It was a phone call to the local recycling center that, inadvertently, helped with my grief. I had just moved into a new flat in a new area and wanted to know what the local recycling rules were. Could I put plastics in with glass? Would newspaper be picked up with cardboard?
It was January 2003, three months after dad had died. I was standing in my new kitchen waiting for someone from the Alameda County recycling hotline to answer the phone. Eventually, a man came on the line and pleasantly asked me what he could do for me. I began with my usual questions: did I need to order a recycling bin as I didn't see one downstairs? Would 'wide-mouth' plastic jars also be accepted in the recycling bin? The man answered all of my questions with calm efficiency. He then mentioned that he'd be happy to have recycling information sent to my new place and asked after my contact information. Usually, when I give my surname to someone I'm prepared to S-P-E-L-L it out at least twice because it seems to be a hard one for folk to get the first time 'round. 'Butz?' 'Bates?' 'Batts?' -close, but no soap! Before I can even begin to spell my name for the recycle guy, he says, '-any relation to Doug Batz?' Flabbergasted, I say, 'yes, he's my dad.' The man tells me that he used to work with my dad back in the 80s and asks how he's doing. I sighed a bit before saying to the stranger on the phone, 'he's dead'. 'His response was, 'oh, well, yes, I'd actually heard that'. I felt myself becoming angry. 'Why did you ask me how he was doing if you already knew he was dead?!' The man said something about how he'd heard 'through the grapevine' from folk down in Southern California that Doug had died, but that, perhaps, he wasn't 100% sure. I could hear discomfort in his voice. Death does that to a person. I didn't hold it against him.
Talking about death makes many people uneasy. For some it would seem better to pretend that everything is status quo. That was certainly the case when, a month after dad's death, I sat down to Thanksgiving dinner with about ten others from my mom's husband's family (grandparents, adult kids, grandkids...) and nobody, but NOBODY had the presence of mind to say anything to me. Some of the guests I had known, if, however, peripherally, for more than 15 years. It's like dad's death hadn't happened, somehow. I thought, they know I had a dad, right? It's not as if they hadn't heard the news from my mom. They all knew and they said nothing. I remember my Turkey Day attire consisted of wearing nondescript, 'comfy' clothes and I may have run a brush through my unwashed hair before putting it up into a pony tail. It's certainly not as if I always make sure to look my absolute shittiest for a holiday meal. My 'look' that day was unprecedented. Everyone just pretended that my downcast mood and poor make-up job (thick gobs of foundation to cover up the blotchy skin) wasn't both tangibly felt and seen. Don't let's bring up what's really going on as that would just be a gosh-darn Thanksgiving bummer.
Speaking of bummers, two days after dad's death, his wife's adult children made sure to crank up the volume of the baseball game they apparently couldn't live without watching during our 'memorial meal' for dad. Imagine moping around your dead parent's house with sounds of loud cheering emanating from the living room area. (Open-plan living/dining rooms suck.) 'All right!!!!!' 'Yeah!!!' 'Come on!!' I remember thinking, um, I'm trying to be sad here. Show some effin tact! I wish I had had the presence of mind to ask them to turn off the game, or, at least, have them try to tamp down their enthusiasm a tad while the rest of us quietly cry into our plates of spaghetti.
When my recycling information came in the mail about a week later it was accompanied with a short note from the man who'd worked with my dad. 'Ms. Batz', he'd written, 'I just wanted to let you know how sorry I am for your loss'. That little slip of paper meant so much to me. I still have it; I'm still grateful. Some people gloss over the fact that you've lost a loved one. Yet, still others, perhaps those whom you've yet to meet, will go out of their way to acknowledge your loss. Such acknowledgement lessens the pain, somewhat.