There are a handful of people, during your lifetime, who know you well enough to understand when the right thing to say is to say nothing at all. Those people—and there will be, at most, only a few of them—will be with you during your very worst times. When you think you cannot bear that with which the world has hit you, the silent presence of those friends will be all you have, and all that matters.
When, during an already painful juncture in my life, my wife died, I was so numb that I felt dead myself. In the hours after her death, as our children and I tried in vain to figure out what to do next, how to get from hour to hour, the phone must have been ringing, but I have no recollection of it.
The next morning — one of those mornings when you awaken, blink to start the day, and then, a dispiriting second later, realize anew what has just happened, and feel the boulder press you against the earth with such weight that you truly fear you will never be able to get up—the phone rang and it was Jack.
I didn't want to hear any voice — even his voice. I just wanted to cover myself with darkness.
I knew he would be asking if there was anything he could do. But I should have known that he'd already done it.
"I'm in Chicago," he said.
I misunderstood him; I thought he was offering to come to Chicago.
"I took the first flight this morning," he said. He had heard; he had flown in.
"I know you probably don't want to see anyone," he said. "That's all right. I've checked into a hotel, and I'll just sit in the room in case you need me to do anything. I can do whatever you want, or I can do nothing."
He meant it. He knew the best thing he could do was be present in the same town; to tell me he was there. And he did just sit there—I assume he watched TV, or did some work, but he waited until I gathered the strength to say I needed him. He helped me with things no man ever wants to need help with; mostly he sat with me and knew I did not require conversation, did not welcome chatter, did not need anything beyond the knowledge he was there. He brought food for my children and by sharing my silence he got me through those days.