This piece was published in the San Gabriel Valley Tribune on December 22, 2010.
This is the time of year when we get in touch with people we only get in touch with
once a year. Many people I send cards to are in that category. Still, I want to let them know how I am doing and hope they will also send a card to me. Most of them are people I knew in the past but they still matter today.
One of those people is a co-worker I knew twenty-five years ago. I worked with her at a retirement community in Van Nuys. We were called retirement counselors but we were really rental agents. Betty had been in the business for a few years; I was brand new. She quickly became my teacher and I learned as I watched her gain the confidence of the most skeptical and worried adult child of a frail senior in search of a safe place to live. She would be there the day they moved in and hovered like a mother hen until the tenant was settled.
When we weren’t showing apartments, we worked together in the rental office. After dealing with stressed out families all day we often found humor in the absurdity of life and often laughed so hard we cried. We worked with people who were nearing the end of their lives, living in one room, often ill and alone, having outlived most of their friends and family. We admired them in many ways and treated them with utmost respect and affection, but we needed our downtime too.
Betty had been happily working at a state-of-the art retirement community in Montana but moved back to Los Angeles because her thirty-something daughter, her only child, was ill. Her daughter’s health was precarious and she had to be hospitalized from time to time. I came to understand that Betty’s job was a respite from her difficult home life with her daughter.
Several years earlier, Betty’s husband was tragically killed on the job as steelworker due to negligence on the part of the company. After a protracted lawsuit, Betty received a settlement but she was still alone in the world with her daughter to care for. I admired
her resilience, her constant good humor and positive outlook.
Eventually I moved to another job and Betty followed her heart and moved to Arizona with a man she had become reacquainted with through mutual friends. We talked on the phone occasionally and exchanged Christmas cards.
After a couple of years passed with no phone calls or cards, I called Betty’s daughter a few times but never got a call back. Her number in Arizona was disconnected. I called the corporate headquarters of the retirement community company and spoke to the marketing manager, who knew Betty too. He had lost touch with her as well.
It has been more than a decade since I heard from Betty and I have assumed the worst. I have to conclude that her daughter never let any of her mother’s many friends know what happened to her. I don’t know why her daughter didn’t go through Betty’s address book and call her friends. When someone passes, lots of people who knew them well, even if it was years ago, still care.
In this electronically connected society there is no excuse for not letting people know when a loved one passes. It leaves a gap in the relationship that can never be filled.
When a former neighbor passed, his son stopped by to tell me in person and I was very grateful. I wasn’t family, or even a close friend, but it gave closure. When a loved one passes, it is better to err on the side of giving their friends a call or email. It is best to let people know, especially at this time of year when people stop to think about old friends and miss them still.
Kathleen Vallee Stein