Friday, May 4, 2007

Other people's pain

I got a phone call yesterday. My cell showed a number I didn't know, but I picked it up anyway. The caller, whose voice I didn't recognize, spoke in the language of the Old Country. A second later he introduced himself-- Glen, my first crush, which (said crush, on him) I acquired at the ripe old age of 7. And yes, I do realize that Monkey is mere two years away from that particular age, the age at which I thought of myself as rather grown up and very, I mean very mature. Thanks for reminding me. No, this does not unsettle me. Why do you ask?

Moving right along. I knew that Glen's family lives in Another Big City-- my mom found them a few years back, and has talked to them and even visited with them on one of her many business trips (yes, our parents were friends in the Old Country). I think that's when I talked to Glen for the first and only time since leaving the Old Country-- my mom thought it would be a good idea to ring me up while she was right there with them-- and learned that they had a little girl a few weeks younger than Monkey. I felt a bit awkward through that conversation, but it was pleasant enough, and we ended it with me promising that if we are ever in Another Big City, we will call them up and come for a visit, and, I believe, vice versa.

So Glen called yesterday morning, and I invited him over for dinner. I was surprisingly calm. By which I mean I was not in the full freak-out mode. But I did worry, on slow boil, about whether he is a nice person now, about whether my house is sufficiently clean, and whether I have enough food for entertaining. I was anxious, though, about whether he knew. He didn't say anything on the phone, and I didn't remember my mom telling me she spoke to his parents since A died. Quick phone call to mom confirmed that she didn't, and so he wouldn't know. New worry-- do I bring it up? Would he ask me whether we are thinking of having another kid? Do I just not say anything?

Guess what? He is a very nice guy. If he lived here, we would probably be close friends. They have another little girl now. We looked at each other's pictures, talked about jobs, vacations, Old Country, soccer. JD liked him-- when Glen stepped out for a minute, JD said that I have good taste. I liked him too. And you know what? Not at any point did he ask why we are not having another kid, or even if we are thinking about it. Not even when discussing our nannies. Not even when we gave him the tour of the house and he saw a clearly freshly painted and clearly underutilized baby room. I do have good taste, don't I?

I began to think I would probably not bring it up. I didn't see how to even say it. "Would you like another piece of cake? And by the way, our baby died." Our mothers will obviously talk now that we met, and my mom will tell his mom. And then the conversation jumped from my grad school research interests (many moons ago) to his mother's diabetes, and how she is doing with it. And then he said "Dad died, though."

"Sorry" was all I managed.

It's been about two years now, Glen said, lung cancer. That's when he went gray and lost his hair. His brother was still very young, he said, and living at home. Still does.

You know what I did? I asked about Glen's brother, and then didn't come back to the topic of his dad. That's right-- I suck. I didn't ask how his mom was doing with it, or him, or his older daughter. I didn't ask how they did through his dad's sickness. Yeah, I suck.

It was getting pretty late by then. Glen invited us to come visit them. I told him about A, and he didn't say anything stupid. We exchanged complete sets of coordinates, said our goodbyes, and promised to keep in touch.

I called my mom this morning and I told her Glen's dad died. She was really shaken. She couldn't believe it's been over two years since she last spoke to Glen's mom. She started crying, and remembering all these things about Glen's family and his dad. I felt even worse for being such an ass yesterday. My mom said she will call Glen's mom a little later. I called again a few hours later, and she told me she can't call-- she is too shaken and needs a few days before she would be able to call.

All of a sudden I realized I wanted to call Glen's mom myself, which is unusual, because I don't tend to voluntarily call people who I am not close to. I called, and we talked for a while. She is just not the same. She seems a lot older than she actually is, her cadences, the ways she talks, things she focuses on-- all are more like my grandmother's than like my mother's. Is that because they are both widows?

I feel better having called, but I still feel shitty about yesterday. Am I not supposed to be good at this now? Am I not supposed to know what to say to people in pain? I guess I thought that somewhere among the mountains of booklets and paperwork with which we got discharged from the hospital, they issued me one of those all-purpose grief access badges. So why did I choke? I think I would know what to do if someone told me they've lost a child. Why then did I blow it so badly when it was about a parent?


slouching mom said...

Oh, oh. I think you're being a little hard on yourself here. Why does having lost a baby automatically mean that you have to do better than any of the rest of us at navigating the tricky terrain of other people's losses?

Be kind to yourself. How nice to find an old/new friend! That doesn't happen often.

Bon said...

i relate to what you're saying here...i too have higher expectations in regard to my responses to other people's grief since Finn died, because i loathe the awkwardness and silence that surrounds statements about death in our society. but sometimes i completely crash and burn, trip on my tongue, and avoid...and then i realize once again why people are so tongue-tied around my loss, so afraid to cause pain by "bringing it up."

courage to approach others' sadness seems to be a lesson i need to keep learning and learning all over again.

Aurelia said...

I've had this happen many times. You aren't supposed to know automatically.

That said, I've now memorized some generic things to say when someone tells me something sad like this, so I don't get all tongue-tied. And I'm teaching my sons some basic stuff, like, "I'm sorry for your loss." I'm just awkward generally, and if I have something proper to blurt out it gets me over the hump.

niobe said...

It's a little hard to tell from your description of the conversation, but sometimes people when conveying bad news give off very strong signals that they Do Not Want To Talk About It. I know I do.

Could it be that the reason you didn't inquire further was that you could tell, subconsciously, at least, that Glen was uncomfortable with discussing his father's death at length? In which case, you didn't do anything wrong at all.

Lori said...

I agree that you can't be too hard on yourself. Handling loss is tricky, which is why I have always tried to extend a certain amount of grace when people have tripped all over themselves trying to say something in response to my losses.

But I also understand your frustration with yourself. I continue to be very disappointed with myself in my inability to cope well with my mother's sadness over my dad's death. This is terrible, but I would really prefer not to talk about it with her at all. I do talk about it with her, but I am always uncomfortable and even find myself trying to change the subject. Awful, awful, awful.