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Three hours

Yesterday, during my office hours, my office mate Roman was also holding his. Roman is first generation American (his parents both emigrating from Mexico before he was born), raised Mormon, and grew up in southern California. We were sitting there, he checking his email, me grading papers, doing that before I turned on the computer, since I know what a brain suck that can be. He turned his desk chair so it faced me and said, "Can I ask you a question?"

"This has come up before when we've gotten one of those 'sad news' emails, but, well, I just don't understand what exactly is "calling hours" and how does one behave...what does one do?"
What followed was a conversation where he learned about mourning customs and public bereavement here in the Northeast, and I learned about how things are done in the Southwest, or, as he put it, "at least, in California." And then a bit about how things are done in Catholic Mexican immigrant families (some of his childhood friends). And since I'd used Morguhn's service as an example, what is specific to a Mason's service and burial, which led to what is specific to a Mormon rite.

I think we tend to assume that we "know how it's done," if we're "American," but as we both learned--we don't. I think you just do the best you can, and hope you're getting it right.

And then Roman told me about the specific email that had led to his original question.

Ever since I've been on the faculty, one of the most kind, supportive colleagues I've had is Tim. He's one of the dramatically oversized people who elicits the "Oh, Tim, please lose some weight--we don't want to lose you" kind of thought in those he works with. But, of course, he never does. When his middle daughter, Elizabeth, was working on her nursing degree he put us in contact because she was doing a paper on fairy tales, and he knew I did a focused unit on fairy tales and asked if I could help her.

About two years before Morguhn died, he lost his wife, Susan. Susan had been ill for many years, in ways that traumatized her family, that exhausted Tim, and broke everyone's heart. She fought her demons for years, but finally she lost her battle. When Morguhn died Tim didn't come to the calling hours, but after I came back to work, he stopped and talked to me, calmly, with compassion and the kind of understanding I needed. "No one else 'gets it,' Rosemary, except those who have gone through it. I didn't, before I lost Susan. No one can say anything to make it better. But I get it." And we walked our separate ways, on to our classes.

Tim retired last month. Between his time as a public school teacher, and his time at the college, he had more than his 30 years in. He'd met someone, a wonderful guy who lives down near Ithaca, and was moving down there, and teaching online as an adjunct retired faculty for MV. He'd finished improving his house, so Elizabeth would have a warm, safe home to live in, as she was going to stay in the house they were sharing; his last chick to leave the nest was going to keep the nest he was leaving. He looked so good last month--his color good, a spring in his step to the extent his health allows.

Sunday, Elizabeth complained that she wasn't feeling too well. When she woke up Monday morning she was feeling even worse, frighteningly worse. Tim drove her to the hospital.

Three hours later she was dead.

Pulmonary embolism.

I went to the calling hours today. I knew, given when I could be there, that I would miss all the MVCC people, who would be there in the first hour. But Tim is one of those people who just wrapped himself around my heart, and I needed to go. So I went.

I knew no one. I stood there, after looking at the photographs of the girl I only knew through emails, of their family, intact. At adults I knew must be his children, but who I didn't know, and didn't know me. So I went and stood where Tim could see me, and listened as he talked to others. "About the only thing that could have been faster is if she'd been hit by a bus," he said with the wry humor that is actually a substitute for wails of grief. And then a pause. A look down. "I...don't know....I'll still processing Susan's death..." in a slightly puzzled, lost voice, still with all the music it always carries, but in a minor, diminished key. He held out his hand, and I took it. He squeezed it hard, as he kept talking to the people I didn't know. I leaned over and laid my cheek against his and kissed it. Then I stood, gave his hand another squeeze, and then left. I didn't say a word, and neither did he.

At times like these, I think you just do the best you can, and hope you're getting it right.



( 7 comments — Leave a comment )
Jun. 23rd, 2011 09:30 pm (UTC)
You got it as right as it can be when things are wrong. There is no doubt he appreciated it.
Jun. 23rd, 2011 09:40 pm (UTC)
I am so sorry. Sometimes, the vicarious form of grieving is more powerful than the first person form. But it is the first person's understanding that matters most. Your actions will carry with him, you were there.
Jun. 23rd, 2011 09:52 pm (UTC)
Jun. 23rd, 2011 10:48 pm (UTC)
After Vietnam I was doing some serious grieving and dealing with (what I learned later was) PTSD when I received a card from a very close, very dear friend which quoted Henry David Thoreau, "The most I can do for my friend is simply be his friend." Those words have said it better than anything else when I've had to try to help others through their own moments of grief. To me it still says it all.

You have always been on that list.
Jun. 24th, 2011 08:48 am (UTC)
First, good for you. Second, sometimes, there's just no words. Well done.
Jun. 24th, 2011 01:42 pm (UTC)
Oh, my dear. What a terrible loss for your friend. But what a wonderful response on your part.

Sometimes the best thing is not to speak, but to just be there, and hold someone's hand.

Jun. 24th, 2011 05:54 pm (UTC)
I agree with sillyviking. While expressions of grief can vary because of social morays and norms, they are all constructs to help us to, well, if not get it right at then least not get it wrong.

But the point is to "get it"

Babe, you get it, and you write about it so movingly that I teared up reading this.

Well done.
( 7 comments — Leave a comment )