Condolence Calling

Condolence Calling
by Susan T. Lindau

Dressing for these occasions is important. Appearances convey as much about the sincerity of sympathy as actual words can. Do I have the Mapquest directions and the condolence note written with sincerity on that nice paper from the Huntington Library? And don’t forget to leave time for getting lost.

Getting lost, missing the turn, forgetting to make a telephone call or to get gas—there’s always something. I’m so busy some things just don’t make it onto the must-do list. But when I read the e-mail from the synagogue saying Deborah’s husband had died I knew I had to make this visit.

Now driving to Pasadena I’m thinking about how to avoid getting lost. There are too many streets named Prospect – Drive, Circle, and Way and all those others. Don’t think about Stan’s heart. Must have given out taking care of such a large guy. He was really sweet. Even sang in the High Holy Days choir and he had a good sense of humor—a much-valued trait in these days of constant dark news.

The directions look easy. Not all one-way streets with parking only on one side. The house numbers? Of course they’re all the way down there on the curb. Should I walk in the street to look for the number, or on the sidewalk? Maybe one of the houses has numbers.

These people look like they’ve just left the widow’s house. The man in the black suit, putting away his cell phone, looks at me and, pointing to the driveway at the next house, says, “Deborah’s all the way in the back.”

There are other people leaving the house at which he pointed. The men are wearing somber suits and each of the women is dressed in a tasteful form of black attire. They are on cell phones or thumbing their BlackBerrys to learn what they missed while paying their respects. One of the women shows her own personal version of sober apparel. She is clothed in an outfit that falls into the “gypsy” category: a big, crinkle skirt with a flowered top. And each piece is black.

The back yard is busy with quietly chatting friends gathered around the widow. That must be Deborah. I thought she had more meat on her bones. Other members of the congregation are surveying and making selections from the food tables. Funeral meats are always an excellent reward for performing grievance duties. These meats are actually vegetarian. The clustered mourners hold conversations about subjects that are pointedly unrelated to the deceased, his life or his widow.

I stand listening as Deborah describes in full detail the last hours with her beloved husband. They had spent the day planning where their sons would spend the summer. “With your mom in Massachusetts?” and “What about a few weeks at Camp Ramah?” they pondered.

She describes how he got up to go to the bathroom off their bedroom. When he returns to bed, she arranges the pillows the way he likes them. He tells her he’s ready to sleep. She kisses him and turns out the light. She leaves him and goes to the next room to watch an old movie.

It’s about midnight when she returns to their bedroom. She’s relieved to hear him breathing softly. About 7 the next morning she awakes. She sees he has not moved. She checks his pulse. It has happened. After the diagnosis, the deterioration and the loss of mobility, after the months of weakening, losing weight and growing old, he is gone. She is relieved. “It was a good death.”

None of this sounds like the man for whom I had come to pay my respects. I am looking for at least one person I know who would also be at this condolence visit.

“I’m so sorry,” I tell Deborah. “He was a lovely person. And such a nice voice.”

She looks confused. “He didn’t sing.”

“But didn’t he…”

I look up. There, across the yard, is Stan. Not dead. How can it be that I paid a condolence call to the wrong widow named Deborah? Stan’s alive. Who died? Fortunately, I don’t say these words aloud.

I really must get to know the people at my synagogue.
© Copyright 2009 Susan T. Lindau. All rights reserved.

Susan T. Lindau is a licensed therapist who practices in Los Angeles and has taken assignments at military bases to work with soldiers and their families. Her blog is called “The Therapist of Last Resort.”

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