How does one know a person yet not know a person? We all know so many people that we don’t know, and one day we will wish we had. But – is it possible? Perhaps not, at least in the current arrangement of our lives and our world. It’s all too big and too fast. Two things happened last week at a funeral I went to: I finally got to know my cousin Andrea’s husband better, and he was the deceased. And I got a nugget to chew on regarding the current arrangement of my life.
My cousin’s husband Phil died last week. He was only 61, but he had non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma for many, many years and to say he fought this disease valiantly, with faith and spirit, with optimism and courage, would be an understatement. He continued to work during his extended illness at his job as a senior vice president at 20th Century Fox International (http://www.hollywoodreporter.com/news/fox-film-executive-phil-provenzale-599700). But other than knowing he had something to do with the film industry, I only knew him as Andrea’s husband Phil. He was a person I knew yet didn’t know.
It’s funny how we all know people differently. I knew Phil as the handsome, tall young man marrying Andrea at one of the most beautiful weddings my husband and I attended. Then I knew him as Andrea’s husband Phil, whom I spoke to in pleasantries about not much of consequence at family occasions – birthdays, weddings, celebrations, and, as the years passed, funerals. Since we did not live in the same cities, we didn’t have day-to-day encounters where we would know each other in a more comprehensive manner. We kept up with what was happening in the families but that’s it.
Until we went to Phil’s funeral and I got to know Phil better. And I found out that his life was about the little things, and now I want to make the rest of my life about the little things too. Here’s what I mean.
First, we know Phil was excellent at his job because if he hadn’t been he wouldn’t have had it, but no one mentioned that Phil was good at his job. No one listed his accomplishments. No one talked about the blockbuster deals he made or the financial successes he produced. They talked about how nice Phil was. They talked about Phil the incredible human being. Over and over. The words I heard were nice. Kind. Universally respected. Good manners. Loved. Charm. Warmth. Gentle. Unconditional love.
Nice. Not nice like, yeah, he was a nice guy. But NICE. A woman who had been with him for over 16 years at Fox and at Carolco Pictures before that said that he greeted every single employee in his division every morning when he got to work before entering his own office – every day. I got the impression this was not just a cursory hello. And that it was “required” that everyone say goodnight to him or he to them before leaving. Why? Because he genuinely thought it was important to take the time to know people and care about them and let them know that they were more than an interchangeable body at a desk. He thought it was important to treat everyone with respect, and in turn he was highly respected himself.
One person who spoke said Phil had a candy dish and found he couldn’t put it in the normal position on his desk because if his back was turned to the computer, people snuck by and took some quietly so they wouldn’t disturb him. He had to place it on his desk deep in his office behind the monitor, forcing people to actually come in and face him to take candy. In other words, human interaction was important to Phil. He was never too important or too busy.
These are all seemingly little things – good manners – hellos, goodbyes, respect, caring – that in aggregate add up to something bigger. Like ten plus ten equals twenty, the little things add up to something bigger.
The priest officiating at the service talked about the tall, quiet guy who was always helping, ushering, cleaning up, doing what needed to be done. He didn’t know his name. The tall guy didn’t require that his name be known. Of course, as the priest later learned, it was Phil. Doing the little things.
And someone spoke from Phil and Andrea’s son’s elementary school. Their son is in college now but Phil and Andrea will never be forgotten at that elementary school because apparently they have virtually created it. Andrea volunteered there when their son was a student, and when she saw a need, she told Phil, and the school would mysteriously find a new copy machine in the office, or a teacher would all of a sudden have something needed in the classroom. All done quietly without fanfare. And it continued long after their son left that school.
At the graveside service I talked to several of Phil’s colleagues and I heard the same things over and over – how absolutely incredible a person he was, how kind he was, how well respected he was, until I pictured him head and shoulders above everyone walking down the hall, and he was already tall enough to be head and shoulders above everyone.
I think I could tell you some other things about Phil too, even though no one said them. If anyone who worked with Phil is reading this, you can tell me if I’m right or not. I would guess that Phil would do anything in the office that he would ask someone else to do from making coffee to fixing a paper jam in the copy machine. I expect he would do anything he could to assist an employee in a family emergency. He probably acknowledged his employees birthdays. He was probably the first to arrive and the last to leave. All the little things that add up.
What does all this mean besides the fact that Phil Provenzale was truly one of the finest people I didn’t know? I don’t know that I could have known him. Living in a different town, even not too far away, seems like a continent when you are raising a family and then having grandchildren, working, taking care of parents – all those things that make a life.
I can, however, look at the people I know here, where I live, and ask myself if I know them. I have a feeling I may know a few too many people that I don’t know. And I can take a lesson from what made Phil so remarkable and polish up my manners. I have the inner sincerity in caring about others but I think I trend towards impatience when it comes to showing it. Or am just not present enough and forget to show it.
So then, if I can keep my head together, that’s two takeaways that will, I hope, make a difference. But there is one more. The aforementioned nugget to chew on about the arrangement of my life. My husband and I are at that stage where we thought we had made our last move but due to some recent experiences are rethinking that. And the question becomes – stay in Bakersfield or not?
The nugget to chew on is this. At the funeral, the priest talked about this regarding Phil. He talked about the impatience and impermanence of our society, our need for the next fastest computer model, the most updated phone, the bigger house, the more upscale neighborhood, and so on. He talked about the lack of roots that keep people from knowing each other through the years, neighbors getting together over time, and so forth. And he talked about Phil’s constancy. How long Phil and Andrea lived in their house without the need to move up, leading to continuity in the neighborhood and with neighbors; how they stayed committed to their son’s school long after he left and thus over time made a great difference in that school and especially its library; how a long involvement with the church made a difference there – and how all of that contributed to stability as a family.
So – leave Bakersfield someday? Maybe not. We have some roots here. Our lungs have adapted. Something to think about. We may for family reasons but it’s not a given. There are reasons for permanence.
Two takeaways and a nugget. Lots to think about, thanks to Phil. I’m glad I got to know you this much, Phil. It’s not enough, and it’s too late, but under the circumstances, it’ll have to do.