I was dropping off Tommy at a play date the other day with a friend. The mother, my friend, had invited a few kids over, and as I turned around, I saw one of Tommy’s classmates with her dad. He looked at me, trying to place me. Our mutual friend said, “Oh, I’m sure you know Tommy’s mom.”
I stood there awkwardly, balancing my youngest kid on my hip. “I’m Marjorie,” I said to him. “I think we met at the parent social but it’s great to see you again.”
He fumbled through some sort of greeting, but it didn’t matter. I’d seen him freeze, and I knew he didn’t know how to be around me. I knew he’d gotten the emails from the preschool staff and I’m sure he and his wife had talked about how horrible the situation was. “Can you imagine,” I’m sure they said to each other after getting the email, “how horrible it would be if one of us died?”
And then, there I was in the flesh. The mom with the 4-year-old who just lost his dad to cancer. At age 40.
And so, he froze. I am sure I’ve done that too. I’m a flesh-and-blood reminder that even if we do everything right, life can be cut too short. I don’t blame this guy for his reaction, as we’ve all frozen at one point or another. I don’t know him, but I’m going to guess he’s a nice guy. I bet he went home and felt bad about it later.
Sometimes, I make people freeze. Two days after Shawn died, I realized I had a dentist appointment I never cancelled and so I actually went. I brought a friend, which I’m sure the staff there thought was odd, and when the dentist asked me how I was doing, I blurted out, “I’m horrible. My husband just died and I don’t know what to do.” He was stunned, and said very little for the entire time I was there, though he did offer his condolences. It left me wondering why I had decided to tell him at all. It’s like I couldn’t even help it. I couldn’t sit in that chair and pretend to be a normal person.
My friends usually know how to respond but it’s the acquaintances and strangers that are tougher. I feel the need for everyone to know where I am emotionally, what’s going on with my family, and how I’m feeling at the moment because I’m just so different than I was last fall. Everything is different. I can’t even interact with the damn waiter at my favorite coffee shop without telling him about Shawn. Most everyone moves throughout their day without having to process horrible information, so when it comes, I know it’s shocking. Even if it comes in the form of my face appearing unexpectedly.
The thing is, not every acquaintance freezes when they see me for the first time, or hear the news for the first time. I ran into a woman I know through the kids’ school the other day, and she almost immediately said to me, “let me just say, this is terrible and I just don’t know how you are managing. But we are all thinking of you.” I know that not everyone would appreciate such candor, but I did. Because you know what? It is terrible. And by saying just that, she helped show me that she was open to talking about anything.
Sometimes – a lot of times – people who don’t know me well just can’t figure out how to engage me, especially if my appearance is unexpected. It’s too disorienting to be innocently serving croissants or drilling on teeth or picking up a kid from a playdate to then immediately figure out how to meaningfully engage with someone like me. I get that. I do.
But it was so heartening when the man who serves me coffee a few times a week, the same one who used to watch Shawn and I come in together, looked me in the eyes after I told him and said, “I’m so, so sorry.” Because he was.
Image Credit: Stefanie Harrington Photography.