Tuesday, April 19, 2011

The Departed Leave Baggage Behind

Twice recently I've encountered a situation in which a recently-deceased person, loved and respected by many, left behind ill-feelings from some old hurt. One of these I won't be sharing with you, because it wasn't my hurt. All I'll say is that I had an email today from someone who had an unpleasant child experience with someone I personally never met. I was able to acknowledge the correspondent's feelings without either defending or denigrating the deceased.

The other case is my own, and I think it would be churlish of me to mention who it was. It was a business issue, but it lingered long after the business was concluded. Basically, I was sent to approach this person and others with a contract, make immediate payment if the contract was accepted, and  start arrangements for further negotiations if the proposed payment was deemed inadequate. I was far from home, acting as an agent for my husband's company. John was not with me, and my instructions were based on what we had been advised to do to secure these contracts. The advice came from a company with whom these people had a longstanding relationship. But I wasn't with that company, and the people I approached, with one exception, had no idea who I was or whether the company I represented was a legitimate one.

Within half an hour of my starting this process, one particular person had been delegated by the others to interrogate me about this project, asking who had told us to approach the people in this way, who set the amount of money offered, and whether anyone would really be paid. Before the night was over I was practically in tears. This was someone I admired, as were all the people approached. And I was being treated with deep suspicion if not outright hostility.

Eventually a contract was written that was acceptable to this particular person, who was promptly paid, receiving more than some of the others because of the relative value of the contribution. Other people received extra money in return for specific added services they performed for us. Happy ending, right? That's what I thought, but I was wrong.

A year or so later, I heard about a similar situation involving someone else's company, someone else's product. It seems that the same people who worried about not being paid by us were, in fact, stiffed by this other company. (I think it was a case of the other company not making enough money off the product to meet its obligations, and consequently going bankrupt.) The two products were not all that similar, but the experience stuck in the minds of some of the people affected, and not just in connection with the company that really didn't pay them. About 15 years later, one of these people, who had performed the extra service and received the extra money, someone I knew personally, asked whether we had ever paid him. Granted, it was a long time ago to remember such details, but it bothered me to think that even this person who knew me thought I might have cheated him.

As best I can tell, some of this lingering suspicion stemmed from that very same person who gave me the third degree that night. As recently as 2009, this person was telling people that we had never paid them, probably because of the other company's failure to do so. I considered writing to the person to try to clear our name, but I let it go. John's company is long gone, so who was really being hurt by the inadvertently false accusation? Then the person making the claim died, so it was too late to straighten things out with them.

Understand, this person was admirable on many levels, talented and honest and generally kind to others. Even the questioning I got that first night can be seen as a righteous advocacy on behalf of a whole group of people who might otherwise be cheated. Nobody but me cares that my feelings were hurt, and even I shouldn't care. I need to let it go. This person should be remembered for all the good things they did, not a minor misunderstanding with someone they met only once.

Similarly, the hurt feelings expressed in the email I received today do not overshadow the good things done by the other deceased person in decades past, as remembered by people whose experiences were largely positive ones. Nobody is perfect, and even this person's most ardent admirers tend to acknowledge the foibles along with the undeniable accomplishments. It is not up to me to judge or arbitrate the matter.

Funny old thing, death. It cuts you off from mending relationships, resolving misunderstandings, handing out or accepting apologies. Yet it leaves you with all those feelings from the baggage left behind, pulled out from a cupboard and left on the bed for you to deal with.

When my Mom died, we had long since resolved a relationship that was more than a little rocky after her divorce and for years afterward. What little baggage she left behind mostly involved other people, not me. When my friend Tracy died, we had no issues to resolve, and I had a painful but valuable opportunity to speak with her by phone on her dying day. When John's mother died, he spoke with her by phone as well and gave her his love, having no warning sufficient for him to say goodbye in person. When my childhood friend's father died, he left behind a misunderstanding caused by the dad's Alzheimer's, which left him believing something about his son that wasn't true.

Now my own dad isn't in the best of health, and although our relationship is a good one I don't want to take any chances. I am very grateful to my stepmother Ruth for sending him out here for a visit this past January. There's a chance I may never see him again. At the very least, things being as they are, I need to call him more often. When I lose him at last, I don't want to find our shared baggage on my bed.


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