Grieving people sometimes find it therapeutic returning to work, finding solace in established routines and familiar faces while others need to avoid their job altogether. Everyone’s different, but I found myself comfortable with neither option. But since I work in social services and people’s needs don’t take a day off, I dragged myself into the office after the funeral. Sure enough, the moment my ass hit my chair, the doorbell rang and I found myself wishing I called out sick.  

As soon as my first client walked in I was hit with a vituperative, self-pitying tale of woe that’s I’d already heard a hundred times. I also knew any solutions I offered would be swatted down and that the person would make no substantiative attempt to get help.  “I already tried that,” they’d say or “That will never work” and launch into a hateful diatribe about why everyone else was the source of their problems.  Normally, this kind of stuff doesn’t bother me – but today it did. I wondered if running out the door screaming would be untherapeutic. Probably. 

I stayed put instead, keeping my gaze fixed on the bridge of the client’s nose instead– a trick I learned as a waiter – making made them think I engaged when I was actually anything but. Breathing from my abdomen, I struggled to keep my face impassive as I staggered under the tsunami of rage that surged across my desk. Then, after the minute hand on my office clock ticked fifteen times, the client tearfully concluded and thanked me for listening. 

“No problem,” I said.  “That’s why I’m here.” Then, when the client left, I put my head down on my desk.

 “God,” I groaned. “Don’t let me lose it today.”  

As anyone in the helping professions knows, it’s very hard to do your job when you’re an emotional wreck yourself. How can you give solace to people, much less really listen, when your own heart is broken? I only have so much energy and, sadly, after factoring the drawdowns being a husband, father and son demands, there wasn’t much left of me go around. But I somehow didn’t lose it that day, the next day, or the day after that. Then, before I knew it, a month had passed and I was, professionally at least, back to my old self. 

“Daddy,” my daughter said when I picked her up from school this Tuesday. “Can you take me to the playground?” 

“Sure, honey. It’s a beautiful day.” 

“If the ice cream truck comes, will you buy me an ice cream cone?” 

“No honey, it’ll spoil your dinner.” 

“Okay,” Natalie, said, disappointed. 

When we got to the mobbed playground, however, Natalie’s sugar chagrin dissipated as soon as she started cavorting with her friends on the monkey bars. Restless, I walked over to look at the memorial pavers people bought when they donated to the playground’s reconstruction several years ago. The brick my wife and I donated read, “Have Fun Natalie” and was signed, “Love Mom, Dad, Buster and Felix.”  Then, a little further down the path, I found the brick my parents donated signed, “Love Me-Maw and Pa.” But three of those names had gone to their great reward and, one day, I knew the rest of them would follow.  Would those bricks still be here when Natalie has her own children? Will she feel the same pang I was feeling?  Who knows? The playground might be in its fourth iteration by then – complete with AI powered merry-go-rounds. 

“Hello Mister Steve,” a voice said, interrupting my sadness but, when I turned toward the source, I didn’t see anyone – but that was because my radar wasn’t set low enough. Looking down, I saw It was the child of one of my clients. 

“Hi,” a little girl said, “Nice to see you again.”

Since I live in the town I work in, I have an ironclad policy when it comes to running into my clients in public – say nothing unless they acknowledge me first. Sometimes people don’t like being reminded they come to my food pantry. But did that apply to their children? It also didn’t help I couldn’t remember this child’s name. There are so many. 

“Nice to see you too!” I said, beaming, hoping the girl couldn’t sense the blank I was drawing. “When did I see you last?” 

“In March,” she said. “You gave me some coloring books.” Ah. Now I remembered. 

“How’s school, going Esmerelda?” 

“Good,” she said, beaming that I remembered her name.

“What are you in now? The second grade?”  

“Third.” When I first met her, she was a baby.

“Awesome. College will be here before you know it.” 

‘Well, I have to go. Nice seeing you Mister Steve.”  While I encourage clients to call me by my first name, many of them insist on calling me, “Mister Steve.” I don’t correct them because I know it’s a token of their respect.  

“Nice to see you too Esmerelda,” I said. 

“God bless you.”

“Thank you,” I said, surprised. Then the girl skipped away. 

Esmerelda’s been coming to my office with her mother and siblings for years and always walks out with a little something fun– candy, coloring books, stuffed animals, crayons, Count Chocula, and always appreciates it. For her, the food pantry is a happy place and I hope that glow will cling to her as she gets older; when she remembers there were people who were nice to her just because she was her and wanted nothing in return. Hopefully that memory will pay dividends later on. 

I don’t remember Esmerelda and her mom coming in March but, then again, my memory’s been shot to pieces lately. It must’ve been just after my father’s funeral, when I was barely sentient and off my game. Luckily, I somehow kept myself under wraps and gave her a coloring book, not allowing her to see my adult pain because, sadly, she sees enough of that already. I guess there’s something to be said for keeping your shit together. 

“Mister Steve,” another voice said. Turning, I saw it belonged to Esmerelda’s mom. 

“Hey,” I said, “How are you?” 

“Sorry about your dad,” 

“Thank you.” 

“Take care of yourself.” 

“I will,” I said, wondering if she told her daughter about my loss. Maybe that’s why she said. “God bless you.” 

I didn’t tell my clients my father died but it’s a small town and word gets around.  Some of them offered condolences like Esmerelda’s mom or sent sympathy cards while an elderly client came to my father’s wake at great physical expense to themselves.  That touched me deeply, making me remember what a seminary classmate told me after he had thirty years of priesthood under his belt. “My flock has ministered to me far more than I ever ministered to them.” Ain’t that the truth. Yet again, I was grateful for the privileged perch I occupy, albeit temporarily, in the parish I never got to have. “You started out thinking you’d be called ‘Father Steve,’ my wife once said. “But you ended up being called ‘Mister Steve.’”  

I took Natalie out for ice cream that night, grateful how crooked ways are sometimes made straight.

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