workzine

Calla Devlin, 8/15/2010

Current Occupation: Writer
Former Occupation: Communications Director
Contact Information: Calla Devlin’s work has appeared in anthologies and literary journals, including Watchword, Five Fingers Review, Visions, Square Lake, Harrington Fiction Quarterly, the New College Chapbook Series, and forthcoming in The MacGuffin. Her story “Borderlines” won honorable mention as one of the year’s most notable publications in Dave Egger’s Best American Nonrequired Reading 2003 and another story, “Bird’s Milk,” was a finalist in Glimmer Train’s 2009 fiction competition. Most recently, she was included in two anthologies, Lost on Purpose: Women in the City and Because I Love Her: 34 Women Writers Reflect on the Mother-Daughter Bond. Currently, she is at work on a novel.
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The Grief Assistant
1. The Advertisement
Have you lost a loved one?

Does your teenage son own an appropriate suit to wear to the memorial service? How do you manage neighbors and friends bringing an endless caravan of casseroles? Is your yard suitable for an outdoor wake? Need obituary assistance? Are you comfortable negotiating costs with a funeral home? Notifying distant friends and relatives? Who can administer all of the details when a family is in severe crisis?

Contact Claire Solomon, Grief Assistant.

Practical guidance, supportive listening, reasonable rates.

2. The Call

“My name is Greg Blakely. Joan Spence referred me to you. She indicated you could help with my wife’s arrangements. I can be reached at 858-555-6427. Thank you.”

3. The Interview

I favored widowers over widows. Two of my previous three clients were widowers. Heart attack and suicide. The widow—the stroke client—was tougher than the suicide. Cried the entire time I worked with her. My preference for widowers may have been attributed to stereotypes—stoic men versus crumbling women—but the truth was men required less. They rarely cried in my presence; their needs tended to be practical, simple, and clearly stated.

Mr. Greg Blakely asked me to sit down and I debated the chair or the couch, settling on the latter. On the phone, Mr. Blakely sounded like the sort of man who wore a uniform of golf attire regardless of the occasion. I imagined an older man with thinning hair and a thick middle, but my assumptions were incorrect. Mr. Blakely appeared to be in his early forties and wore a casual outfit of jeans and a butter yellow polo shirt that complimented his olive complexion and red-rimmed green eyes. Like many widowers, he spoke softly as though he might frighten me away with his normal tone of voice.

“It’s best to start with this form.” I waved my clipboard. “Is that okay with you?”

Mr. Blakely nodded.

“It’s called the ‘Grief Intake Form’ and I prefer to fill it out with you in person rather than leaving it with you. The information is more complete that way. It’s best if we just run down the list.”

He nodded again.
“It looks like I have your all of your contact information. Would you like to provide me with your email address so you can receive periodic updates about Grief Assistance? All information is kept private.”

“I would prefer not.”

“That’s fine. Can I ask why you decided to employ my services? I know Mrs. Spence referred you.”

“She’s a bookkeeper in my office and she called and told me about you. She understands that, at times, I prefer to hire someone to handle projects. It’s easier for me that way.”

“I see. Now I have some questions about the deceased. What was your wife’s name?”

“Jennifer.”

“What was her date of birth?”

“April 6, 1969.”

“An Aries?”

“I think so. I’m not much for astrology.”

“And her date of death?”

“Last Friday. The nineteenth.” He winced as he answered.

“Her favorite color?”

“White.”

“White?” I asked. I took a moment to scan the room. Every item in the room was dark, from the wood paneling on the walls to the deep brown of the leather furniture. Even the spines of books lining the shelves were a dark hue.

“That’s right,” Mr. Blakely said.

“Unusual,” I said.

“She was that kind of woman.”

I tried to interpret his expression. His eyes lit up but his mouth remained a ragged line. By the way he squeezed his hands together and hunched his shoulders, I sensed how much he loved his wife.

“What was her favorite flower?”

“Peonies.”

I wrote the word down, not sure if I spelled it correctly. I crossed out my first attempt and proceeded phonetically, PEA-O-NEES.

“How about her favorite poem?”

He looked startled for a moment and was silent. I scanned my sheet of paper before looking at him.

“You don’t know?”

He shook his bowed head. While the form was essential to my work, I regretted the process. Death was difficult enough, but some of my clients discovered small, unknown details about the person they had lost.

“That’s all right. Most people don’t. It’s nice to read a poem at the service. How about her favorite song?”

“Candle in the Wind by Elton John. The Princess Di version. She followed Diana’s life closely.”

I nodded. “Many of us did.” For a moment, I remembered the flash of tragic news: the curled, smashed metal of Diana’s car followed by her funeral. I had feigned the flu so I could skip work and watch the televised memorial.

“This is going well,” I reassured. “The next section is more challenging. Please indicate the following as true or false.”

I looked up to make sure he understood. He met my eyes and offered a slight nod.

“The deceased loved the harp.”

He raised his eyebrows and frowned. “Why do you need to know that?”

“Because it helps determine suitable music for the service.”

“Oh. Well, I can’t recall Jennifer ever saying she enjoyed harp music.”

“That’s false then. The deceased loved piano music.”

“True.”

I had the sense Mr. Blakely approached the SAT exam with similar uncertainty, selecting noncommittal answers rather than making risky guesses. I suspected Jennifer made most of the tough decisions in this household. When I said, “The deceased loved polka music,” I predicted his answer would be false. It was.

“The deceased cared about the environment.”

He looked puzzled for a moment.

“I’m not here to judge,” I said.

Relieved, he said, “False.”

“The deceased was an extrovert.”

“True.”

“The deceased’s death was sudden and shocking.”

Mr. Blakely gave a startled jump and then flinched. His eyes remained closed for a moment.

I would have touched his hand, but the coffee table separated us. “I’m sorry,” I said.

“She died in a car accident. She had been drinking.”

Just like Princess Diana. I nodded and told him I was sorry again. “Do you want to talk about it?” I asked. That’s what I said when someone called the crisis line where I volunteered every Wednesday night. My heartbeat quickened and—in this moment—I felt incredibly close to him. I wondered if it was unprofessional to feel this way.

He opened his eyes and leaned back into his chair, leaned away from me. “No, no I don’t think I can.”

My heartbeat slowed down to its usual pace. I scratched the next question, “The deceased’s death was a long time coming.”

“Let’s take a break,” I said. “May I use your bathroom?”

“Of course,” he said. “It’s just down the hall.”

Mr. Blakely rose and walked through the dining room to the kitchen. I stood and inventoried the living room, a masculine room with a large picture window framing the couch.

It was helpful to become acquainted with a family in their environment. They tended to feel more comfortable and, from the surroundings, I could assess the relationship with the recently departed. Slowly, I walked down the hallway and peeked in the cracked doors. Everything was tidy. Not at all the typical surroundings of someone grieving, with clutter and dirty dishes scattered about. The first room, colored in jewel tones, served as an office with an imposing desk, more bookshelves, and a large television. The second room startled me, a large sunny space decorated with remarkable grace. Completely white, the room boasted an amazing view of the Pacific. Framed white embossments lined the walls, each image an etched shell: clam, conch, sea snail, abalone. Delicate fabrics comprised the curtains, covered the pillows, and upholstered the furniture. A large basket filled with sea glass and enormous shells rested on a table. So, this was Jennifer.

I continued down the hall toward the bathroom and noticed how the house was absent of photographs. When I returned to the living room, Mr. Blakely handed me a mug of coffee and gestured toward the cream and sugar on the table. I added a dollop of cream and took a sip.

“Now let’s talk about the reception,” I said.

He thumbed through a stack of paper on the table. He withdrew a legal pad and handed it to me.

“Here’s a list of those who need to be contacted about the reception. I’ve indicated the relationship of each one. There are about two hundred. Most have been notified of my wife’s death, but some won’t know yet.”

“That’s fine,” I said as I accepted the paper. His handwriting was tight, slanted to the left, and neat. All of his words recorded in capital letters.

“Do you know what you will wear to the service? It’s best to wear dark, conservative clothing. Something formal. Would you like me to take a suit to the drycleaners or purchase an outfit for you to wear?”

“That’s something you do?”

“Yes. I can purchase clothing for anyone attending.”

“My mother will need a dress.”

I made a note about his mother. “That’s not a problem.”

“I’ll phone you with her size.”

I glanced around the room. “Your house seems to be in order.”

“All I’ve been able to do is clean. I must have vacuumed this room fourteen times.”

“It’s spotless. Will you need a housecleaner after the reception?”

“That would be helpful.”

“I’ll fax you some of the caterers’ menus this afternoon.”

Mr. Blakely nodded.

“How about an open bar?”

“That will be essential.”

I reviewed the form, confirming all of the details. “I think I have everything I need to get started. Thank you for your time and, once again, I’m sorry for your loss.” I collected my things and stood.

Mr. Blakely extended his arm to shake my hand. When we did, I was surprised by his electric touch and I didn’t want to let go. I followed him to the door, studying the dark wet line down his back and circles under his arms. Grief was a thorough workout.

On the drive home, I questioned whether or not Mr. Blakely had cried. He seemed so formal, so restrained. I wondered if he could allow himself to collapse, to succumb to his feelings. It would comfort me to know he was taking care of himself. I could take his hand at the reception and tell him it’s okay to cry. I could hold him. I bet his mother was a nice woman. I hoped she wrapped her aged arms around her son and comforted him in this time of need.

4. The Arrangements

Jennifer Blakely Memorial

* Service Program: Proofread at the printer tomorrow morning. Pick up programs at 4:00 PM and deliver to mortuary.
* Flowers: A Bed of Roses will deliver peonies and calla lilies at 10:00 AM.
* Food: Comfort Catering will serve chicken skewers, fruit salad, green salad, pasta salad, cookies, meats and cheeses, and sliced baguettes. Bartender will serve open bar and a wide selection of nonalcoholic beverages. Catering staff will arrive at 11:00 AM to set up.
* Guests: All calls have been made. 182 confirmed guests.
* Out-of-town Guests: Hotel reservations confirmed. Town cars confirmed.
* Clothing: Mrs. Blakely’s (mother—NOT the deceased!!!!!) dress delivered this afternoon. Mr. Blakely’s suit picked up from dry cleaner. Will deliver this evening.
* Yard: Landscaper’s work completed. Will water the evening before the reception.

5. The Memorial

My car reached Mr. Blakely’s home at eight in the morning. Already, five cars snaked along the curve of the road, with three more jammed in the driveway. Alarmed, I scanned the guest list, counting which relatives were authorized to arrive before the service. Nine members of the immediate family. Why didn’t they carpool?

With an assortment of pastries, I climbed out of the car and marveled at the landscaper’s impressive work. Mr. Blakely’s yard was transformed by the addition of blooming plants: showy dahlias and fragrant gardenia bushes lined the path leading to the door. Shifting the platter, I rang the bell.

Like Mr. Blakely, his mother looked much younger than I expected. Her white curls framed her delicate face and her pearl necklace rested elegantly against the raw silk black dress.

“You must be Claire,” she said, taking the platter from my hands. “I’m Sandra Blakely, Greg’s mother. Thank you for your help. I couldn’t have selected a better dress myself.”

I murmured a thank you and entered the house. Mr. Blakely sat at the head of the dining room table as though he were waiting for a formal dinner to be served. Two women huddled beside him like bookends. One was my age, early thirties, and the other was closer to Mr. Blakely’s age. Both had long straight dark hair, alabaster skin, and blue eyes. Striking women usually intimidated me, but I was there in a professional capacity and there was no place for intimidation.

Mr. Blakely stood when he saw me. “You’ve met my mother?”

“Yes,” I said, turning to see where the senior Mrs. Blakely had gone. She must have been in the kitchen.

“These are Jennifer’s sisters, Catherine and Meredith.”

The two women didn’t look up.

“I’m so sorry for your loss,” I said. “Mr. Blakely, as we discussed, I’ll stay here during the service and everything will be in order when you come home for the reception. Are you pleased with the yard?”

“Yes. Jennifer would be pleased.”

“I brought pastries.”

He moved to help me, but I held up my hand. “I can manage it, Mr. Blakely. Please stay with your family. This is why I’m here.”

“Very well,” he said as he returned to his spot between his wife’s sisters.

Mrs. Blakely waited in the kitchen. “I’ve put the platters on the counter. I can arrange the food.”

“Thank you, but I can manage. It’s my job. You should be getting prepared to leave. There might be traffic.”

Mrs. Blakely turned from me but didn’t leave. Like Jennifer’s room, the kitchen was white: the walls, floor, counters, cabinets, and dishes. When I turned around, Mrs. Blakely faced me.

“What can I do to help?” She asked, wearing a strained smile.

“I think I have everything in order.”

“Your job has left me quite useless,” she said. “I have nothing to do but walk in circles.”

“It would be a great help if you could collect everyone. You’ll be late if you don’t leave soon.”

“Very well,” she said. Various members of the immediate family filled each seat in the living room. Gently, she announced it was time to leave. Everyone rose and followed her outside. Mr. Blakely nodded at me as he left. I stood near the door until I heard the last car drive down the hill.

Quickly, I inspected the house and it occurred to me that there should be some sort of shrine to the deceased. I was certain I could find photos somewhere. Maybe from their wedding? All of the rooms were in order, cleaned with cleared tabletops for flowers and platters. I checked the entire house before approaching the closed door at the end of the hall. I rotated the knob and saw another white room with plush carpet, a tall bed, and a long window seat. A table was covered with half a dozen votive candles in matching crystal holders. I gathered them up. A large walk-in closet to my right revealed his dresser. In the bottom drawer tucked beneath his folded sweaters was a large picture of a woman with the same long dark hair as her sisters. The frame, a burnished gold, was exquisite. I carried everything to the dining room.

It didn’t take me long to arrange the photographs with the candles. With the wicks ablaze, I was reminded of Buckingham Palace and how everyone left notes and pictures and candles for Princess Diana when she died.

I stood next to the shrine and waited, and right on schedule, the bell rang, and the caterer arrived with her staff. I was so caught up with the food, helping to direct the bartender and servers to their stations, that I hadn’t heard them come home. I heard his voice first, anguished and then angry, followed by a duet of women hurling curses, Bastard! Motherfucker! Scum! Then the crash, the sound of something hard hitting against the wall, glass scattering across the hardwood floor.

I rushed to them. Mr. Blakely stood hunched over, his hand covering his forehead, a trickle of blood dripping down his temple. The frame, now broken, had hit him first. The sisters, transformed into shrill harpies, continued their shrieks, now chanting, Whore! Slut!

Mrs. Blakely checked her son’s wound and then said in a low voice, “How could you? I thought you had ended it with her.”

I assessed the photo and now saw that the woman in the portrait didn’t resemble the sisters in the least, although it was hard to tell with all of the woman’s makeup. Yes, they all had the same long hair, but the similarity ended there. What had looked like a dress was more of a negligee, deeply cut revealing her generous bust. When I looked up, Mr. Blakely’s furious eyes met mine.

“That’s not Jennifer,” I said.

He shook his head.

“The housekeeper will be here at four. Again, I’m sorry for your loss.” I snatched my purse and clipboard from the table and fled, grateful that I had had enough sense to park down the block so my car wouldn’t get trapped in the driveway.

Grief was famously one-sided, inherently unrequited, the living pining for the dead, who in their disembodied state, were free of pain. Yet Jennifer must have known of her husband’s betrayal, and must have left the world with a wounded heart. I had felt driven to find that photograph, as though her spirit had guided me to the room, to the closet, through his dresser drawers to literally uncover his secret. Now Jennifer could rest in peace.

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  1. […] In New Issues on August 15, 2010 at 12:00 am Calla Devlin presents grief in employment and the employment of grief. « Before Issue 1.48 […]

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