When an elderly neighbor we barely knew died recently, I went to the drugstore to buy a sympathy card for his wife.
I was looking for something sober and simple. A plain white card that said something like, "We were saddened to hear of your loss. Please accept our sincere condolences. Our thoughts are with you at this sad time."
That, you cannot buy. You can, however, buy any number of cards with embossed silver lilies on the front that say some variation of, "He was the best person on Earth, and after he invented cold fusion and time travel, he gave all his money to orphans. When he wasn't feeding the homeless, he was building them houses. Albert Schweitzer and Mother Teresa wished they were as good and kind as he was. I beg you to make it a closed coffin funeral or I might jump in. Why him, Lord, and not me?"
That was more than I really wanted to say. Maybe someone closer to him -- say, the newspaper delivery guy or the septic tank cleaner -- could send something that flowery, but I was just a neighbor who shared waves with him now and then.
Besides, the cards were so vague, like one of those eulogies by a preacher who never met the deceased. I've been to funerals where, after the eulogy, I have to look at the program to make sure we're burying the right person.
If those cards were too flowery, others were not flowery enough. I didn't have the heart to put my signature on this one, either:
"Even though he was in a nursing home for the last eight years and hadn't spoken in six, we were shocked. We'd been planning to go see him for years, and now it's too late. If only he could have hung on until our kids finished soccer season, we could have been there for him. If you need anything, I mean anything, please let us know. Well, not on Tuesdays; that's our bowling night. And Fridays are pretty bad, too. We're taking a Thai cooking class. What's going to happen to that big rolltop desk he had? It would really look good in our library. I'm sorry, that was an insensitive thing to say. You might think it would look better in our family room. Who are we to tell you what to do? Mondays are no good at all. That's 'Dancing With the Stars' night. We never miss it. Now that I think about it, you're the one with all the free time now. Maybe you should come over here and help us. They say work will take your mind off your troubles."
While looking for something with just the right tone, I accidentally picked up some cards from the "Birthday -- Seniors" section. "Hey, you old geezer, drop dead and make room on the planet for someone else," read the first one. "I gave you this same card last year, but you probably can't remember it, can you, you senile old fool!" said the second. I'm starting to think that what carried my neighbor off might have been a torrent of brutal birthday cards.
I wonder if the cards are having the opposite effect of what is intended. Instead of saying, "I'm thinking about you," they may be saying, "This is all the time I'm willing to waste on you."
Sue and I have a big anniversary coming up, but we're not telling anyone. I'm not sure I want to open the mail and read, "We found the perfect gift for your 40th anniversary: his-and-hers silver bullets."
So I did what I should have done from the start, and wrote a note to my widowed neighbor on my own stationery.
Weeks later, she told me it was the only handwritten note she'd received.