A Fit of Compassion
The last time she left in a fit of compassion as she would say later. “ I did not want to see him die that way.” She expected me to understand, and I nodded slightly and politely. Polite deceit had become my favorite method of pretense. It worked especially well with arrogant people, among whom I am numbered as well. One cannot use polite deceit with oneself, though one may certainly lie with impunity in the absence of witnesses. I cannot say I understood what she was saying. The two had been old friends, as once they had been young friends, as both insisted, but nothing more.
He had been buried many months ago without fanfare nor as little as a prayer for his eternal soul. I had seen to the arrangements, as he had requested, noting severely that there was to be no clergy nor funeral services. I has acknowledged his wishes and carried them out precisely as he had instructed. I had not called her, nor she me, before or after his passing. There was no public notice, obituary or announcement. But she must have known, given his condition at their last meeting. Why else would she be here so many months later? She was not one who would embark upon a lengthy period of grief.
I was surprised when she showed up at the restaurant that Friday morning. For a number of years I had taken breakfast at this same restaurant, same table, same time each week-day. I was not sure she knew that, but that she was standing at my table, of that I was quite sure. She was a stunning figure of a woman to whom the years had not been unkind. I half-rose to welcome her but she motioned me to remain seated. She seated herself opposite me with no reluctance. “I see nothing has changed,” she said. Somewhat taken aback I did not reply immediately. Her assumption or observation was certainly not true. I had changed. I had lost my friend and mentor of many years. I decided to let her statement pass. I hoped my silence would be taken as an encouragement not to speak. I stared blankly as I saw the shattered remains of my hope die in mid-air. She decided to fill the space of my silence with an autobiography of remorse. This was not how I has anticipated starting my week-end.
At the end of her story I was still speechless. Finally, I said, “I am saddened by your story.”
“Is that all you offer me, your sadness?”
“It is what I feel at the moment.” I was not sure why I said this. It sounded conventional and defensive. I may well have told her that I had no interest in her story, but she had told it to me; I listened; and that made me a part of her story. That’s the thing about stories, one cannot extricate oneself from a story told and heard. One becomes a character, perhaps invisible at first, but with time one plays openly if only as an interpreter. One cannot listen as an observer. The phenomenon of listening is different from the phenomenon of hearing. One hears because one has ears. One listens because one is Present. Listening is sequential self-presencing.
“It took courage to seek you out,” she was saying, “and the swallowing of a lot of pride.” Her lament clearly made her uncomfortable, and the distress in her voice was obvious.
“I’m relieved that you came, but perhaps not for the same reasons.” She looked at her coffee for what seemed like a life-time, then pushed it aside. Finally she said, “I do not want to know how he died.”
“I’m glad about that,” I said, “because I too do not want to know how he died.”
“Were you not at his side?”
“I was with him every minute, but he managed to die alone.” Sadness was creeping into my voice and I tried without success to push it away.
“I’m sorry he was alone. I’m sorry I left him alone to die.”
“He was not alone, I was with him to the end.”
“But you said he died alone.”
“Indeed, he did.”
“I do not understand.”
“He died, the last man on this earth. Or perhaps the first. It’s hard to know the difference.”
“You are not making any sense to me.”
“His last words, I remember them well. Very lucid he was, never for a moment did he lose his senses. Perhaps he felt the words rather than spoke them. I’m not sure I know.” I had often thought of those last moments, not because I wanted to, but because they inserted themselves into my day, letting me know they belonged. I did not want to share my thoughts with her, though I could not account for my reluctance. I felt that something had changed in her and I wanted to express some sympathy, that I still could not access. Many senses had awakened in me at her arrival but sympathy was not one of them. What I was thinking was, if only I could bring myself to like her, things might be different.
“I did not come to speak of him. I left him once; he left me forever. He’s dead. There is a difference.”
“You came here to learn that difference?”
“I don’t know.” The confidence that she possessed flickered. She was not accustomed to uncertainty. That was sure. “I could not endure his silence when he was alive. I cannot endure it now that he is dead.” She paused, reflectively, waiting for my response, then added, “There is a difference.”
I nodded agreement since I could not think of what to say. She had come here for something that she could not articulate. The plain fact is that she had come here. She had not gone elsewhere in her quest. She had come here, and that meant something. She sought me out, and that meant something. A thing deep inside me shivered. What it was I cannot say.
“He cannot teach me now.”
“Yet he summoned you here.” I was thinking of any reason she might have come.
“I came of my own accord. No one summoned me, least of all from the grave,” she said with conviction and some defiance.
“You must have had a reason for coming.” I said lamely, having no other thought.
“I suppose I came to find out why I left, “ she said in response. “I left in a fit of compassion because I did not want him to see me see him die.”
“You wanted to spare him the embarrassment of dying?” the amazement fresh in my voice.
“Something like that.” Pensive silence, then, “I have never seen anyone die. I have never seen anyone dead before. I avoid funerals.”
“Then you left for your own sake?”
“Perhaps. But one cannot admit to that, can one?”
I felt that I had intruded upon something dear to her, and regretted at once what I said.
“I have never felt the pain of losing someone. Or grief, for that matter.” She was trying to control her voice, but her eyes were not cooperating. They spoke of an emptiness unnamed. The thing about eyes, they can’t be trusted. They will betray you every time. Your eyes are always seeing you in a way you will never see yourself. There is something truthful about your eyes even when they delight in deceit.
“And now? You feel a sense of loss, even grief, for that matter?”
“Something like that.” Non-committal. “I half-expected to see him in town when I arrived. A feeble expectation may be better than none at all.” She was having difficulty speaking. Her words were drier than her mouth. But she managed, and I was pleased at that.
“But you do know that he died several months ago?”
“I suppose I knew, but still, one can’t be certain of such things, can one?” She spoke as if uncertainty protected her from the reality of his death. I must give her the benefit of the doubt, I thought, but did not say anything.
“I wonder if you came here to begin grieving? Better late than never?” My words were meant to encourage her to speak but they were met with resistance.
“I can grieve whenever and wherever I choose,” she said with disdain.
“You’re right, of course,” I said clumsily, still hoping to encourage her to say more. I wondered if ever before she had uttered the words, “I can grieve.” Maybe she said more than she intended. Maybe I heard more than she said. As she might say, “There is a difference.”
“To be quite frank, I’m not sure I would recognize grief when it comes, or for that matter, I don’t think I would know how to grieve.” I was not expecting such forthrightness, and it took some time to gather my thoughts.
“You would know if you were grieving,” I said, trying not to sound severe.
“I suppose so. It hadn’t occurred to me. I gather one doesn’t simply look up grief in the dictionary.”
“No, I gather not.” She had spoken true. It seemed to me that she was circling above what she thought was grief as if to get a bird’s eye view of it. I was still trying to figure out what she was after. She held on so tightly to who she is in a way of warding off any threat to her identity or invasion of self. To my dismay, I realized I was not of much help to her. Even now I wonder what I might have done for her had I found entrance into her quest.
“I’ve taken up your breakfast time,” she said apologetically.
“We’ve managed both breakfast and conversation,” I replied, hoping to assure her. We had not accomplished much besides breakfast.
Before we left my table I invited her to take tea with me that afternoon. She declined politely, saying that she had a very long train ride ahead of her, and must get started. I nodded an acknowledgment. I knew that the train slowed as it neared the curve of the cemetery where he rested, but I said nothing. Somewhere ahead her grief awaited her, as grief always does, with patience, and a fit of compassion.