A family recipe, a childhood memory, a Depression-era handout
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I know a guy whose wife fell in love with another man. She told him about it first thing in the morning on a summer day. She then went to start the coffee.
What did you do? I asked.
Just lay abed, he said, listening to her puttering in the kitchen. Everyone thinks that awful comes by itself, but it doesn’t. It comes hand in hand with normal. No one talks about this. You’re watching the basketball game when the phone rings and you find out your grandfather didn’t wake up this morning. At the scene of the terrible car crash there’s a baseball glove that fell out of one of the cars. The awful is inside the normal. Like normal is pregnant with awful. We know this, but we don’t talk about it. A guy has a stroke at his desk, but no one knows because he has the door closed, which everyone takes as a sign he’s on an important call. I just lay abed. It wasn’t heavy, like I couldn’t move or anything. It wasn’t dramatic. I was just listening. She got the coffee ready and I shuffled out and we had coffee and didn’t say anything. No words came to mind. That’s another thing no one says — that when you are completely shocked and horrified and broken and aghast, you don’t actually rage and weep and storm around the house. Or at least I didn’t. Maybe some people do. But I don’t think so. I think probably most people are like me and just continue along, doing what they were going to do. I took a shower and got dressed and went to work. My brother says I must have been in shock, but I don’t know about that. I mean, I was shocked, sure I was. But I think it’s more that there had been a terrible car crash and I was noticing the normal. It was a Saturday, so the kids were sleeping in. I go to work on Saturdays, so I went to work. Lovely day, one of those days when you see dragonflies all day long. Dragonflies are very cool. People think you look for metaphors after something like that, but I think we just keep walking. That’s what I think. I mean, of course I thought about stuff like should we get divorced and how could she fall in love with another guy and how come she fell out of love with me, but mostly I thought about the kids. Sometimes I thought about the other guy, but not so much. I did wonder if we could ever get it together again, but not too much. I went to the bank and to pick up a suit at the tailor. I had a hard few moments there, because the tailor gave me an envelope with the stuff that had been in my suit pockets. This was my best suit, so I wore it for dates and weddings and wakes. There were a couple of Mass cards from funerals and wedding invites, but also there were two tampons just in case she needed them, and a photo of us at a wedding on the beach, and a ring our daughter had given me, one of those rings that you can make whistle. That ring nailed me. You would think it would be the photo of us beaming on the beach, but it was the ring.
A soldier friend of mine tells me the same thing happens when you are in a fight: that everything’s normal, and then it isn’t, and then it’s normal again, except if there are guys screaming or crumpled and not screaming. You get up cautiously from where you are kneeling, and you look around, and everything’s just like it was a minute ago, coffee and dragonflies and the kids sleeping in, and then you just keep moving. It’s sort of boring, I guess, from a certain perspective.
Brian Doyle had surgery last November to remove a brain tumor. See our note in this issue for information on how you can help him and his family.
In his essay “Everyone Thinks That Awful Comes By Itself, But It Doesn’t” [February 2017] Brian Doyle says that life’s hardships come “hand in hand with normal.” In the same issue you ran an announcement about Doyle’s surgery for a brain tumor. You included this quote from Doyle: “Be tender to each other, teach a kid to read, laugh, be more tender than yesterday, repeat, ad infinitum.” Like his essays and stories, his comment is simple, elevating, and generous.