Her mother is sobbing next to her. She is in shock, stoic. First in the elevator going down, and then at the curbside waiting for the hospital valet to bring around the station wagon, people come up to her mother to say they will pray for her. They assume it is her mother’s loss, not hers. She’s not sure why the loss feels proprietary to her — she isn’t the only one who loves him.
Her mother asks if she should drive but she wants to drive, she needs some semblance of control. It is a surreal trip home. She is driving away from him. She will never see him again.
The morning after in their Oak Park bungalow, she steps barefoot softly across the creaky wood floors, wanting to prolong the babies slumber. It is a gentle summer morning — sun shining but the air still crisp from the night before. The world seems to be moving in slow motion. Colors muted. Sounds unclear, hazy from a distance. Did it really happen?
She hears footsteps on the front porch, a pause as if someone is standing there deciding whether to knock. “Don’t knock” she silently pleads. Then the clank of the mail slot in the porch door as the metal flap swings back.
She waits — she’s not ready to be seen, not ready to be heard. She peeks out the front door, the enclosed porch an additional barrier between her and the outside world, keeping her hidden. A white envelope lays on the porch floor. The first condolence card. He has been dead eleven hours.
She slips out and picks up the envelope.
heavy, rich white
scrolling black ink
stark against the white frame
This gesture, a kindness from a neighbor states a fact she is not ready to accept. That in the space of a day, her family unit which had once been Jim, Rachel, Sean and Julia was now Rachel, Sean and Julia. He is gone. His name will no longer be written next to hers.
Even her bones feel tired. She thinks her forehead must now look Neanderthal for how heavy it feels, her throat constricted, still too shocked and wasted for tears.
This memory will come back to her many years later as her heart aches for an acquaintance who first lost his wife and now has lost one of his two sons. She thinks about how four becomes two. She thinks about how this man has had to endure seeing envelopes once addressed to four first reduced to three. And then only a few years later, reduced again from three to two. How his bones must feel tired, his forehead heavy, his throat constricted, too shocked and wasted for tears.
A simple act from the outside world to let you know they care but that forces a stark reality through ink and paper.
Rachel, Sean and Julia.
In Oak Park that June, more cards will arrive throughout the day and into the weeks and months that follow. Jim’s name will be within them but never on the outer envelope.
Her denial will long outlast the cards.
Author’s Note: I have kept every condolence card I received. They are beautiful and heartfelt and I appreciate every one. So what does a person do? Do you address the card to the full family…present and lost? We are all individuals and we won’t react the same. Speaking for myself, I would have liked the cards to include Jim. I would have liked them to say inside, “I hope it doesn’t offend you that I addressed this card to Jim too but I can’t believe he’s gone and I imagine you can’t believe he’s gone and I’m not ready to let him go. I hope that’s ok.”