As a student of mindfulness meditation, I understand the value of a bird’s eye view. After all, it’s seldom the case that everything is terrible all at once. It may feel that way, at times. It might require a herculean effort to turn one’s attention away from pain, anger, or fear and to focus instead on, say, gratitude…or a sunset…or even, simply, one’s own breath. But when we’re able to take in the big picture we can see that while this one awful thing may be going on over here, there’s also some pretty good stuff goin’ on over there. The present moment is rarely a flat line.
I wish I’d been able to apply this truth to Nicole, before she died.
When I picked my son up for the funeral he strode out of his private school’s brand-new science building–past the gleaming floor-to-ceiling windows and charming outdoor classroom–a jacket and tie slung over his shoulder with the casual confidence of a boy accustomed to wearing such things. As we drove towards the funeral home, I asked the usual mom questions (How is the new semester going? Did you have fun at the dance Saturday night?) and he provided the usual answers (Fine. Yes.) in between bites of the chips and queso I’d brought as a snack. He would miss lunch.
I was vaguely aware–given the present errand–of the incalculable bounty inherent in our casual conversation. Just another mom, catchin’ up on the details of her teenage son’s life.
After a few minutes my son announced that at the viewing the night before he and his dad had waited an hour and a half to pay their respects. An hour and a half? Really? That sounded more along the lines of what you’d expect at a state funeral, or waiting to ride Space Mountain. Is it possible that Nicole–poor, single, unemployed, unlucky-in-love Nicole–could garner that kind of crowd?
Some of my readers may remember an article I wrote last year featuring my son and his best friend: https://www.elephantjournal.com/2019/04/lets-all-stop-getting-so-damn-uncomfortable-allison-banbury/. As we now drove towards the funeral of my son’s best friend’s mother–gone way too soon at the age of 38–I felt grateful that so many folks had shown up and concentrated on finding the funeral home.
We parked down the street (the lot was already full) and entered a standing-room-only gallery, wedging ourselves near the back of the room. The extra chairs brought in to accommodate the still-growing crowd were already taken, and as I craned my neck to catch a glimpse of my son’s friend I became painfully and shamefully aware of a decade-long assumption I’d held close to my heart: that Nicole’s poverty went far deeper than her bank account.
I couldn’t have been more wrong.
We might’ve been friends, Nicole and I. After all, our boys were besties (they’d cringe to hear me use that term) and it would’ve made sense for us to spend time together. We weren’t unfriendly. Nicole always greeted me with warmth; she loved my son and valued his friendship with her own precious boy; she invited me to family gatherings and always encouraged me to stick around when picking up or dropping off. But I politely and steadfastly maintained my distance, believing we couldn’t possibly have enough in common to support anything beyond play-date logistics and surface pleasantries. (And yes…the boys–young men, now–would also object to the term play-date.)
I realized my mistake as I listened to person after person speak of Nicole’s passion for music and her incredible singing voice (which I’d never heard, and was surprised to learn existed). I love to sing and would’ve enjoyed hearing my perfectly average voice blended with and buoyed by Nicole’s deep, full-flavored one. I realized my mistake when I witnessed Nicole’s blind, semi-famous jazz-musician father perform one last song for his daughter. He later led the crowd in a bluesy rendition of Amazing Grace after good-naturedly ordering “all the singers out there” to join in.
I realized my mistake as I listened to folks speak of Nicole’s unfailing positivity, her ability to bring people together, and her fierce love for her children. I realized my mistake when I saw the hundreds–if not thousands–of pictures displayed collage-style on easels all around the funeral home. Each and every one showed Nicole either smiling with complete abandon or making joyful, goofy faces…her ample arms wrapped tightly around her children and her mom; this friend or that neighbor. Who on earth had pulled all of this together?
I realized my mistake when I watched a video of Nicole and her dad singin’ the blues–their mutual love of music and obvious affection for one another on painful, exquisite display. I realized my mistake when I handed my son tissue after tissue, bearing witness to his sadness at the passing of this unique and beautiful soul.
Did Nicole have two pennies to rub together? She truly didn’t. But what I missed–and now it’s too late–was the absolute fucking abundance of her.
What if we adopted a bird’s eye view as our new lens on the world? What if we resisted the urge to flatten someone’s story simply because it enabled us to make sense of things a little faster? Because it was easier, and didn’t require us to grow or expand our understanding in any way? What if, instead of reducing a person or opportunity to single points of data–height, weight, occupation, age…salary, location, title–we chose instead to pan out and take in the entire, complicated picture? Who and what might we let into our lives that we might otherwise have missed?
Rest in peace, Nicole.