Wednesday, August 05, 2009

I Saw Her Today At The Reception

I'm pretty freaked out right now. I just heard from the wife of one of my writing students, who had just heard from the husband of another writing student (still with me?) saying that she died last night. He had been very concerned that the writing group should hear the news right away.

Shock. I have been teaching this writing group since 2000, and since Jarrah we have been meeting in each others' homes, once a month. My students are all retired UCSD administrators. Juliet joined us about a year ago, but she hadn't been attending regularly until recently. She actually hosted the last meeting.

Juliet had told me she had some health problems, but she wasn't specific about it. I just know that she had trouble speaking above a whisper, and often asked one of us to read for her. She was a lovely writer with an elegant turn of phrase. She seemed very engaged with the group, and would sometimes tear up when we complimented her. And her own critiques were incisive and helpful. I'd say she was one of the more experienced writers I've encountered in this class.

I cringe to remember last month in her home, when I was rather testy with her. She'd written a piece about her memories of Baltimore, and it was all over the place. After we read it, my first comment was "Juliet, I have no clue what this is about." It was one of my tough-love days, when I break someone down only to build them back up. I don't do that very often. I walked her through the piece, paragraph by paragraph, pointing out how there were no transitions and about 12 different topics. She seemed stung, defensive. And then the rest of the students strongly disagreed with me, saying they loved the piece and thought I was on crack. Which was great, I mean, I always want the students to speak their own minds, not just agree with me like cyborgs.

At the end, she got up and started to lay out tea cups and plates, and a big platter of cheese and crackers and fruit. "Should I put this on the table, or let people come help themselves?" I said, "I think we're leaving now. We usually eat during the meeting." What was she doing? Whoever hosts puts out snacks and coffee for the rest of us, and we partake while we work. It's always been done that way. When we arrived to a coffee-less, snack-less table, we just sucked it up and carried on.

"Well, why didn't someone tell me?" she snapped. I thought that was so bizarre, and I actually felt sort of unsettled and annoyed as I drove away. Why would someone tell her? Wouldn't that be rude, to demand food and drink when it was clear none was available? We were just being polite, overlooking the omission. And why didn't she remember the protocol? It's been the same every time. Grrr. I even called David to kvetch to him, but he didn't answer. By the time he called back hours later, I wasn't annoyed anymore and felt a bit silly for having called him.

So, I don't feel like I left on the best of terms with Juliet. And now I won't have another chance to shower praise on her writing, as I have in the past. My last contact with her was snotty and supercilious. I'm reeling about that. It's a good reminder that you never know the last time you'll speak to someone, so say something nice.

Juliet died from an undiagnosed brain condition, not from her chronic complaints. No one expected her to go so suddenly. When I called Pat (my student's wife) she said that Juliet's husband had seemed very eager to hear from me. Really? I've never met him, and I didn't know Juliet outside of our monthly meetings. So now I'm torn. Readers, I need your advice, because if there's any social intercourse I'm totally hopeless at, it's how to behave in the face of death.

What should I do? Call and express my sympathy? Ask for their address? Send flowers? Attend the funeral? I did send an e-mail to the rest of the students, bringing them up to speed. I hope I don't seem callous and boorish. I'm just no good at this.


Stephanie said...

I've always been perplexed about what to do in situations when death occurs to an acquaintance. It seems odd to be so involved when you weren't so in their life, but it seems cold to do nothing...and I always feel guilt. I feel the need to cook and take it to their house (that's the Mormon in me). But really I think if you feel comfortable going to the funeral or viewing, that it is a nice gesture. If not, send flowers. Everyone and their momma is calling and stopping by right now..and when my Grandpa died (I was staying with my Gma to take care of things) it was really hard to plaster on the smile and the voice and try to carry it all on. Does that sound terrible? I know everyone meant well and I was grateful for the kindness and support, you just get soo exhausted...

well that was ridiculously long and overdrawn...sorry that you had to get such unexpected news. It's always hard to find someone is, friend, acquaintance...

Aunt LoLo said...

Attend the funeral. Offer your services. Show up with food, don't stay to chat if they don't want it.

(and I LOVE that Stephanie and I are the first to comment....'cause we got the Mormon in us, and Mormons Do Casseroles in Emergencies.)
Whatever you do, don't beat yourself up. If someone wants to talk to you, call. Just say hi.)

Sorry this isn't more helpful - sj is trying to heleme type m

Myrnie said...

Third "Mormon" chiming in. Who knew you had such a skewed audience this morning??

If it were me...I'd send a note to her husband, showering any and all deserved praise on his late wife, and express my gratitude at being involved in her life, and my condolences on his loss. Attend the funeral, and let him see how many friends she had. And yes, I'd take food. Preferably something already frozen he can just slip into the freezer...or a gift card for the nearest pizza joint that delivers. My grandma died in October, and I think grandpa is finally using up the last of the cookies in his freezer, leftovers from the luncheon after the funeral!

Jennifer said...

I agree with what the others have said. Have something nice to say about her writing and offer your condolences. Take food...Something frozen in a disposable container is always good idea. Most likely they will have quite a bit of food right now. People often times "forget" once it's been a few weeks, but the family hasn't so it's nice to have something on hand for those later dates.

Stephanie said...

If Juliet's husband seems eager to hear from you, I would call and I would be prepared to respond regarding writing or contributing to a eulogy for the service.

A handwritten letter/note on real stationary would be treasured I'm sure. Your words here are the perfect gift.

"She was a lovely writer with an elegant turn of phrase. She would sometimes tear up when we complimented her. And her own critiques were incisive and helpful."

I do hope that you are feeling better about your last meeting. It sounds to me like you were teaching her, guiding her, giving constructive criticism--wasn't that what you were there to do? Further, you may have given her the most loving, constructive feedback ever that day, and she may have appreciated it more than you realize.

You did nothing wrong. At a minimum, write and mail a note.


Anonymous said...

I would also suggest writing a personal note to her husband. Casserole is nice idea but the note is what he would really remember and keep. After my grandmother died and I was sorting her desk, I found a pile of notes that people had sent her when her husband died -- 30 years before!!! And she did not keep a lot of stuff at all (she had even thrown away all the letters he wrote her when he was away in WWII!).

I would only add one caution (since you say you're hopeless at these things) which is not to tell him the story you have in your blog since that is probably not the way that he would want to remember her. I was really irritated with the people who cornered me after my grandmother's death to tell me things that I wasn't really interested in hearing in order to unburden themselves, not to help me or to sympathize with the family's grief. I know, you're not planning on saying any of this to him, but just in case you do go to the funeral, make a mental note not to spill it all out (which actually is something I could see myself doing!).

Ok, enough advice for today! :) Lix

Cheri @ Blog This Mom! said...

Just call and be yourself. Your real self. Just be you. You're the best thing you have to give to someone else.


Anonymous said...

Sam, of course call, as he seems to want to hear from you. And tell him all the wonderful things you told us about her. What a gift to give him, to know all the things you appreciated about her, and that you will remember her. And if you don't reach him, or even if you do, follow up with a handwritten letter. He may be in a fog right now, and will cherish something written about his wife that he can read over and over.
The Lutheran in may says yes, go to the wake/viewing/whatever and funeral if you can. Even if you don't get to talk to him then, he will see and know how many people whose lives she touched. We are the casserole denomination too, but for the long term, it's a letter that will mean so much.
Whatever you do, just don't do nothing for fear of doing the wrong thing. Anything you do with your heart will be the right thing.

Caroline said...

It's a terrible feeling to have regrets about the last time you see someone, but I like to believe that people remember us for our larger body of work, if you know what I mean. It's clear you had a lot of affection and esteem for her, and I'm sure she knew that. Also, I know beliefs differ, but my own personal feeling is that if we do go on after death, she now either knows all about how you feel or doesn't care. It's all okay.

As for what to do about the husband, do contact him somehow. You probably can't go wrong. After my father died, being acknowledged at all was extremely touching. Neighbors we never really knew, distant relatives, ex-coworkers -- if anyone said anything, sent a card, whatever, it was like medicine, like crack, like love. It was only when people avoided us that we felt bad. You don't have to say much or really anything. It's not your job to cheer him up or anything. Just a gesture will probably go miles.

If he's eager to hear from you, it sounds like he has something he wants to tell you. Just giving him that opportunity might be helpful to him.

Lots of love and sorry about the loss of your student.

Sam said...

Thank you all for your amazing and supportive thoughts. You are so wise!

The Wades said...

Your above commenters WERE wise. How did it end up?

I'm sorry your student died and you have guilt feelings. I don't think you should. She obviously respected you and valued your opinion. Do you know how happy I get when you comment on my boring ol' posts about absolutely NOTHING of importance? Just seeing your name makes me all smiley--Max loves you too. I'm sure she felt the same, even more so since she's actually had the pleasure of meeting you. She had to have known she was "off." She probably appreciated the constant at that point--your fair opinion of her flawed work.

I love how you had three Mormon friends chime in in a row. That made me smile.

Keep on keepin' on. You are truly one of a kind. :)

Sam said...

Friends, I appreciate the time you all took to respond to my hand-wringing. I will be honest. In the end, I couldn't bring myself to do most of these things. I'm not sure I explained that I had NEVER met this man. Maybe you think that's lame--I understand if you do.

What I did was contact the class, and each of us wrote a piece reflecting on our time with Juliet. I'm putting those together in a little book, and mailing them in a card to Juliet's husband.

Hugs to you all.

DrSpouse said...

I think that sounds lovely. As others have said, the last thing often fades but the other memories remain.