Loving, Long-Distance

I wasn’t there for my friend when her father died. Nor was I around when another friend separated from her husband. I couldn’t be there to physically comfort my cousins when their children were very sick or be there for my mother and father when their parents were dying.

For people like me – an out-of-town daughter, sister, cousin and friend – a sad turn of events for a loved one slathers on another layer of sadness: I need to find ways to comfort them, between my bi-annual visits, without being there.

Expressing love, long distance, is a lot easier when you are responding to happy events. I learned about that from my grandparents.

Grandpa Ruby kept our relationship alive in spite of a six-hour car drive and a disinclination to travel with typed letters containing word puzzles. He would send me Kennedy half-dollars if I answered them correctly. I can count on my left hand how many times I saw him in my life, but I can still hear his voice and his humor and feel his love through those paper correspondences.

Grandma Jane was a voracious letter writer, who, when I moved out of the state for college wrote me regularly about nothing in particular. But she always acknowledged the changes in my life with a handwritten letter that oozed with love, along with an occasional $10 bill.

When it’s a birthday, anniversary, birth, graduation, confirmation or other happy life-cycle passage, it isn’t difficult to find a way to respond in a celebratory way.

But for a hospitalization, illness, end of a marriage or death, I’m not going to be on the meal rotation or the carpool schedule or the hospital visiting guest list. I can’t bring over groceries, home baked muffins, offer a ride to physical therapy or even take them out for a cup of coffee.

Because being there –in the flesh – is best. Gifts are nice, but showing up is the best thing you can do for someone who is sad or suffering. One remembers the faces of who circled around them and light things up when things were really dark.

Or so I’ve been assuming.

Since it has been on my mind lately, I’ve been asking women I know who have recently been on the receiving end of bad news about what provided comfort for them during or after that time. And their answers were a not-so-small revelation to me.

One friend, who lost both of her parents within seven months, told me that in addition to the flowers people sent – the freshness and aliveness gave her a sense of renewal and hope – it was the phone messages that kept her going. Simple ones that said “I’m thinking about you,” or “I’m sending you love,” and most importantly, “No need to call back.” These voices of love were her salvation.

When she was released from the hospital after a heart attack and a subsequent surgical procedure, food baskets and home visits were very appreciated by another friend, but the phone figured prominently in her healing too. Every day since then, her father, who lives just a few miles away and is now 88, calls just to tell her that he loves her.

I was struck that in both of their accounts, the distance of the loved one was not an issue at all. In fact, I got the sense that these short, frequent check-ins were more potent a contribution than a long visit would be, in which they would have to muster the energy to make conversation or feel compelled to play hostess.

It wasn’t my intention to marvel at the ways in which the cell phone shortens the physical distance between us – though I am aware that this is a huge part of the story. What I am noting, however, is how potent our voices can be when people we love are suffering. How little needs to be said. And how grateful we are to simply be thought about.

These are what really transcend all those miles.

Ellen Blum Barish is an award-winning syndicated columnist, mother of two daughters and author of “Views from the Home Office Window: On Motherhood, Family and Life,” available at  www.adamsstreetpublishing.com. Copyright 2008. Ellen Blum Barish.