Empathy Takes a Toll


I’m on my front lawn installing a wire cage around an aspen sapling to keep the grazing deer off the sweet new leaves. Less than four feet tall, I hope the tree will make it.

A dark sedan pulls up in front of my house. I stay with my work for a moment, bending back tines to connect the circle.

I look up and walk over and lean on the open passenger window. It’s Jean from across the street, my neighbor for 25 years. Or from down the street now. She recently sold her house—the pending sign is still up—and moved in temporarily with Louise a few houses down, another elderly widow in her 80s living alone, confined to a wheelchair. Up until now a snowbird, Jean is staying with Louise for a few months until the sale of her house closes and summer ends and she heads back to Florida.

It’s been tough times these past few years for Jean. She’s always complained, in what I think is a loving way, about Tim, and then he took a fall and ended up in a nursing home and the dementia set in and the visits became painful. He finally died this past year. Jean was in Florida at the time. The nurse said he died with a smile on his face, Jean tells me.

I hope I do, I say.

Her car engine is running and the interior is perfect creamy leather and I’m trying to see if she’s in park or if her foot is on the brake. I’ve been squatting with my arms on the doorsill but my back is getting sore so I lower to one knee because this isn’t just a passing hello.

The first two weeks living with Louise went fine, Jean says, but then Louise stopped talking to her. And she was a pack rat and stuff was everywhere and the back door didn’t work right and the kitchen was old and the house cold. Jean had to wear her coat inside for an entire week.

But still Jean wanted to do something nice for Louise. So she had the broken down old bird feeder in the backyard taken down—it was missing two sides and had no tray—and had a new one put in, with squirrel protection. With a mounting post. And bird seed.

Rather than appreciating the gesture, Louise flipped out. That old bird feeder was the last reminder she had of her late husband. She wanted to look upon the remnants of that bird feeder until the day she died. Jean had no idea. How could she?

Jean isn’t sure what’s next. She’s trembling a bit. Her voice shakes. Her distress becomes mine and I feel my anxiety climbing. I try to ask her a few questions to distract her, but quickly realize she doesn’t want to answer questions. She has a story she needs to tell.

The other day she went to Adams Station and looked at one-bedroom apartments. They’re quite nice, spotless clean, and she put a deposit on one, but she’s on her way over there right now because she’s changed her mind. She’s already sold all her furniture in an estate sale. She can’t move again. She thinks she’ll return to Florida sooner, although her daughter won’t be happy about that, but one thing for sure is she’s not going to keep staying with Louise.

Suddenly she asks what I’m planting there.

That’s a quaking aspen. I’m trying to fill my property with trees.

She says there are way too many trees at Louise’s and it’s too dark inside and there’s a messy pile of leaves in the backyard. I say I can imagine it’s hard to keep up a big home and property when you’re confined to a wheelchair. At the mention of wheelchair Jean turns the subject back to Tim and how he never wanted to be in a nursing home (tell me, who does?) and whenever she went to visit him he asked if she brought his wallet and when she said no he said get out. He didn’t know what he was saying, but it was painful nonetheless. She wasn’t there when he died, she repeats. She was in Florida.

I nod my head. A beat of silence. You’re going through a lot, I say. So much has changed in your life. I can imagine you feel very unsettled. I ask if I can do anything for her.

She looks a little startled, then smiles.

To write fiction you need to have empathy. You must be able to imagine and understand another person, to experience their feelings, to live and love and suffer as they do. I possess some of this empathy trait and I’m exhibiting it now.

But it’s a struggle. While Jean kept on talking, my attention began to waver and I had to force myself to focus on what she was saying. To really listen and pay attention. I felt her experience, but that didn’t mean I wanted to keep on feeling it. I had my aspen to attend to. I hate having to admit that. I’m trying to do better. I did better today.

By David Klein

David Klein

Published novelist, creative writer, journalist, avid reader, discriminating screen watcher.


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