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First Person: Wrong words, wrong time

Hoping to comfort a grieving friend, I offered a cruel cliche instead

Saturday, July 07, 2001

By Sandee Collins

A friend invited us to a small dinner party the other night and, once again, I made a horse's back-end out of myself. I excel at social faux pas the way others do at polite repartee. Ususally, I label some uncouth clod a putz, only later realizing that the putz in question is the spouse of my conversation partner. Or, I laugh a little too heartily at some off-color joke at the dinner table, inevitably knocking red wine (white wine never gets knocked over) onto the hostess's silk shirt and then to the heirloom rug.

   Sandee Collins is a writer living in Ben Avon. 

No, this faux pas was a tad less dry-cleanable.

Our newly widowed hostess had candid snapshots on her refrigerator including pictures of her seemingly hale husband weeks before his heart attack.

"Look at him," Diane said quietly. "Who knew he would die a month later?"

Clumsily, off-balance, I said the first thing that came to me: "Well . . . he was needed elsewhere."

"No he wasn't," she said flatly. "He was needed right here."

I chastised myself the whole way home. What a colossally dimwitted thing to say. Instead of what I usually do -- smile, say nothing, reach for her hand -- I ventured a pithy platitude. The dull thud in the room was the crashing failure of my intentions. Why do we strive to find comfort in sayings like, "He's in a better place now," knowing that offers not one iota of comfort? Why do we stay with the safety of whimsical Hallmarkish sentiment?

I did it out of fear. I feared if I said anything else Diane would completely dissolve before my eyes into a mass of sorrow so limitless she'd never come back. It's a common reaction: We recoil from even the hint of so much display. And so I stood there, awkward, party goblet in hand, feeling that life really never primed either of us for such raw emotion. The shallow in me won out. I maintained social distance. I chose Hallmark over sincerity.

I stink as a friend.

What to say about the swift, without-warning death of a 45-year-old father and husband? What possible symbolic meaning can be divined in this? Death is not sacred. Death is dramatically profane. There is nothing transcendent or mythical or magnificent about dying. It's finality without fanfare.

To those who are left behind, the work -- the endless, lonely-night work -- is sorting it all out. Their lives become a joyless Peggy Lee song: Is that all there is? We're here, we live, we die. Our legacy is our family and friends, but mostly it's memories and stories, nothing more. Is that it? I know that's not enough to comfort my friend, as I stand there dumbly in front of the pictures on the refrigerator.

But maybe there is more to those memories and stories than we know. Perhaps those stories -- the only things we're left with -- do provide some comfort, some meaning, some access to the transcendent. All those family stories -- in Dan's case, these stories are legion, like the collection of hats he wore during his travails as an amateur groundskeeper -- those stories elevate Dan into myth, into necessary myth, into something that gives higher purpose than a death certificate.

French sociologist Emile Durkheim soberly observed that the sacred permeates the profane through myth. Myth isn't fantasy. Myth is the way that we make sense out of the world. A myth is like sacred poetry that cannot be expressed by the usual cliche (such as, "He was needed elsewhere").

If we live at all, we live by myth. "Something there is in us divine," author Brian Doyle once wrote, "and we touch it most and best by story. We are all storytellers, from our first garbled tales of mud and slugs to our last struggle to shape the words I love you in the holy cave of our mouths. We are stories told in the brief light between great darknesses."

Stories and myth give us sacred connection, one that struggles to transgress the boundaries of "till death do us part." What was sacred -- what is sacred -- is the bond that existed between husband and family, a devotion that has moved beyond the profane into something transcendent. What is sacred are the stories told about Dan, his quirkiness, his gifts and abilities, his affections that abide still. And in those emotions resides something profoundly holy.

So this is what I should have said to Diane. Between the sacred and the profane each of us lives. Some live better than others. Dan was one of those. I have the stories to prove it. And maybe that's all there is. And maybe that's enough.

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