26 April 2007

Delivering the News

9:30 Sunday night; a knock at the door. “Who’s there?” I call cautiously.


Hoping that his response is true (I live alone), I open the door a crack. An attractive man is standing at my door, looking at his notes.

“Do you know where 7465 is?” he asks, adding my neighbor’s last name. His badge reads “Coroner.”

Coroner. Wait. “Did someone die?”

“Yes.” And he names the woman across the street. Did I know her? Yes. Would I come with him while he breaks the news? “It’s easier on the family if someone they know is there when they hear it.” Okay.

On the ride over (it’s up a drive that’s hard to find for the first time in the dark), I tell him a bit about the woman and family, and he tells me what happened. Evidently she failed to negotiate a curve on 299, drove over the bank and died.

Gone. One moment here, then not.

The lights are on in the open garage, so I call. “Steve? Steve?” He comes out of the house, followed by his 16-year-old daughter, Suzanne.

“Steve, this is Frank Yaeger. He came to my house looking for you.”

Frank speaks. “Carol’s been in an accident. She’s dead.”

And Steve crumbles, catches himself on a nearby sawhorse, clings to it for support. Suzanne stands within hearing distance at the deck’s edge, still as a statue. Steve manages to bark out a few questions, stunned, shocked. How did this happen. When did this happen. Were there witnesses. Where is she. Frank kindly answers each matter-of-factly, then goes to his truck to get the phone number of the investigating police officer.

I stand helpless, witnessing, not knowing what to do, wanting to cry, too. Because now Steve and Suzanne are sobbing, holding each other. You couldn’t write a more moving scene if you tried.

And this is the crux of my story. Their story is the sudden loss of a loved one – I’m only a bit player in their drama, a one-line extra during the Delivering the News scene.

And yet, I can’t shake the trauma. Seeing Steve’s face, knowing how close they all were. (Even at 16, Suzanne was always hanging on her mother’s arm, cuddling up to her.) I keep seeing Carol, alive and happy – always cheerful and generous. How can Carol be gone? I feel like I’ve woken up in an alternate universe, a nightmarish mimicry of my normal life. And if I’m feeling this way, I can only imagine how Carol’s family feels.

Mostly, though, I feel powerless to relieve their pain. Because I had to leave for a business trip on Tuesday morning, (presenting at the national organizers’ conference) and because I have no cultural training on how to deal with death.

Turns out I’m not alone. Speaking with my neighbors (the coroner said I should let them know), we all feel helpless. What should we do? Seems to me, when we lived in communities – small towns, churches – the women moved naturally into proper action. One would’ve put on a pot of coffee, another would’ve picked up the phone. Casseroles would arrive, the pastor would be called… We’d know who the pastor was, for Christ’s sake.

I left them a card and told them when I’d be away, and that Melinda and I both had keys to their house and could do cat and chicken care if they needed. Teresa made a stroganoff to take to them. And Pam called a friend who attends their old church, found out when and where the funeral will be and disseminated the information among the neighbors. But there should be more we can do, shouldn’t there? Something we can do to hold Steve and Suzanne through their pain?

As I drove off Tuesday morning, I looked up at their house. It was a perfect morning: clear blue skies, fresh green pastures, everything in flower – heaven on earth. Steve and Suzanne sat silently side-by-side at the end of their porch, staring across the valley. Their grief was palpable; it slammed into my heart.

In The Mermaid Chair, Sue Monk Kidd writes, “There’s release in knowing the truth no matter how anguishing it is. You come finally to the irreducible thing, and there’s nothing left to do but pick it up and hold it. Then, at least, you can enter the severe mercy of acceptance.”

Carol’s gone.

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