Garrison Keillor once called it, "The gift that keeps on giving." To some of us--maybe especially those who are stricken with a Calvinist conscience--its bounty seems almost beyond measure.
So yesterday, while I was gone, someone left a phone note. "Mr. Schaap"--the voice is ancient and scratchy--"I thought you would like to know that your friend Harold died last night." I wasn't happy to know that, but I was happy that she thought to let me know. My friend Harold was a single man, and I never really knew his immediate family well. And then, "I know you were his friend, even if you never came to see him."
That's it. She hung up. Left no name. The telephone itself was kind enough to tell me the hour and minute of the call, but anything other than that was mystery.
I could scream. In the last two weeks, we buried my mother-in-law after 2 1/2 years of hospice care. Then, for the first time in months, I actually got a plane I was scheduled to and left for New Mexico to finish up a project. What did this old woman expect?
The answer, of course, is love, attention. To her, I was "Friendship" in Everyman, a fickle lout who simply picks up his toys and departs once the grim reaper is on his old friend's doorstep. I left him alone to face the darkness.
And I did. Does it help that I was preoccupied? No. Can I be forgiven? Not by the sweet caller, that's for sure.
She's right, of course. I didn't visit him. I didn't go see him. I didn't pay him the joy of a visit, and I know very dang well he would have appreciated it, just as the two of us had visited another old, dying friend together 15 years ago.
And the blasted guilt keeps on giving because there ain't no way out of it. That I didn't know he was dying isn't a good answer: that I didn't have time isn't either.
An old friend of mine who had tons of problems with depression once visited a psychiatrist whose credentials included being born and reared in a Dutch Calvinist home, a man who considered himself liberated from such horror. One of the therapies the ex-patriot Hollander gave to his new patient was to absolutely expunge the word "should" from his vocabulary. "Don't use the word--don't--ever," was his professional advice.
Sheesh. Seems draconian and, as some philosophers around here used to say, "anti-normative." But understandable. I could use a dose.
But then, that doesn't solve the problem. The fact is, I didn't visit the man, my old friend. I didn't even know he was dying.
Even if the old caller does, thank goodness, in glory, Harold won't be holding a grudge.