“Um…what month is this?”

At a single-story manufactured home tucked in the woods up a curving side road, I rang the doorbell, stepped back from the door and waited. No answer. There was a car in the driveway, and the grass had been mowed recently, but the place had a forlorn look about it. Then I knocked, in case the doorbell didn’t work.  An old man stepped out of a side door under the carport.

I said, brightly, “Hi! I’m from the US Census and I’m here to do the census questionnaire for this address.” He shuffled slowly over to a plastic garden chair and sat down resignedly. He seemed faded. I wondered if he was ill or maybe had some cognitive decline.

I toned down my brightness level and asked with genuine concern, “How are you doing today, sir?”

“Not very well. Not very well at all.”

“I’m sorry to hear that, sir. This should only take about 10 minutes.” I figured the best I could do for him was to get out of his hair as quickly as possible and not wear him out. I dove into the routine, handing him the information sheet, telling this (it turns out) 83 year old man that his answers will be confidential until long after we are all dead.

Did you live here on April 1? What is your name? In case we need to check on the accuracy of our work, what is the best phone number to reach you at? He answered each question as if deeply fatigued.

“This Is August”

“Besides yourself, how many people lived at this address on April 1st?”

This stumped him. “Um…what month is this?” he asked in a lost voice. I said gently, “This is August. I know in these strange times it is hard to remember what day it even is.”

He thought. “Yes, I think my wife was still alive then. No, no, she had passed by then, I think. Just me.” His eyes were cast to the ground at his feet.

I was at a loss for words when I realized that his wife had just recently died. “Oh! I am so sorry, sir.”

“So am I,” he said slowly, “We were together 61 years. You don’t expect to be left alone. She was younger than me. It’s not fair.”  I agreed that that was not how one expected life to be. The poor man. He was completely lost.

“Do you have any children?”

“I have a son. He’s a retired firefighter. He’s coming up from San Diego any time now to stay here with me. I guess he feels sorry for me.”

“He must be worried about you. He cares about you. You are fortunate in that anyway. That will be good for him to be here with you. He’s driving up?”

“Yes, today. He should be here any time now.” I wasn’t sure whether to believe him or if it was wishful thinking on his part or if he even knew what day it was.

Enumerating Loss

We finished up the questionnaire quickly and I thanked him for his cooperation. “Once again, I’m really sorry about your wife. I’m glad your son is coming up to be with you. Take care.” He nodded and looked down at the ground again.

My next address was around the corner, and when I was done, I drove back down to the main road, passing the old widower’s home. There was now an SUV in the driveway, with California plates. I breathed a sigh of relief. His son really was going to stay with him, and he wouldn’t be alone.

I thought about the pain of having the loss of your spouse officially enumerated, of being made to say it aloud and to have your grief on display to a perfect stranger.

Mickey Rooney and Frank Morgan in a scen from MGM's production of The Human Comedy
Mickey Rooney played Homer Macauley in MGM’s 1943 production of “The Human Comedy”. Here he is in a scene with Frank Morgan.

And it being Covid times, I couldn’t even put a hand on his shoulder in sympathy or make him a cup of tea. I felt like Homer Macauley, the teenage telegraph messenger in William Saroyan’s “The Human Comedy”, except instead of being the helpless bearer of bad news, I was merely the hapless official recorder of it.

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