A few weeks ago I went to two memorial services within two days of each other. One was for a remarkable man, my friend Lisa’s dad, Michael Dontzen, who lived to 89 and accomplished more in his lifetime than just about anyone I’ve ever met. He was a New York State Supreme Court judge, an aide to Mayor John Lindsay, a lawyer, a brilliant man with so much passion for justice, that on his deathbed, just a short time before he passed away, he married a gay couple. This was his last “professional” duty and he was determined to accomplish that despite the fact that he could barely speak.
The second memorial was heartbreaking. It was for a woman named Chris Twomey. She was an artist and a mother of three. Her art and motherhood were intertwined and she was passionate about both. She had breast cancer, which spread throughout her body and after a long, heroic struggle, she finally died, at age 58.
There weren’t many people who were as determined to live as Chris. She loved life, she loved making art and she maintained a sense of humor throughout the years of treatments and tremendous pain.
I met Chris at Friends In Deed, a pragmatic, spiritual counseling center in Soho, New York. I have written about it before. FID saved my life when my life was completely falling apart. One of the gifts of Friends was that it put me right smack into a community that understood suffering, so that I was able to feel less alone.
In her eulogy for Chris, the founder of Friends In Deed, Cy O’Neal, spoke about Chris’s courage. I just happened to be near the front desk the day that Chris first arrived at FID, announcing “I have breast cancer” as if she were saying “I just arrived from Paris.” I sat in big groups with Chris for well over a year, and as Cy said, “She always raised her hand, early in the meeting. She shared whatever was going on with her, which generally included the work she was doing and some difficult aspect of her treatment. She always had a strong spirit and a rich sense of humor and after she spoke, it seemed that she gave everyone else permission to tell whatever they were going through.”
Like a lot of people, weathering the storm of Hurricane Sandy meant keeping close to our battery-operated radios. (Actually, I had a crank radio too, the kind you wind up if you don’t have batteries, but it just made me cranky. If I had to only use that, my arm would have fallen off by day two, and my only news would be spastic, like “flood waters reaching… evacuated and you should seek….”) People were calling in all day with the stories of what was happening, good and bad, giving each other comfort and advice. The radio gave us permission to speak and a means to reach out to one another when we would have been going it alone otherwise.
During those five days of sitting in candlelight and mostly silence, I began to think about community. My neighbors in our building in Soho supported each other emotionally — one neighbor, Martin, was staying uptown with his girlfriend, but each day he came back to the building and dropped off bags of food for his neighbors, fresh fruit, bagels, peanut butter, The New York Times. On Halloween, our next door neighbor, Louise, came over and gave us Tarot card readings by candlelight.
My upstairs neighbor, Barbara, was sitting shiva (a week long mourning period) for her dad, who passed away a few days before the Hurricane. The first few days there were dozens of people who came to pay their respects, but once the hurricane hit, it was harder for family and friends to get there, so my loftmate, Abigail, and I tried to come up as much as we could.
And then, on one of my uptown bike trips, when I had Internet access, I saw a posting on Facebook written by someone who had been helping out in Rockaway Beach. They were delivering blankets and supplies, cleaning out basements, doing all the heavy lifting that needed to be done. But I read this: “People need emotional support. They are suffering.”
And I thought about the woman in Staten Island who lost both her young sons, because a neighbor wouldn’t let her into his home, he was too afraid to open his door. I hope that she will give herself permission to speak of her profound loss, when the time is right, and with a caring group of people with her.
We often give lip service to the idea of “it takes a village” but in reality, we so rarely do come together to support each other. One of the reasons 12 Step programs are so effective is because they have learned the power of community. For most of history, family was our community, but now families are spread all over the place. Often people worked in organizations for their entire careers and felt a part of something. That is the exception now, it’s rare that anyone stays longer than a few years with any job — in fact, the “Millennials” don’t even expect to stay past three years.
In the aftermath of so much devastation and what has been a divisive election — and what will surely be many more hurricanes and tornadoes and devastation — maybe we can try to solve both the physical challenges of dealing with floods and the emotional challenges of how to create a real sense of community so that we truly can “get by with a little help from our friends.”