I like to think that I’ve gotten more empathetic as I’ve gotten older. I used to be horrible about it; in any given bad/sad/horrific situation, I had no idea what to say to those involved or whether to say anything at all–consequently, silence was my default position. Nine times out of ten–I have no doubt–this was wrong. “Socially inept” doesn’t even begin to describe it. But as I said, I do feel like I’m better now. I now know, for example, that when someone dies unexpectedly or too young, just being there and listening is best. Dispensing platitudes is ridiculous and redundant, not to mention ultimately being painful for everyone involved. Even in everyday situations, I try to be more aware of other people and ask first before offering suggestions or prospective solutions to the problems they present, just to make sure that’s what’s wanted. Surprisingly often, folks just need someone to listen.
For the past couple of years, I have hated my husband’s job right along with him. I’d tell him how sorry I was that he was miserable when he sent me pictures of the thermometer inside his department at work and when he said that he never stopped sweating from the time he walked in to the time he left. I’ve cringed and shaken my head when he described how sometimes, just being in the immediate vicinity of the machines is hot enough to cause the skin on his arms to bubble. (Honestly, I thought I pretty much understood even though I’d never experienced anything at all like that. I have a decent imagination, and I survived childhood without air conditioning, even though I was one of those unfortunate kids who started sweating as soon as the thermometer topped 80.)
Y’all…I had no clue, and to be absolutely honest, I most likely still don’t. This afternoon, we drove over to my mom’s for a short visit, and I managed to lock my keys (spare key included) in the car. It was 97 degrees, I parked in the full sun, and my car is black. For about half an hour, Hubby and I pulled on my passenger door constantly in order to be able to move the metal hanger back and forth and (seventeen years and two heat strokes later), we finally got it unlocked. In the last five minutes of the struggle (before it was ultimately won), I had to give up and go back in the house. I felt like I was about to vomit, my fingertips were both burned and bruised, and I have never sweat so much in my life. Aside from sweating even more than I was and bearing the brunt of the frustration with how long it was taking to break into my car, my husband was totally fine. When we were finally in the car on the way back home and I was pressing the lukewarm water bottle to my wrists in an attempt to cool off even just a little bit, I asked him if that was as bad as his work.
He was hesitant to answer, I think, because he doesn’t want me to feel too awful about the job he has to do to support us all. “It’s pretty bad, babe. But what’s worse is when they turn on the fans and all they do is circulate the scorching air and dehydrate you more. They’ll run the fans today.”
We have a plan in place to get him out of there in a few years. The eventual solution begins with him going back to school in the fall, a course of action that will be hard on all of us and seriously eat into the time we get to spend together. But I hate that place almost as much as he does, and he needs to get the hell out of there, and that’s what I’ll say from here on out instead of shaking my head and thinking I understand. It turns out that sometimes, the socially appropriate response is to share equally in the other person’s hatred.
And really, I should have learned that lesson from my sister years ago when she told me (at a particularly crappy moment) that she understood completely and that–in the event I ever found myself needing to be rid of a body- she’d be happy to help me with the disposal and get damned creative doing it. I could not have been more grateful to her for saying it; I badly needed a laugh, but it was also really great to know that no matter what happened, there was someone there with me.