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Hallmark Hell

Greeting cards are a fading tradition, I think. A friend and I recently talked about how difficult it is to find a nice card these days — so many of them are edgy and sarcastic, with references to getting drunk on your birthday, the size of your rear, or other uncouth references to bodily functions. The discussion reminded me of this piece, which I wrote long ago, describing another kind of greeting card dilemma.

I’ve just come from the card store where I found myself walking around sobbing openly.  It wasn’t because it’s the day before Valentine’s Day and no one will send me a Valentine (even though my husband won’t, but that’s a subject for another day).

Feeling pained among the cards isn’t a new thing for me.  Father’s Day used to be the worst, when sometimes I’d spend more than an hour looking at every single card, growing more and more anxious, trying to find one suitable for my intractable alcoholic father.  Somehow the ones that said “Dad, You’re Always There for Me” or “For the World’s Greatest Dad” didn’t quite seem to fit.  And there were never any that said, “You managed to go six months without DTs — all riiiiight!” Or “To Dad:  At Least You Didn’t Beat or Molest Us.”  A loving cup or trophy would have been the perfect visual for either of those.

Finally I’d settle on some stiff little greeting that said something like “Thinking of You on Father’s Day.” All that was left unsaid in that card could fill a moving van.  Strange, but after my father died I didn’t miss him at all, really, but I did feel wistful about those searches for a card.

Then there are the cards that say “To My Sister” which still tear my heart out, 16 years after my sister died of cancer at 33.  She died in February 1988, and the Valentine I bought for her that year, but never gave her because she died the week before, is still in my drawer.

Today I was looking for a card to send to my in-laws’ next-door neighbor, a woman I’ve gotten to know in the 11 years I’ve been married and visiting their home in San Diego.  Dolores has ALS, and is deteriorating rapidly only a few months after diagnosis.  My mother-in-law was here over the weekend, and told me she can no longer understand when Dolores speaks.  She had to have a feeding tube put in last week, because she can no longer swallow.

My mother- and father-in-law seemed frustrated, almost angry, when they talked about her, focusing on the fact that she “keeps eating even though she knows she’s not supposed to.”  “She almost choked on a noodle last week,” my mother-in-law said in apparent exasperation.

I heard myself say to them sharply, “Well, I understand why she keeps eating.  Can you imagine accepting that you can never eat again?  Eating is one of life’s greatest pleasures.  How would you like that pleasure being exchanged for grey, viscous liquid pumped in through a tube?”  Then I stopped because I was feeling my outrage gather, at them for what I perceived as insensitivity, at the cruelty of such a devastating disease.

None of the cards I looked at for Dolores seemed to fit, either.  “Get Well Soon” definitely won’t do it, because there’s no way she is going to pull out of this one.  The “Encouragement” or “Cope” section had cavity-inducing cards with little ditties about hope, taking the first step, or else had a jocular, rah-rah, you-can-do-it kind of tone.

I don’t know Dolores very well, but in our brief encounters over the years her kindness came through. She regularly gave us big bags of wonderful oranges from her trees.  She often had a small surprise for our son — a tiny lunchbox with trains on it, or a seeming piece of cardboard that, soaked in water, bloomed into a washcloth with Pooh and Eeyore on it.  If we ever brought something for her — chocolate or a Christmas ornament at the holidays, she would write a long thank-you note in beautiful, curling script.

I finally found a card that said, “thinking of you with love.”  It would have to do.  I went to pay for it, tears streaming down my face.  The woman at the cash register has seen all this before, of course; I’m not the only person who has had a basket-case incident in her store.

Like those long-ago cards sent to my father, this one leaves much unsaid, too, although for different reasons and in different ways.

About treacycolbert

I make my living by writing about health care. I've always written about life's chastening effect, but just as a way of sorting it out for myself. After years of doing this and keeping these essays quiet, I decided to put some of these impressions out there on this blog. Thanks for reading, and let me know what you think.

2 responses »

  1. Treacy, I just got around to reading this one, and as often happens, tears well up in my eyes at your storytelling. I’ve always had trouble finding appropriate cards for my mostly-absent-from-our-lives in-laws. My mother-in-law did try a bit harder to connect with us and her grandchildren in her last years, but still… I’ve given up on sending cards to my father-in-law. I figure that he’s not that interested anyway. And, we’ve all known someone to whom a get-well card just doesn’t suffice. Thanks for putting into words what so many people experience.


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