If foresight had the same brilliant clarity exhibited by hindsight, I would've handled the whole thing differently. Instead, the phone call I got the other day went something like this:
"Hello," I said.
"Hey, did you hear about Don?" said my long-time beer-drinking buddy.
"No, what about Don?" I replied, fiddling with the remote to my television.
"Don died," he said simply.
"Ha-ha," I retorted, reflecting on our macabre tendency to forecast which among our common acquaintances would go at any given time.
"No, really," he persisted, prompting me to question the veracity of this information by citing certain non-flattering aspects of his ancestry. He wasn't laughing.
"You're not kidding?" I finally realized that he wasn't playing a clever game, that maybe Don really had died.
"Nope—he had a heart attack or something," he said. "Just stopped living."
I had to admit at this point that there wasn't much that could be funny about our good friend, just a few years older than us in his late 40s, dying so unexpectedly. My beer-drinking buddy related to me the chain of events as he understood it, and I thanked him for calling. When I hung up the phone, I thought of two things: Is my black suit clean, and what's Don's wife going to do now?
I suppose our reeling craniums undergo all sorts of strange changes when confronted with previously unimaginable information, but rarely as much as when somebody we know dies suddenly and unexpectedly. Some of the thoughts that first go through the brain are quite selfish and inappropriate. In this case, I first wondered what would happen to an old car of Don's that I'd always envied. Filled with instantaneous self-loathing, I instead thought about his wife, a laughter-filled woman whom I couldn't imagine having to deal with such grief.
Men are awkward creatures when it comes to newborns, hospitals and grieving women; we never seem to know how to act around any of them. So, in a bizarre form of male consolation, I punched the numbers on the phone to call a friend of Don's wife instead of calling Don's wife. She was very somber, of course, but was able to fill in a bunch of details without the tainted spin of personal loss. Of course, she being a woman and thus so much more in touch with her sense of social etiquette, said, "You really should go see her."
I would rather shove bamboo splints under my toenails. I would rather smear my body with bacon fat and sleep naked in the forest. I would rather hold up a placard reading, "Iron my shirt, bitch," at an equal rights rally. But forces were aligning against my selfish desire to avoid confronting my emotions, and I was running out of ways to avoid doing the right thing. Personally, if my spouse died unexpectedly, I wouldn't want my house filling up with friends and family eager for quality time. (Hell, I don't even want that at Thanksgiving, but I have little choice.) But there are certain rules in society, certain protocols that mustn't be violated for fear of complete and total societal breakdown. Consoling the dearly departed is one of these mandatory social obligations.
So I screwed my courage to its sticking place and called Don's house. Surprisingly, his wife answered the phone, and I recognized her voice immediately. She was always a cheerful, chipper lady, and her voice amazingly had that same sunny quality. I was taken aback, but did not lose sight of the gravity of the call. Immediately, the facade cracked, and I could hear a bottomless black grief in her voice. My heart immediately began breaking, and I knew I was going to have to be strong and brief, providing support before I betrayed my own weakness. I offered her anything and everything, including stuff I probably don't even have anymore, but I would manufacture out of dirt and spit if needed. After I hung up, and felt the long-absent sting of tears in my eyes, and I knew that far from being ridiculous, it instead showed the essence of our common humanity. Grief is a common burden.
The same night that I got the call from my beer-drinking buddy about Don, I was later practicing my normal tucking-in duties with my 10-year-old daughter, who had known Don, too. She has yet to suffer any real loss in her life greater than an impromptu goldfish funeral we held in the flowerbed a few years back, and that's a good thing. As she lay there in bed, with her favorite Barbie clutched tightly to her cheek and her blankets pulled up to her ears, she told me that it was sad about Don. I agreed, but I told her that life would be sadder without the people like Don in our lives. Each of us is a collection of the people we meet in our lives, and we take a little bit with them with us wherever we go. I told her that, just like a friend we make in school and lose track of over time, we always remember the people in our lives, and whether we know it or not, we adopt just a little bit of them into us, to become a part of who we are. As long as we remember Don, he will always live, at least in our minds.
This brought a smile to her face and eased her mind, and I realized
as I kissed her forehead, that it eased mine as well.