There is a context for everything.
In the months since Elena has died, friends and co-workers have lost parents, siblings, and spouses. I tell them how sorry I am and they always respond the same way. “It’s nothing like your loss.”
True. But not in the way that they mean it.
Nobody’s loss is like anyone else’s. Losing a child is unnatural. There has been nothing worse in my life. But that doesn’t make your loss any less painful to you.
I was leaving the Arabica Coffee House the other day when a man in a Santa hat came up to me. “You don’t recognize me,” he said.
As soon as he spoke I knew who he was. I’m much better with voices than faces – and besides I hadn’t really looked closely at his face. I was busy taking in the Marine Corp insignia on his jacket coupled with the red Santa hat with white trim.
It was Rich. I’ve known him for twenty-five years. Ever since I taught with his wife at Laurel School for girls. I see him maybe once or twice a year and usually at this Arabica.
“I’ve been playing Santa over at Legacy on weekends,” he said. He didn’t really have the physique that you associate with Santa, but he was perfect in every way that mattered. Always a smile. Leans forward when you talk. Always asks how you are in a way that conveys that he really wants to know. And so it was clear where we were heading in our conversation.
“How have you been?” he asked. “I haven’t seen you in a year.”
I paused. And then I told him. I still feel funny about telling people. I don’t know if they know or not and don’t know what they’ll say.
“When?” he asked. “When and, if you don’t mind, how?”
I paused. And then I told him. He’d been away for three months at the beginning of the year doing some work in Africa. He told me that his daughter, a former student of mine, had just had a miscarriage. I was sad for her and told him so.
He didn’t say the usual meaningless things. He put his hand on my arm and looked me in the eye and said, “people will tell you that they know what you’re going through. They don’t. They can’t.”
It was surprisingly reassuring to hear this said out loud.
“No one knows but you and Kim.”
I thanked him. It’s true. I don’t really feel the depth of your loss. I can’t. I think I know what it feels like, but I don’t.
I got home and took out the stationery that Kim had left for me several days earlier to write to a colleague. She had lost her husband suddenly. He had died of a heart attack while they were out taking a walk. I can’t imagine the pain of losing a spouse. I look at Kim and just can’t imagine the hole in my life without her.
I was able to write the note without any comparison in my head of my colleague’s loss to mine. My loss is not greater. My loss is just mine.
Such a wonderful gift from an old friend in a Santa hat.