Still in shock, I stumbled about the house trying to decide what to put into the suitcases. Earlier that evening, I’d received a call from my hometown in Missouri telling me that my brother, his wife, her sister and both the sister’s children had been killed in a car crash. “Come as soon as you can,” begged my mother.
That’s what I wanted to do – to leave at once, to hurry to my parents. But my husband, Larry, and I were in the midst of packing all our belongings to move from Ohio to New Mexico. Our house was in total confusion. Some of the clothes that Larry and I and our two young children, Eric and Meghan, would need were already taped up in cartons. Which ones? Stunned by grief, I couldn’t remember. Other clothes lay unwashed in a pile on the laundry-room floor. Supper dishes still sat on the kitchen table. Toys were strewn everywhere.
While Larry made plane reservations for the following morning, I wandered about the house, aimlessly picking things up and putting them down. I couldn’t focus. Again and again, the words I’d heard on the phone echoed through my head: “Bill is gone – Marilyn too. June – and both the children …”
It was as though the message had muffled my brain with cotton. Whenever Larry spoke, he sounded far away. As I moved through the house, I ran into doors and tripped over chairs.
Larry made arrangements for us to leave by seven o’clock the next morning. Then he phoned a few friends to tell them what had happened. Occasionally, someone asked to speak to me. “If there’s anything I can do, let me know,” that person would offer kindly.
“Thank you very much,” I’d reply. But I didn’t know what to ask for. I couldn’t concentrate.
I sat in a chair, staring into space, while Larry called Donna King, the woman with whom I taught a nursery class at church each Sunday. Donna and I were casual friends, but we didn’t see each other often. She and Emerson, her thin, quiet husband, were kept busy during the week by their own “nursery” – six children ranging in age from two to 15. I was glad Larry had thought to warn her that she’d have the nursery class alone the coming Sunday.
While I sat there, Meghan darted by, clutching a ball. Eric chased after her. They should be in bed, I thought. I followed them into the living room. My legs dragged. My hands felt gloved with lead. I sank down on the couch in a stupor.
When the doorbell rang, I rose slowly and crept across the room. I opened the door to see Emerson King standing on the porch.
“I’ve come to clean your shoes,” he said.
Confused, I asked him to repeat.
“Donna had to stay with the baby,” he said, “but we want to help you. I remember when my father died, it took me hours to get the children’s shoes cleaned and shined for the funeral. So that’s what I’ve come to do for you. Give me your shoes – not just your good shoes, but all your shoes.”
I hadn’t even thought about shoes until he mentioned them. Now I remembered that Eric had left the sidewalk to wade through the mud in his good shoes after church the previous Sunday. Not to be outdone by her brother, Meghan had kicked rocks, scuffing the toes of her shoes. When we’d returned, I’d tossed them into the laundry room to clean later.
While Emerson spread newspapers on the kitchen floor, I gathered Larry’s dress and everyday shoes, my heels, my flats, the children’s dirty dress shoes, and their sneakers with the food spots. Emerson found a pan and filled it with soapy water. He got an old knife out of a drawer and retrieved a sponge from under the sink. Larry had to rummage through several cartons, but at last he located the shoe polish.
Emerson settled himself on the floor and got to work. Watching him concentrate intently on one task helped me pull my own thoughts into order. Laundry first, I told myself. As the washer chugged, Larry and I bathed the children and put them to bed.
While we cleared the supper dishes, Emerson continued to work, saying nothing. The love in the act released my tears at last, healing rain to wash the fog from my mind. I could move. I could think. I could get on with the business of living.
One by one, the jobs fell into place. I went into the laundry room to put a load of wash into the dryer, returning to the kitchen to find that Emerson had left. In a line against one wall stood all our shoes, gleaming, spotless. Later, when I started to pack, I saw that Emerson had even scrubbed the soles. I could put the shoes directly into the suitcases.
We got to bed late and rose very early, but by the time we left for the airport, all the jobs had been done. Ahead lay grim, sad days, but the comfort of Christ’s presence, symbolised by the image of a quiet man kneeling on my kitchen floor with a pan of water, would sustain me.
Now whenever I hear of an acquaintance who has lost a loved one, I no longer call with the vague offer, “If there’s anything I can do …” Instead I try to think of one specific task that suits that person’s need – such as washing the family car, taking the dog to the boarding kennel, or house-sitting during the funeral. And if the person says to me, “How did you know I needed that done?” I reply, “It’s because a man once cleaned my shoes.”
Adapted from On Children and Death, Copyright © 1983 by Elizabeth Kubler-Ross. Published by Touchstone, a division of Simon & Schuster, Inc. This article originally appeared in the December 1983 issue of Reader’s Digest