We've lived next door to Ellen and her husband, Dave, for over 20 years, and she was always a person I avoided like the plague. My husband Bob sometimes played racket ball with Dave, but I have never wanted to get socially involved with her. Even at Bob's hint that they were winos like us, I wasn't interested.
I had always found her too loud - I could hear her yelling at Dave, her stepson, or their son through both our exterior walls; too nosey - she always seemed to poke her nose outside whenever I was out in the garden; too domineering - she made her husband throw his son out of their house, and much too pushy. I couldn't believe her chutzpah when she appeared at our door with her oldest daughter and a six-pack of beer as soon as she found out we had two young, handsome male houseguests - my nephew and his friend - staying with us for a few weeks. That was the end of my patience.
But it all changed the day our son Paul died. She offered to put up out-of-town relatives, she brought over bagels and cream cheese in the morning, and she supplied the coffee for the open house after the funeral. She was just there with calls and flowers and kinds words, and then the basket. The word, "suicide," didn't make her back off.
One night right before Thanksgiving, the first after Paul's death, Ellen left a basket on my doorstep. She said in her note that she dreaded the holidays after her mother died, so she gathered - "harvested" was the word she used - a few things to ease the holiday season for me. As I read her note and looked through the basket I cried, not only out of the dread of being without Paul on Thanksgiving, Hannukah and his New Year's Eve birthday, but for the generosity and caring of a person I hardly knew and never really wanted to know. In such a quiet and unassuming way, she showed me real human compassion and understanding. She never needed to ask me a lot of questions, and she didn't intrude on my privacy. She just let me know she was there for me if I needed her.
Among the items inside - each one separately wrapped - was a book about coping with the loss of a love - unlike most others. This one was in poetry - she knew I wrote poetry - and the first book I was able to concentrate on enough to read through after Paul died. She also included a journal, a sweet smelling candle, a box of absolutely delicious chocolate covered graham crackers, and a smooth gray stone. Early on this stone became my biggest comfort. Just large enough to fit in the palm of my hand, it feels the perfect size when I close my hand around it. One edge is round and the other is triangular. One side is plain; the other has the word "son" carved into it. Those first couple of months after his death, my little stone became my nighttime friend.
I soon got into the habit of going to bed with it. Once settled, I held it on my chest just between my breasts. I liked its coldness on my aching heart. It helped me relax. Holding it in my hand and reading the word with my thumb also helped. I carried it around with me in my pocket for a while. I wanted to feel that something was there for me. Then, I began to wonder about my own sanity. Was I trying to exchange my son for a stone?
When I got a little more together I could let go of it during the day and let it rest on another item from that basket. A little silk-covered sachet pillow that smells like lavender. It has hand painted butterflies and the word "heal" printed on the silk.
Causes Madeline Sharples Supports
Didi Hirsch Community Mental Health Center, Culver City, CA
Vistamar School, El Segundo, CA
Crossroads School, Santa Monica, CA (Endowment in...