On Sympathy and Empathy: A Personal Memoir from A Dying Old Man
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You've spent years debating this moment. This tape is one of the very last things you have of him, aside from the multitude of pictures his sister gave to you. Your children are with you, but you tell them to leave you alone. This isn't something you want to share. This last piece of him. You open the box, hands shaking, and you almost drop the drive as it slides out of the box. Luckily, your hand is already at the opening. It takes you a few tries, but you get it plugged into your laptop. The folder is titled "Kira", and there's an mp4 file. It's title is simple: "I Love You".

You hesitate, finger hovering over the mouse. Do you really want to do this? If you do this, then the final nail will settle in this coffin you made for him. You thought you had sealed it, but there's still one more thing: this. Before you can think about it further, you click twice and there he is! Your father is sitting there, his eyes clear for the first time in months. He's staring directly at the camera with his long hair and neatly brushed beard, and you know he's looking at you right now.

Hey kiddo. I know it's not looking good, and I'm sorry. The old man's always been a stubborn bastard when it comes to his body, even when it's not good for him. I wanted to talk to you about this in person, but it's hard to explain, so I'm going to do it here, where I can get as close as I can.

Sympathy: "I'm sorry for your loss."
Empathy: "I know what you're going through. Do you want to talk?"

That's what my therapist told me years ago, and I never really understood that until now. What is sympathy? Sympathy is knowing what the person is going through and feeling sorry for them, a sort of pity. Most people don't want that. They want empathy. They want you to put yourself in their shoes, to really understand. Why? Why do they want this? I feel my mind spiraling as it tries to answer, flashing through my life. It lands on a memory of a friend, of someone I loved.

I was in high school, and I thought I was a good friend. All of my friends were able to come to me, and I was always there to listen. I never gave them grief, and I never told anyone else. What we talked about stayed with us. They would always say "You see that man? Alex Volen? Yeah, he saved my life. That guy was basically my therapist," and sometimes, all I did was sit there and listen to them. I embraced this role completely because it satisfied me to help my friends. I never talked to other people about my issues though, so they never really got to know me until much later.

Anyway, it was the beginning of my senior year, and I was stoked. I had just gotten my first car, the girl I was crushing on made a move, and my teachers were relaxed. When I got out of school, I went straight to work to save up for an awesome laptop. The year was starting out great.

Around mid-October, I was sitting in my car after school. It was a mostly sunny day, but the forecast had been predicting rain. I could feel the coming storm in the air. I sighed, savored the fresh, crisp taste of the air before the storm, and startled when someone knocked on my passenger side window. It was a girl that I had noticed in my art class. She was really good at designing settings for characters, but she didn't like drawing characters. I loved drawing characters, but I was never really good with drawing the background. I gave her my characters and an idea of what I wanted the setting to be like, and it always turned out amazing. Sometimes, she'd give me this setting and this story that she was working on, but she needed the characters, amd maybe some personal stories for those characters. I thrived on character creation, so I was happy to provide. She would usually have this small smile on her lips just sitting there, as if waiting to leap into a beautiful grin. That smile was gone, and I could see tears falling down her face. I rolled down my passenger window to greet her.

"Hey, what's up?" My therapist voice had already kicked in. This was odd, since we had't had more than two meaningful conversations at that time. I barely knew her on a personal level.

"Can we talk?" Her voice was soft and quiet, but I felt the hoarseness of her tears in her words. I immediately unlocked the door and she stepped in. She sat down and rolled up her window. I did the same to mine and then she tried to apologize.

"I know you have work later, and I'm really sorry for bothering you, but-" I held up my hand and pulled out my phone.

I called my boss and told him I needed to take the day off. I was apologizing profusely when he interrupted me.

"Shut it. Listen, you haven't taken any days off, and you work hard. I'll be okay about the last-minute notice this time. Whatever it is, I hope you're good."

I dipped my head in thanks, even though he couldn't see me. Force of habit. "Thank you sir."

He hung up without a word. I looked at my friend crying in the seat next to me and set my phone down.

"What's going on?" I asked.

She tried to collect herself, fell apart, and tried again. When she managed to put enough pieces together, she looked at me. I could see the grief, pain, and anger in her eyes as clearly as you hear my voice, Maya. It was thick enought that I could have probably cut it if I wanted.

"I just got the news an hour ago. Mom got in an accident with a semi-truck," she whispered. I had turned my car off, so her breath was the loudest sound there. I felt my heart freeze for a moment before thawing and continuing its daily journey of pumping my vital force throughout the vascular tunnels of my body.

"Oh shit," was all I could say. "What's the situation right now?"

"She's in ICU and they're doing emergency surgery. I don't know if-" Her phone rang, the startlingly loud sound interrupting her. Panicked, she fished it out of her jacket, dropped it, and picked it up again.

She looked at the the number and gasped. "It's the hospital!" The line went dead for a moment before ringing again. "Yes?" She answered nervously, her voice barely above a whisper.

I heard the voice over the phone speak. "Is this Maya Carmin?"

"Yes. How is my mother?"

"I'm sorry," is all he said before Maya dropped her phone.

"Ma'am? Ma'am, are you okay?" The operator's voice was panicked.

I saw my hand move almost of its own volition to pick up the phone. I turned down the volume so only I could hear what was about to be said.

"She's okay, ish. She's sitting down."

"Okay, what's her behavior?"

I glanced at her and answered truthfully. "She's just sitting there, staring off into space. She's really pale."

"Okay, I want you to stay with her until a medic can get to her."

I hissed at him under my breath. "Ella no necesita una ambulancia, ella necesita un amigo." The Spanish that Mom worked so hard to teach me, the Spanish I cultivated for her, slipped out as my emotions ramped up.

"Erm, what was that?"

I sigh in exasperation. "Just confirm it for me. How is her mom?"

"She passed about five minutes before we called her."

My vision went dark as I processed this. She's not recovering from this easily. It took me ten years before I could even begin to heal from my mom's death, and even then, I still hadn't fully healed. Every time I thought about her, my chest felt like a two ton weight settled on it. The clouds were gathering quickly. It looked like the meteorologists were right.

All I said was "I see. Thank you." before I hung up. I set the phone down on the center console between us and stared at it. I'm not sure how long we just sat there, but it felt like a lifetime before Maya spoke.

"Hey, Alex?"


"Can we go to the hospital?"

"Sí." I turned on the car and shifted it into gear, pulling out of the lot to head out.

We arrived at the hospital and headed inside. My mind was flashing back to the time my mom had gotten sick. It came so fast. We came to this very hospital and checked in at this very counter. It was even the same receptionist, and though I hadn't seen her since that day, she recognized me and waved a little. The doctors could barely cure her, and she came out of it physically weak. One day, she was walking to the kitchen to get some water. We had told her not to do that; she wasn't steady enough to walk yet. As she turned the corner, her legs gave out and she hit her head hard on the edge of the counter. She was rushed to the hospital again, but she died before they got there. They couldn't bring her back.

I spiraled into a constant litany of guilt and grief. I blamed myself for not being at home. I could have gotten her the water if I was there. Maybe I could have been her support if I was there. I would have understood if she wanted to walk on her own. It took me years to get out of that place, but even at the age I was, I still hadn't fully processed my guilt.

Walking inside with Maya felt a lot like that trip. I knew at that time how she felt, but more importantly, I subconsciously knew what she needed. She needed someone who understood and would, no, could actually be there for her. Sure, her dad would be there for her, but his pain wasn't really the same. I realized something else years later, the day you were born. I was in that situation myself. I would be the one to be there for her. As we left the elevator to head to her mom's room, she stopped in the middle of the cold, cruel halls of the place where death was familiar. I just put my arm around her shoulder and held her while she wept.

Maya turned out to be as wonderful a woman as I had ever come to know. We spent more time together and got to know each other better. We went to the same college under two different majors, and we fell in love.

That woman became my wife when I was 23, as I'm sure we told you hundreds of times, and we had 48 wonderfully happy years together. She died a few years ago, but I'm not sad right now. We're old, and I'm dying too. We'll see each other again, but not yet.

How did she fall for me? It was "empathy". I knew what she was going through, and I didn't pity her. She wouldn't want that.

You see, we told you that we met in high school, which is true. High school sweetheart and all that. We never told you how we really met though. Never told you how we began to know each other as more than simple acquaintances or art collaborators. We never told you about the last few months of high school. I don't have time to tell you about those months right now. I'll tell you one day, after we all reunite.

Do you know what "sympathy" is? It's nothing more than pity to me, and I despise it. Pity is feeling sorry for someone, but not really doing anything about it. If you aren't going to actually go through it with someone, then why the hell are you even their friend? ¡Es absurdo!

*The video is interrupted as Mr. Volen started to cough uncontrollably. The video cuts to Mr. Volen sitting calmly in bed. The clock on the wall shows that two hours have passed.*

Sorry. I gardened a lot, and the radon messed with me pretty bad. Lung cancer's a real bitch, ain't it? I can't take those pain meds or I wouldn't be able to do this for you.

Anyway, that time I spent hacking my lungs out was also spent thinking. I know what to tell you next.

It was five years after we got married. My family, some friends, and I were gathered on the 25th anniversary of my mother's death. We were in someone's living room. I don't remember whose but it doesn't matter. The white carpet was freshly cleaned, and the room smelled of upholstery cleaner. They had spent a lot of time cleaning Mark's house. That's whose home it was!

Anyway, the walls were a sort of cream color, and everything was hung meticulously. A well-stocked, polished oak bar was set up against the eastern wall. Obviously, that was the main attraction, as is often the case when dealing with death. Most of us had been doing a some drinking. Some didn't drink, while others had very little, and others decided to get hammered. As it happened, one of the more drunk ones piped up.

"You know, I used ta date her. Yer mom, I mean."

"'Scuse me?" In my mind, I thought "Oh great. This guy again." I'm pretty sure the only reason he showed up was to drink, but he was decent enough. I talked with him several times over the last few years, as he had his own happy marriage. I went to him for a bit of advice, and after that, we became friends. I noticed that he drank a lot though, and that concerned me. I confronted him once about it, but it fizzled out. Obviously, he didn't take my advice.

"Yeah. Back in high school. God, she was tha most gorgeous ting you'd ever seen. She was smart, funny, and she could dance like no othah. Course, it helped that she had a nice ass too."

I clenched my fist, but I wondered if he was going somewhere with this.

"I miss her, ya know. You know my wife, right? Charlene?"

"Sí. I remember her. I noticed she's not here?"

"Ah, I asked her not ta come. I married her anyway cause she reminded me of your mom. Smart, yeah. Good ass, yeah. She can dance too. We dated for a while, your mom and I. Best years ever. I miss Iselda."

"If you have a point, get to it." My voice was quiet, almost a growl. What does this fucker think he's doing at my mother's funeral anniversary? I was going to stay calm though. I didn't want to kick a family friend out. My wife touched my shoulder, and my heart stilled a little at her touch. Who knew that just five years later, she would bring you into the world? Mi hermosa joya, mi hija. I'm still eternally grateful to her for that. This man, though, made me angry.

"Yeah, we dated, but then, your fatha came round. He got her almost like that!" he snapped his fingers to solidify his point. "Man, we coulda made it if he weren't there. I shoulda bumped her when I got tha chance, even if she didn't much like it."

"GET OUT!!!"

I'm shaking at this point. I pointed at the door and said, "Get. Out." When he didn't move, I yelled, "Now!"

"I'm sorry. I do miss her, but ain't these events here meant ta remember her?" he asked. Maya had already snatched the glass from his hand, and he was grabbing at her, trying to get it back. She slapped him, and all he could do for a moment was stare at her, stunned, until I pushed him to the floor and spoke very quietly.

"Not like this, Jason. You remember her as something like a whore. No. You wanna remember how the rest of us remember her? We remember her as a mother, a friend, a daughter, a wife. Not a woman someone almost fucked."

"Ah, at least someone remembered her for shomething they tought was important ta how they knew her," he spat into my face. I didn't even bother wiping the spit away. "That's the only reason I married my wife. She reminded me of your mother, and I remind her of that every day. That's how much I miss that woman."

"If you think that was important, you need to get the fuck out now."

"Fine. Just don't come cryin' ta me when you need some marriage talks."

"You don't need to worry about that."

He stormed out and slammed the door behind him, never looking back. Only then did I wipe his spit from my face and take off my overshirt. I stripped from that shirt into my T-shirt like I stripped him from my life.

I never saw that man until his divorce. He had crossed a line that should never have been crossed. I forgave him, but I never wanted to see him again. He felt sorry for us and had said as much, but he never really understood. He was my dad's friend, not her's. His wife divorced him when you were 3. It was really messy, but she had had enough of the constant battering of her emotions. We helped her out, especially since we had secretly made her your godmother. I went to war a little after that, and we were distant when you were a teenager. I had new problems I had to work through, and Mom was my therapist this time. She was damn good at it, and I'm really glad too.

Ah, well. That doesn't matter. I kept tabs on Jason, and saw that he died about thirty years ago. It was anaphylactic shock. He had a major allergy to bees. His daughter's doing okay. You and her got really close, so I decided to build up a good relationship with her. What am I saying, you got married to her! I remember when I found out you were lesbian. I just said "So, you like women, eh?"

You said "Yeah."

I grinned and replied "Nice. Yo también," and we had a good dinner that night. Lisa is a good woman. I'm glad she's my daughter. When I heard you were going to adopt a baby girl, I knew how my dad felt when I told him he was going to be a grandfather. I was overjoyed, and I saved up all my money so I could spoil her rotten. When I told him this, he laughed for a long time and said "See? Now we understand each other a little better. Now let this old man sleep happy."

Those were the last words he spoke to me. I got a call that next morning: Dad passed in his sleep. He still had a smile on his face when they found him.

What can any of you listening to this old man get from this? Sympathy and empathy are two different, very real things. Empathy is truly understandng what a person is feeling. Sympathy is just knowing that a person is going through something and feeling sorry for them; however, you don't put yourself in their shoes. You don't understand that no one wants pity. It truly saddens me when I see people who still think that. I'm glad you took that lesson to heart and never forgot it, even now, when I'm teaching my daughter about it even though she knows damn good and well the difference.

*a voice in the background says something unintelligible*

Sí, I'm ready. She's in the next room?

*a short reply*

Okay. Bring her in here. And can you pause it while I'm talking to her? Thanks.

*A woman steps into the room and hugs Alex fiercely.*

*the video abruptly switches to nighttime. the clock reads over eight hours later.*

That was you. That's the last time we'll ever speak honey. I hope this helps. Miss, could you bring me some water?

*A short woman brings a cup with a straw to Alex.*


*Mr. Volen sips from it deeply and sighs.*

That's nice. Been dying for that for a while now.

*He laughs bitterly and coughs a little before suppressing it.*

Not now, dammit! I'm sorry. It's gotten bad. All these damn machines pumping oxygen into me don't do my throat any favors. I just wanted to say I'm proud of you and the woman you've become.

*A few minutes pass, and the only noise is his breathing.*


*A female voice responds in the background.*

I'm ready. Get me out of this damn thing.

*The doctor detaches all the tubes, and Alex coughs for a few minutes.*

*a door closes; Alex sighs*

Well, it's about time. I told them I didn't want to die as a wretch. I guess it's my pride, but I want to keep my dignity. I'm going to see Maya now. Goodby Kira. I hope you understand why I'm giving you these messages. Live a good life and face others with empathy. Give this to your children when they grow up, and let them know. Goodbye.

*He pauses and speaks again, barely audible.*

I love you.

*a flatline tone is heard for twenty seconds; a doctor steps forward and shuts the monitor down; hushed voices are overlapping each other before someone clicks the recorder off*

*the video goes black*

You're sobbing uncontrollably, tears soaking your shirt as you finally let him go. It's been seven years since he died, and that last nail is finally hammered into place. The force of it sends earthquakes across your heart as you mourn him anew.

Dad. I miss you so much.

Lisa, your beautiful, strong wife, comes in and sits next to you, holding you tightly in her arms.

Never let me go.

You rest your head on her shoulder and stay like that for hours before you can rise and go into your garden. This piece of him is your way of honoring him. Your garden, your sanctuary. It's beautiful, and you take a pink rose, his favorite, and you save it to be pressed.

Now, I can let him go. I really am glad he gave me this gift. My father. Even now, in the grave, you can cut to the deepest part of my soul and show me something new about myself. I guess that's why they always called you the mind reader.

You laugh and head back inside to make dinner.

Goodbye. Te amo, papá.

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