Don’t ask what you can do

Don’t ask what you can do. They can’t tell you, because they don’t know.

Don’t say, if there’s anything you need, just let me know. They don’t know what they need. They won’t call you. They’re too weary.

Just go. Call ahead if you must, but go. Don’t ask them to choose a good time. There is no good time. Just go.

Bring chocolate chip cookies, chicken soup, chili, or even a sponge cake. Comfort food. If they offer you tea and/or food, accept it. It gives them a moment of normalcy, a familiar ritual of hosting, doing something for you, their guest, a moment of stepping outside their grief and occupying themselves with something else, even if only for a moment.

Why did I not know this until so late in life? How come nobody ever told me? 

I don’t remember my parents ever going to a funeral. Maybe they did, when I was very small, but I have no recollection of them ever saying, so-and-so died and we’re going to the funeral. I didn’t even know that you go not only to honour the one who died but to be there for the ones left behind. I didn’t know. It wasn’t part of how I grew up.

I remember our neighbour, Mr. Roden, who seemed as ancient as Methuselah to my 8-year-old self, whose plants I watered whenever he went away, with his special little watering can (in his somewhat Cockney accent: “It’s brass and copper, y’know”). I remember he used to paint, and I eneded up somehow with a small painting on birchbark, of a white cottage or boathouse on a lake, with pine trees and so forth, a quintessentially Canadian theme. And when he died, they told me he he was gone, but there was no talk of a funeral or honouring his memory or any kind of good-bye or closure. I don’t actually remember how I felt, but the word that comes to me right now is confused. Confused and sad, with no way to navigate through that, no lighthouse, no beacon to tell me, come this way, take my hand, it will be all right.

I didn’t go to my first funeral until I was nearly 30, when my friend Andrée (Dédé Bonbon) threw herself off her 17th-floor balcony one fine Saturday morning, some five years or so before my parents, in one of those weird coincidences, picked the building right next door to move into (and lived there until my dad died, also right outside their building, but that, as they say, is another story). I had no idea what to do. I didn’t know her super-well, but we did consider each other good friends — good enough friends that I’d gone with her once to visit her parents in the Eastern Townships.

I remember her hands on the steering wheel as we shot down the highway between Ottawa and Montreal, through Hawkesbury, through Montreal itself and onwards, fingers slender and tapering with that rounded worked-silver ring she always wore. The car was a dark metallic blue, a small car, a Mazda or Datsun or something (a matter of some controversy with her father, who apparently did not approve of Japanese cars — and many other things about Andrée’s life, but that is also another story). I can’t remember what we talked about in the car during the long drive there and back, but I remember the tone — light, easy, fun. I knew she was troubled, I knew she took psychiatric meds that made her feel bloated and exhausted. But I didn’t know how troubled.

The funeral wasn’t really a funeral, just a memorial service for her Ottawa friends. The funeral itself was in Victoriaville where her family lived. I don’t think her parents came, just her sister. I remember being surprised at how many people showed up, not just everyone from our office, but strangers who knew her from other parts of her life that I wasn’t part of, some of them family, some not. I remember feeling what I now understand to be disenfranchised grief — a feeling of not having a right to be grieving, not having a place in the grieving. I’d left the place where we’d worked together, so I was thoroughly alone in this, separated even from those who were also disenfranchised like me.

I’m still haunted by a phone call I neglected to pick up that Saturday morning. This was before the days of call display, so thankfully I can’t be sure it was her, but my heart tells me that it was. The phone rang around 9:00 a.m., when I was still in bed, and instead of answering it, I let it go to the machine (it was a machine in those days, cream coloured with square buttons, green and red lights, and an actual tiny cassette tape that you had to erase every now and again). That morning the green light was flashing, but there was no message, just a blank, a hang-up.

And then she was gone. Just gone.

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