There are only a few things more heartbreaking to me than seeing a person of elderly status in their robe and house shoes shuffling out their driveway to look in the mailbox. In no order: abused animals or children; animals covered in oil; young children with terminal illnesses; and finally, severe addicts. All but the latter are innocent and helpless to control the problem, but it also hurts to watch an alcoholic order another drink when he doesn’t need one, or a gambler stumbling to the ATM again. Nevertheless, it makes me want to cry for my and our collective future when I see the desire for mail. I watched my grandfather do it, I’ve seen neighbors do it, I saw the old lady in Donnie Darko do it and each time I either cry or feel like crying. After talking about this issue with friends, therapists and my journal, I still have no idea where the underlying sadness comes from with this life moment. Sure, there’s no mail there, big deal right? No, it is a horrible, horrible moment to walk to the box, stand in front of the unknown, and find nothing.
There isn’t even junk mail. What would you do, turn around? Would you think, maybe the mail hasn’t come yet, maybe it fell between the mailman’s seats, maybe it got lost, maybe the stamp came unglued, maybe. The desire for tangible communication, or visual stimuli of another’s thoughts for you is palpable and easy to understand. Have you ever gotten a wedding invitation, a test result, a college acceptance letter, a hand written thank you card, a postcard, a letter from some local politician? It means something to actually hold that stamped mail in your hand and wonder the whole walk back to your front door what could be in there? Who is it from, from where was it sent?
Nowadays, our inbox tells us before we read it who wrote to us. There is no guessing or surprise. We all use email, but respect the USPS. When something important needs to be mailed, we put that stamp on it, and we know it will get there. The sadness for me lies in the nothingness of that empty box. Returning empty handed to your presumably empty house, where your children used to play, where you and your deceased spouse used to sit together, where your memories live, where you are now dying.
Death comes to us all, but we like to know we lived it. Picking up the non-existent mail feels like the acquiescence to the inevitable. What if death is like that exercise? Each day of eternity is an empty mailbox, each never-ending moment is waiting for mail that doesn’t arrive and never will; but because we don’t know we’re dead and the sun never sets, it seems like just one day, and maybe the mail just hasn’t arrived yet.
I never want to be waiting on mail, but I’m waiting for mail right now, at 30. I’m waiting for an important document to arrive after 6 weeks of processing. I check the mail each day, looking for a formal sealed letter with an official stamp, but it hasn’t come. I felt that old familiar feeling of being let down by something out of my control. But instead of watching my grandpa or my neighbor open that empty box, I was watching through my own eyes as I felt that sting of emptiness. The emptiness that can only be filled when it arrives.