IAN CROSSES THE THRESHOLD to the room he previously opened to air. It was Virginia’s bedroom. This would be a good time to intervene if there was anyone to do so, anyone whom Ian would allow at least. There’s evidence of an attempt, a business card left from the county social services office that sits on the kitchen counter next to the official certificate of death from the coroner, and slipped under his office door at the university is a sympathy card of condolences signed by the chair and his administrative assistant. The obituary elicited the usual neighborhood response of foil wrapped dishes and little to say. No one wants to talk about it. No one knows what to say. No one dares to listen.
The empathic listener runs the greatest risk of becoming emotionally involved. This is what Ian taught in his lectures on listening. The sympathetic listener doesn’t take that risk. It’s easy for one to feel bad about another’s loss and grief, but another thing entirely to feel what the grieving person feels. No one wants to go there, including, it occurs to Ian, his siblings. All of them orphans at this point, his parents died within a couple of years of each other, his mother first from an aneurysm and then his father after a late diagnosis of liver cancer on top of heart disease, the genetic triple-whammy.
Ian and his siblings live far from each other save for he and his sister. There’s a brother on the east coast and the other in the southwest, all proven distances too far to go for a funeral of a suicidal in-law. His sister lives in Monterey. There was a time when at least she would have dropped everything to be there. She was closer to him relationally than the rest, in empathy as well as geography. The two maintained a steady habit of phone calls on Sunday afternoons for two hours at a stretch, sometimes three. Ian was the only professor in the family. His brothers worked in sales and his sister was a pediatric physician’s assistant. She had a pretty good idea how to answer Ian’s questions, though she’d never dare say she knew how Ian might be feeling, but that didn’t stop her from trying.
Whatever it was that did stop her is still puzzling to Ian. In a Sunday phone call she asked Ian if he’d been to church that day, a response to his expressing doubts and discouragement about all things theological. The long pause that followed was tell-tale for her, pushing her to her next question and the next and the last asking if Ian still believed in God. His silence then unnerved her. Religion was a premise to their growing up, a belief system installed by their father and supervised by their mother along with an expected adherence to all things commandment. Following this awkwardly exchange the calls came in less frequent and then sporadic, finally coming to a stop. The first call in over a year was the last call Ian made to her, telling her that her sister-in-law was dead. It was a short one and he couldn’t help but interpret her tone as anything less than a gracious foregone conclusion. She sounded stoic at first, vacant of what empathy she naturally came by in the news of Linda’s suicide. He felt a bit of comfort in the eventual grace of her voice as she asked how he was feeling. Most of what he was feeling was upending, since, it appeared to him, he was the only one surprised that his wife had killed herself.
There, now in Virginia’s room, he stands, but not for long.
IT’S NOT UNCOMMON for people who have experienced physical or psychological trauma to find themselves in a phase of flight with little memory of how the escape began. For Ian it was when his truck came to a stop in the faculty parking lot outside the building that houses his department at the university. Ian enters the facility and walks to the faculty office corridor to the door of his office, unlocks the door and enters stepping on the envelope with the card from his colleagues. He feels safe there since it’s after hours on campus knowing he wouldn’t have to answer questions, plenty of which he was sure were circulating. His Mac illuminates out of its sleep with a bump of the mouse. Someone had passed the news of Linda’s death by email to the rest of the faculty and staff and now his inbox was filled with messages of condolence. He leaves them in their unopened, still highlighted state. Instead he picks the card up from the floor and within he reads something more heartfelt and sincere, a truer contemplation of his circumstances with earnest wishes. These sentiments are just enough relief for him to intervene in his crazier thinking and stave off the screaming he’d been suppressing throughout this incredibly shitty day.