mom had died at 8:17pm.
My friend is back home. He is a different man. He knows more about life and death. He knows his experience was, in a way, special. His love for his brother has grown to a point that has no end but continues forever. He sees his family – his wife and children – in a very different way. His love for them has also grown. He is definitely not the same man he was: he is better.
I went back home after the funeral a changed man. I learned from my experience that we are all born with nothing and with nothing will leave. I learned that what is important to me is my relationship with those I love and care for. I cherish every moment with them. I think of them, I think of my past, present and future, and I think of my mom and how she changed my life the night she died.