Wednesday, January 7, 2009

There is no gentle way.

The work phone rings and I pick it up. At the end of my welcome spiel, the cheerful voice on the other end tells me why he called.

"Hi, this is Jim from --- Marketing. We're around the corner from you guys."

"Oh, hi," I say, "What can I do for you?"

"Is L. there?"

I hesitate. "No. I'm just filling in. Is there something I can help you with? Or maybe J.? He can help you, too if you like...if he's more familiar-"

"No, no...that's fine. What was your name?" His voice has a practiced warm quality most salesmen possess. There is a smile in it.

"-j-j-" I say.

"Hi, -j-j-, my company usually does these labels with you guys..."

He wants to place an order. I pull a square multicolored pad from beside the phone and start taking down his specs. During our conversation his voice becomes increasingly bright and a little flirty. He comments about the snow over Christmas. I tell him I was lucky I didn't have to travel.

The banter winds downs and he says:

"So, is L. gonna be back later today or...?"

I take a breath and for a millisecond I consider a misleading one-word answer. But I don't want to be unfair.

I exhale with a little too much force into phone.

"Uhhhhmmm...I-this is so...I can't believe I'm the one who has to tell you this. Um...L. is not coming back. I'm afraid she passed away on Christmas morning."

There is a pause.

L., the woman for whom was filling in during the month of December, was far more ill than any of us had imagined. The cancer was aggressive and no one knew.

"Are you k- really?"

"Yes. I'm sorry...I know this is strange to hear from me. You and I have only just me- not even met really..."

"I know...oh, my god. I just...I just talked to her like three weeks ago."

"Yes, I know. She was very sick...they didn't catch it in time."

He lets out an awkward laugh of disbelief.

"She was so nice...will you tell everyone there how nice she was? And very professional. Will you tell- I just can't believe it."

"I know." Christ, I want this conversation to end.

"Okay...well, Iyuh, I'll email this order over L.'s email address?"

"That's right." My voice rolls its eyes with weary. How utterly perplexing this must be for him.


"I'm sorry."

"Okay...well...look for that email and I'm truly sorry. Will you tell everyone?"

"Of course. Thank you."

"Okay. Uh...have a good day."

"You, too."

We hang up and I push my head into my hands, agonized.

I knew who this woman was. I trained her two years ago as my replacement. I saw her when I stopped in to say hi. And even though her absence is everywhere in the office, her passing is distant to me.

But for the few uncomfortable moments I speak to Jim from --- Marketing around the corner, we are both forced to share a moment of singular loss. It's not usually a moment that one shares with a hapless customer over the phone, but there it is.

And as soon as it arrived, it was gone.


Erica said...

God, I hate those phone calls. So weird. It is weird when you don't know the person who passed away or who is on the phone, and it is weird when you do/did know them. There is no fun way to do it.

A few weeks after Dad died, we got a chipper person on the phone asking to speak with him. Pissed that this salesperson or telemarketer was calling us, my brother snapped at them saying "No, he died a few weeks ago." The person was calling from the medical supply company that Dad had ordered his ostomy supplies from for 3 years, who happened to know him fairly well, and they were very sad to hear the news. My brother felt so bad for being rude to them.

It just goes to show that you never know what is going on when you call somewhere, and also who might be on the other end of the phone. It's rough.

I'm sorry you are having to have these conversations.

Henri D said...

Grieving takes it shape in many forms. Acquaintanceships are the hardest because rules are not clearly defined societal-y.

All feeling are ok.
All reactions are ok.
As long as you don't hurt anyone else or yourself.

Those are the simplest rules.

Jan Smelk said...

I work at a counter where the main dude committed suicide. He was the life of the party kind of guy and every client felt like his best friend. It's been a year and a half or more, and I still get women sobbing suddenly when I say that he passed away. And then they ask how such a vibrant young man could die, and I have reverted to I don't know. Telling people Rhai is gone is one thing, but telling them he was actually so sad and misunderstood and drug-crazed that he offed himself is way beyond me. And it makes those ladies fell like their whole relationship with him was a lie because of course they never saw him that way. Fuck. It's awful.

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