It Doesn’t Matter What You Say: Lessons Learned from Maya Angelou and Pema Chodron
“I’ve learned that people won’t remember what you said
And people won’t remember what you did
People will only remember how you made them feel.”
— Maya Angelou
In 2005, my mother was in a hospital, dying. I remembered that a friend of mine, Pippa, had written about being a volunteer in a hospice and it occurred to me that my mother needed to be there, not in a hospital being tortured with countless meds, beeping machines and pointless procedures. Studies indicate that many people receive aggressive and unnecessary treatment in hospitals and if given the choice, would prefer hospice care.
My mother was suffering. She deserved something better.
I called Pippa, she gave me the number of the hospice and within a few hours my mother was admitted. What I remember most about that afternoon was that my friend Bella met us at the hospice with flowers. She didn’t know my mother and my mother was not even aware that she was there — but I was so grateful. As a volunteer, Pippa came by too, many times. They called her “the tea lady.”
While my mother was in hospice, my sister was hit by a car and had to have five surgeries to save her leg. My daughter was going through very difficult teenage years — and I felt guilty because I couldn’t be as attentive as I wanted to be. My husband was home though — because his business as a freelance photographer had been on life support too.
Life was grim, but in that darkness I discovered the writings of Pema Chodron — thanks to my good friend Jacqui, who suggested I read some of Pema Chodron’s books. Her writing saved me.
I came to understand that all the overwhelming anger and sadness — that it was all perfect in its own way. That life sometimes is really hard. You can’t escape that. You have to learn how to hold it, how to accommodate it. You’ll be tempted to numb it — with drugs or food or alcohol, or television or shopping. But the best route is to just sit with it. Feel it. Push through it.
I can’t say I became a Zen master, but I learned that I wasn’t alone and that everyone’s life will have struggles, and that those times — when Bella arrived with flowers, or when Pippa came in with tea and cookies, or when I walked across the Brooklyn Bridge on my way to the hospice — were for me, the moments for which I was most grateful. And that dark time held lessons for me that forced me to grow and become a more empathetic person.
My mother and sister survived, but sadly my marriage did not. In 2009, a few years later, my husband and I separated. Thanks to the lousy economy my job ended. My daughter, then 21, decided to move 3,000 miles away and then suddenly, my mother died.
I thought 2004 was rough. That was a walk in the park compared to 2009. And 2010. Divorce, death, moving, it all hit me like a ton of bricks — like a tsunami. I felt oceans of grief, of tears.
I turned back to Pema Chodron, to meditation and to a beautiful place called Friends In Deed, a spiritual center for anyone dealing with life threatening illness, grief, bereavement or need support in caregiving. At Friends In Deed I was able to put in practice what I learned by reading Pema Chodron — that all of us suffer, that we don’t have to do it alone, that being with others through difficult times — even just one person — lightens the burdens.
I had dinner with an old friend who had been through a difficult divorce herself — Abigail — and when she heard that I had two dogs, no job and had to move, she said, “Why don’t you move in with me for awhile? You can get back on your feet — we’ll figure it out.”
That was 4.5 years ago — I am still there. Abigail saved my life. She gave me a safe haven to go through the grief and eventually come out the other side. In these years — I also lost both of my beloved dogs, but I didn’t do it alone — Abigail was with me when they died. So many friends were with me — too many to even name.
My daughter moved back to New York. I found a job I love. No man yet — but there’s time.
I rediscovered my love of dance.
I learned that life isn’t about how much money you earn. It isn’t about your status, how many houses and cars you own. It is about how you roll when life hands you challenges — because it will. Trust me.
It is about showing up in a hospice when your friend’s mother is dying, or sitting with someone in the emergency room, or calling a friend going through a divorce, or meeting them for a coffee. It may not be opening your home for someone, but it might be.
And it doesn’t matter what you say to that person. It doesn’t even really matter what you do. How you make someone feel — if they feel less alone, even for just a moment. That is what matters.