I’m a big fan of manners and doing “the right thing” in situations, whatever that means. I’ve been trying to teach Wesley manners (he calls them ‘matters’) since about five minutes after his birth. I’m not talking manners like: don’t use the corner of the tablecloth to get meat out of your teeth (and you know who you are…) I mean more like: send a thank-you note for wedding gifts, etc.
Last week, I was outside playing with the kids. Okay, really I was trying to keep kids from hitting one another with plastic golf clubs but the point is that we were all outside. And there was a lot of noise. The sounds of plastic clubs banging on the wooden fence, the sounds of children shouting and crying, dogs barking, the voices in my head telling me to just get in the car and drive away, lots of noise. And over all that noise, I heard a female grown-up voice yelling something.
At first I was confused when I heard it but then I answered, “Are you trying to find us?” Our yard is surrounded by a six foot wooden fence so I couldn’t really see anyone.
The mystery voice answered me, “I came to tell you that my husband died. He had a massive heart attack and died.”
It felt as if I had just woken up and someone was trying to make me solve an algebraic equation. I realized after a minute that it was my next door neighbor. I searched my memory for her name – was it Dorothy or Delores or Norma???
Here’s what makes this situation awkward – I can’t see her, we are shouting at eachother over a six foot tall fence, I don’t know her husband (he worked in the oil field and was rarely home), the kids are all suddenly intrigued by the voice on the other side of the fence and shouting who-knows-what back at her, I wasn’t even sure I had her name right, and I wasn’t entirely sure that she was SAD about this death. For all I knew, she could have been thrilled. I mean, the guy was home like three days a month and then it just seemed like he spent the whole time cleaning out his truck. Maybe she had a great insurance policy and was packing her bags for Fiji.
I went with my gut and tried sympathy. “Oh, Norma, I’m so sorry. Is there anything we can do? How are you holding up?”
Luckily this seemed to be what I was supposed to say.
Is there a protocol for situations like this? There should be. There should be a book that tells how to handle awkward situations of all kinds. In fact, I’m going to write one, maybe. It will cover everything from “Giving condolences for a death to a mystery neighbor over a six foot tall fence” to “How to politely decline an invitation to view a stranger’s ‘Scab Collection.’”
It’s sure to be a bestseller.