Stranger 0 – Part V of V THE LAST STORY…
My phone was stuck in my pocket and I could feel it vibrate as I cruised down the highway just outside of Montreal. With my window rolled down and the air flowing through, one hand was on the steering wheel and the other was interlocked with my girlfriends fingers as we headed to a fancy restaurant to cap off a long day trip to Quebec city.
It was early fall in 2005 and I was staying with a friend in Montreal, a former Olympian and training specialist who I had planned to train with for two weeks in preparation for the upcoming Olympic season. My girlfriend at the time was living in Toronto, and she had flown out to visit for the weekend and we had spent a few great days together. We had just returned from a long day trip to the historic Quebec city and were capping off the evening with a fancy meal. Life was going great… then I pulled my phone out and checked my voicemail.
My heart almost stopped as listened to the voice of my best friend’s wife tell me she didn’t think Dallas, her husband, was going to make it through the night… the blood left my head and I felt like I could faint. I could feel my face become instantly pale as I hit the gas and searched for the quickest route to the airport. My girlfriend became nervous and asked me what was going on… I couldn’t speak… I had one thing on my mind
Get to the airport.
As we sped along the road, I struggled to explain the situation to her… but she knew what was happening. She knew the story of Dallas and how he’d been in a battle with cancer for over 5 years. He had bounced between remission and relapse over several years and hadn’t been doing so well when I left, but for this to happen so quickly…
I had a brief conversation with Dallas the day before. He had called me to see how I was doing and how training was out there. We made some small talk and spoke about some of the opening college football games… then I rushed him off the phone, almost as if he was a distraction.
A tremendous wave of guilt overcame me as I wondered if the last conversation I would ever have with my best friend would be me rushing him off the phone.
I arrived at the airport, left my girlfriend to park the car and bolted inside. Finding the nearest ticket booth I scrambled up to the front and pleaded with the woman to find me the quickest ticket back to Calgary. My eyes swelled and the inside of my nose burned as I felt the cool salty tears run down my face and into my mouth… I waited as she clicked away at her computer…
“I’m sorry sir, the last plane to Calgary left about thirty minutes ago.”
I pleaded and begged for her to get me home as I explained the urgency of the situation. She frowned and looked at me with apologetic eyes, “The only thing I can do is get you on the first flight in the morning.” My chest expanded and contracted quicker and quicker as anxiety kicked in. I felt helpless. Despite my emotion, I realized that fighting would be of no use, so I acquiesced and paid her for my ticket bound for home early in the morning.
The ride back to the house in Montreal was quiet and painful.
A million scenarios raced through my head as I pleaded with the sky, the universe, anybody or anything; praying, if there was a god, to please, please let me get home to say goodbye to my friend.
The night was long.
I arrived at the airport early and spent the entire four hour flight in a complete daze as there was nothing for me to do, but stare and think. I had so much going through my mind but couldn’t focus enough to write in my journal, talk, watch a movie, and definitely not sleep. The flight felt painfully slow…
As soon as I had landed, my brother was there to greet me. He seemed calm and relaxed and explained the current situation and how Dallas had seemed to regain stability. Hearing this settled my nerves as my brother’s reassuring story had me feeling better, but we still rushed out to the car and were quickly enroute to the hospital.
We arrived just before noon and my heart was full of joy after hearing Dallas was ok… that my prayers were answered… in fact exceeded. He was going to be ok.
The elevator dinged open and I nervously approached the hospital room door and peeked inside, I was not prepared for what appeared before me…
The hope my brother had provided me was instantly shattered as I stood in complete fear as I gazed at what appeared to be the shell of my best friend sitting on the edge of his bed. He was interacting wildly with Jennifer. Struggling and virtually incoherent, he pushed away her attempts to assist him and unsuccessfully tried to communicate something… I was scared. Completely paralyzed with fear. I did not know what to do.
I walked into the room, surely as white as a ghost, as I believed to be witnessing the moment of his death. The truth of the moment was that Dallas was so incredibly drugged up that he couldn’t communicate and was delirious. His incoherence was difficult to understand, and he was speaking gibberish that nobody could interpret. Once the doctor turned the painkilling drugs down, he started to regain his old self and much to my surprise, a few hours passed and he was almost his old self again.
There we were, back to small talk about football, Montreal… bugging his wife… it was going to be ok.
It had been a roller coaster of emotions, but it seemed as though the ride had come to a stop and Dallas appeared to be on the path towards recovery. Once he fell asleep and I was confident with his recovery, I slipped out and went home to shower and change my clothes before returning to watch the Monday night football game with him.
When I arrived back that early evening, he was bouncing back and forth between sleep and consciousness. We had snippets of 15 minute conversations here and there as he would make a comment on the game, then quickly fall back asleep. This repeated over and over many times. There was three of us hanging out with Dallas on this night; myself, another high school friend Pablo, and Jennifer. We talked while we all sat at his side, and watched the game.
Dallas seemed to be struggling to breathe as the night wore on. He was already connected to a machine to assist with his breathing, but I noticed as the night went on his neck muscles would increasingly contract with more intensity. Every contraction jolted his body slightly upward as the hiss and pop of the machine forced his lungs to work. The plastic mask firmly sat on his face, pumping concentrated oxygen into his body. He was fighting.
The game ended and I walked out into the hall to stretch my legs when I was quickly called back into the room. Dallas was awake, sitting up and motioned with his hands that he wanted to say something. His wife sat cross legged on the bed staring at him. He was back into a deeply drugged state, he swung his head back and forth as he struggled to say something to us. His hands moved rapidly as if communicating through a game of charades, but none of us knew what he was trying to say. I rubbed his back and his wife rubbed his legs as he bobbled back and forth, staring into her eyes.
with a soft sweet voice she held his head and almost touching nose to nose she repeated over and over “I love you Dall, I love you… I love you…”
Overcome with emotion, Jennifer left the room momentarily and Dallas swung his head over and stared at me. Our eyes locked and memories of our childhood escapades flooded in. The vibrant, mischievous lad who used to cause trouble with me, who supported me and who I loved dearly, bobbled back and forth. I winked at him and through his glazed eyes and stoic face, I could see his eyes light up. A moment that will remain etched in my memory forever.
Jennifer returned and the four us us sat together. Jennifer lying beside him on the bed holding him, and Pablo and I at his side. We were all sitting quietly, yet Dallas sat up with urgency and started shushing us. He removed the tightly fitting mask that had been a fixture on his face the entire day and he fought to speak. Complete focus and all his effort went into timing his breath as he looked up and forced out some words…
“If you’re… happy… and you know it… clap your hands…”
The only words that came out of his mouth in hours made us all smile. We continued the song he had started, singing happily as he retreated back into the semi-horizontal position on the bed, put his mask back on and leaned back watching us with delight as we sang on.
The song ended and we all sat there, relishing in the beauty of the moment and the miraculous strength Dallas had conjured up to sing. It was beautiful and yet my heart ached; the tears rolled down my face. This man is incredible.
There was long silence.
The machine no longer hissed and popped and the muscles on his neck no longer contracted… his song had sung and he had sailed away…
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Throughout Dallas’ battle with cancer he had never really spoke much to me about fighting the disease, dying, if he was scared or not, and certainly never complained about the four separate rounds of chemotherapy he endured. We spent hours together every day and yet never talked about the massive pink elephant in the room. We never got to have a ‘talk’ about life, about death or uncertainty… or really anything about us at all. I never got to tell him I was scared for him, or that I wanted the best for him but didn’t know how or where to start… the regrets that come when people leave unexpected.
Why do we leave things until they are too late? Why do we rely on death or disaster before we alter the way we do things?
It is tragic for me to think about all of the precious time I had spent with Dallas in the years before his death… and yet I hid. I hid from expanding our relationship and instead choosing to keep it ‘safe’, I feared what depth or ‘different’ questions would bring and I feared bringing up something that might upset him. By avoiding this, how did this help him? Or me? How did this make our relationship better?
The result was deep pain and regret, which is now the power behind 52 people.
One year and 52 strangers later I have learned a little about other people and a bit about myself. I have also confirmed something I truly believe in.
What I have learned about people is that they desire connection. Only a handful of people rejected my proposal during the entire year and those who begun the process with a bit of resistance, generally ended with opening themselves up. I received a few emails afterwards from Strangers who wanted a second crack to tell me more about themselves. I have learned that people want their stories heard and witnessed.
How often do people ask us questions and wait to really hear our answers?
We often get into situations where our conversations are ‘competing’ against those we are speaking to, every answer you give is often responded to with a comment to match or exceed your statement. But to be truly heard from a curious participant is something people really appreciate. People want to go to the scary places. I repeat, people want to step into scary places and uncharted waters with others they trust. They just want someone to lead them there and then sit and listen without competing or turning and making it about themselves. They want someone to just listen and be curious…
I was so grateful to witness the depth and energy of those who spoke about their experiences, many of which they have never shared with anyone before. This confirmed something to me. It was confirmed when I received the many hugs and heartfelt handshakes from strangers after the interviews. Going to these places builds connection. Speaking about these things creates resonance, trust and meaning with those participating. Just like our greatest failures help shape us into wise and experienced successes, when we share these difficult thoughts, feelings and dreams with others, it also shapes and strengthens our relationships.
I also learned a few things about myself. Early on in the process I was a little hesitant to dig into some of the answers, but after a while I became more comfortable and really would dig for more if strangers gave me short answers. There were many times I was intimidated approaching others, but then I learned to become unattached whether people were willing to be a stranger or not. Another thing I learned about myself is not only do I feel quite natural connecting with strangers, but it confirmed that I become energize from it. Connecting with people is a necessity for me to experience life fully.
Last but not least, I realized that I am capable of so much. In the past I have generally begun great projects and had them fizzle out, but this one lasted. This time my project lasted and week after week I plugged away and had been energized and inspired along the way. That is something I am proud of.
What kept me going? The connection with others, the lessons, the stories, the circumstances and realness to it all. This kept me going.
Where am I going from here?
THE BOTTOM LINE:
I’m going to preface this by letting you know that I am not always a star gazing, hand holding love monster that always wants you to tell me about your dreams. I will talk about NFL or college football when ever given the chance. I will gather with friends every Sunday during football season and do nothing but sit, watch, eat and cheer as some of the strongest and fastest men in the world engage in gladiator like battle. There is nothing I want more than to do this, and any attempt to hold a conversation with me would be useless during this time. There are times and situations when small talk, or no talk, serves a purpose.
Where the problem arises is when we rely on small talk to be the foundation of our relationships; it is a sneaky disease that we can take to the grave.
So this is the bottom line…
STOP LIVING WITH STRANGERS!
My relationships are changing and I am striving to do my part in making those changes. I no longer rely on: the weather, sports, the economy, housing market, television or anything else to be the foundation of my relationships. I have realized and accepted that the foundation of my relationships is me and you. Me and the person or people I’m with; not what they do or what they know, but who they are and how they experience life. This is real.
Our time on this planet is limited and undefined, the same as the person next to you and all those living under the same roof as you. We know this, yet we let our relationships slip through our fingers and allow ourselves to live with people we don’t REALLY know. We will grieve hard when people die, and the regret will burn deep inside. You can continue on this path, or you can change.
There is something you can do right now to create more meaningful connection in your life.
Get real with the people closest to you!
Approach someone to tell them how important they are to you, or to ask them about their illness, or what they’re greatest fear is; this opens the door to developing something with meaning. Talking about your truth and exposing your vulnerabilities are the ingredients for greatness in relationship. It does take trust, but that is built quickly through action. You may get hurt at some point in the process, but I’m certain you will recover and begin again. This is life. I will take the pain of rejection any day than carrying the regret of an unfulfilled relationship.
Relationships are EVERYTHING. They create meaning to otherwise dull moments, they make great experiences even greater and when you look back on your life you will remember the people you touched and those who touched you. You will relish those experiences of the exponential product that arises when two people lean into one another.
This is life.
The depth of your life will be measured by the depth of your relationships.
From the moment we are born we have a gift we all possess in equal sums. The gift to reach out and connect with ANYBODY. The richness of life awaits you. Connect with complete strangers, connect with acquaintances, but most importantly connect with the strangers that are closest to you.
The end of Dallas’ life was the beginning of great learning and the birth of a great movement. As this experiment ends it also forms a new beginning. Now a great shift begins… It’s growth depends greatly on you…
52 People’s Crusade for Meaningful Connection
Here it is… things must change.
We live in a society steeped in regret for lost relationship and a society experiencing the greatest famine never noticed. We are starving for more intimacy, more realness to our relationships. We have become a lonely people. Communities and tribes have broken off into a world of isolation. Now is the time to change it and you are the people to do it.
What I’ve taken from this experiment is that people are dying for connection, real connection, meaningful connection. What they need is for someone to take the lead.
It doesn’t matter where you are now with your relationships, how deep or surface based they are, what else can you do to make them better?
I have spoken with people who say, “This far into my relationships, things won’t change” or “I’ve been with this person my whole life, why would I try and change them now?”.
My response… Why would you not?
Like I wrote before, our time on this planet is limited and undefined, you or anybody in your life could perish at any moment, so the time to act is now.
‘The best time to plant a tree is twenty years ago, the second best time is NOW.’
- African Proverb
How can you get involved?
52 People – Crusade for Meaningful connection starts now.
A facebook group has been started ( click here ) become a member and join in on challenges, post your experiences, and join in on discussions about best ways to start digging below the surface, or how to deepen already deep relationships… this will take on the life of participation from people like you.
Also, I want this blog to keep going. Powered by your stories and discussion, register with the blog to post comments, send your experiences to firstname.lastname@example.org and inspire people with your stories of approaching strangers or breaking down the walls of existing relationships.
I need you to take the lead!
Let’s be the change we wish to see in this world and take the lead in engaging people not only in meaningful relationship, but as part of the crusade. Get as many people as you can to sign up for the facebook group, the blog, or send me their stories or experiences and we can make great change.
This afternoon at 4:00 (MST), I’ll be speaking briefly about the Crusade for Meaningful Connection on blog talk radio.
Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has. Margaret Mead.
This ending is the beginning of something great. Great change can take place in our relationships, bad can become great, and good can get even better. Make the most of the time you have with the people around you, stop living with strangers, get real with the people around you and take the lead in creating meaningful relationships.
I am extremely grateful for all who have participated in this journey. The strangers, the readers and the support through out it all. I wish everyone the best, and stay tuned for 52 Men – in search for authentic masculinity…