about an hour ago. Her daughter, as she had promised, sent me a message via e-mail. Sue lived on the opposite side of the world and time zones can be tricky things.
I sent Sue a last e-mail yesterday. She would have been drifting in and out of consciousness by then but I have to believe that she got it. Her daughter had been reading the twice daily messages I sent her.
I tried to keep those messages quirky and up beat or. at very least, positive. Writing them made me realise yet again how hard it can be to communicate adequately with someone in Sue's position - and with her family. What do you say? What words do you use? When do you use them?
Some years ago I was in our local greengrocer just before Christmas. There was a woman ahead of me I knew only by sight. We would usually acknowledge one another and perhaps comment on the weather or something going on around us. That was all.
The shop assistant wished her "Merry Christmas" as she handed her back her change and, as she turned and saw me I also said "Merry Christmas". It was at that point she burst out,
"It's going to be a bloody lousy Christmas. My daughter committed suicide last week."
Then she just went on standing there and burst into tears. I dropped everything and hugged her. The owner of the shop, with huge presence of mind, moved everyone else quietly away from her and gave her some space. She spent a few minutes sobbing into my shoulder before she recovered enough to start apologising.
It seems to be an almost automatic reaction. We apologise for causing other people embarrassment or distress but, faced with it ourselves, we do not know what to say. Perhaps it is better not to say anything at all sometimes.
All I said on that occasion was, "Do you want to tell me about it?" When she nodded I handed over my things to the greengrocer who had nodded at me and I took her off to a far corner of the cafe next door and bought her coffee. She talked and I listened. She told me how her daughter had not been diagnosed with post-natal depression and how guilty she felt for failing to recognise it. It all came out in a torrent of words and I did not say anything at all. There was nothing I could say. Eventually she said, "Thankyou for listening." Then she got up abruptly and left. I had to hope she would be all right.
We saw one another on and off after that. She always seemed a little uncomfortable, as if she had said too much to me. I kept our conversation on the previous level of the weather.
Then on the railway station platform one morning she was there and introduced me to her sister who was visiting from interstate.
"Cat's a good friend," she told her sister, "She knows what to say." She went on to tell her sister about the incident in the greengrocer.
I had never considered her to be a friend, more of an acquaintance. I had felt totally inadequate. I had not said anything. Perhaps in doing that I had said more than I would have with words? I do not know.
It still puzzles me. What do you say? When do you say it?