It’s 9:42 am on Valentine’s Day 2013.
He lives in New York, so it shouldn’t be too early to call, I decide. I dial his phone number. After a few rings, a woman answers.
This must be his wife, I think. She’s a graduate, too.
“Good morning,” I begin, identifying myself before asking for her spouse. I want her to know I’m calling from the liberal arts college from which both she and her husband graduated sixty-five years ago.
“I work in the Annual Fund Office. You and your husband make a recurring quarterly gift.”
Before I can get to the reason for my call she asks, “How much is that?”
I tell her the amount. “We’ve been charging your husband’s credit card every February, June, September and December.”
“Well now, I think I need to cut that back.” She is silent for a bit and then provides the new amount.
“Yes, I think that’s better. You see,” she continues, “my husband died.”
When I was given the paperwork for a declined credit card, I immediately looked up the donor in our database. When I realized he had graduated in 1948, my first instinct was to ask I wonder if he is alive?
After noting that he was married to a classmate, I dismissed my morbid thought. They’ve been married over sixty years, I marveled. Someone probably stole his card, I assured myself. I prepared myself to offer sympathy over this inconvenience or to handle the awkward conversation if it turns out he has gone over his card’s limit.
I hadn’t braced myself for this.
“I’m so sorry, ma’am. May I ask when he . . . passed away?”
I learn that he died in November after a long illness. I write down the date so that we can update our records. Then she gives me a new credit card number.
“I had to get one in my name,” she explains.
After confirming the gift details, the conversation returns to her late husband.
“He was in so much pain at the end,” she tells me.
“It must have seemed both a blessing and a loss,” I say.
“He was ill for so long, and I took care of him,” she adds. “It’s hard for me to remember our life before he was sick. I look at old pictures so I can think about when we are happy. This is such a strange time.”
I stop myself from saying, “I understand.” I know that isn’t right. I watched my grandmother take care of Grandpa as he died of lung cancer. They, too, had been married over sixty years. Even with help from hospice, Grandma was exhausted by the end. She knew he was suffering, but the fact that death was the only way his pain could end did not lessen her grief. But I only observed all of this. I did not experience the loss the same way as Grandma did, so I cannot tell the woman on the phone that I “understand.”
Instead I say, “This must be very difficult. You have my sympathy.”
I wrap up the call, thanking her for her gift and, before I can stop myself, ending with an asinine “Have a nice day.”
I take the updated information downstairs to our gift processors. As I relay the story I tell them, “I can’t believe I called this woman on Valentine’s Day and reminded her of her dead husband!”
It’s true. I feel like an insensitive oaf. I could feel her continuing grief, loneliness and sadness through the phone. I worried that she was on the edge of tears. Yet, I could also sense that she wanted someone with whom to share this. She didn’t become hostile. She just talked, so I listened.
My co-worker says to me, “Well, try to have a happy Valentine’s Day.”
I pause. I think about my son at preschool. They are having a Valentine’s Day party. Last year, I signed his name on the cards for his classmates. I don’t even know if he looked at them. This year, he wrote his own name on the cards. Sure, some of them are signed “Phip,” but a few are also embellished with smiley faces. This is progress.
I think about my husband. He and I are going out for Valentine’s Day on Sunday. I’m trying to think of someplace new to take him, but know that we will probably end up at the steakhouse where we always go. Either way, I’ll be on a date with him.
“You know,” I tell her, “My Valentine’s Day is going to be okay. I get to go home to my loved ones, and that’s all that matters.”
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