Fish Fries and Lonely People

“All the lonely people
Where do they all come from?”
-Lennon and McCartney

The Friday Catholic church fish fry: a St. Louis institution. I have no idea of how or where it got started, but it makes sense to assume that the first event was organized by someone who felt that it would be easier for Catholics to comply with the Friday ban on eating meat if they could go to their local church and eat sanctioned fish there. It also makes sense to assume that there was a fund raising motive behind the idea. We do this to our charities: we believe in them; champion them; tell all of our friends how good a job they do. Then we fail to give them enough money for them to achieve their stated goals.
Instead we volunteer our time. Thousands of people spend tens of thousands of hours running their tails off in endless fund raising endeavors. It would make much more sense for us to calculate how much we’d make if we put in all of those extra hours at work, then donate that amount. But there are ulterior benefits to the fund raiser. Some people make it their full-time job. It is a career these days, many times very well compensated. There’s a social aspect that adds value: all of the neighbors get to work together and cooperate with each other. And it expands the donor base. You’d never think of asking a Jewish person to give money to a Catholic church, but you feel it’s perfectly OK to ask them to come have some fish with you, to benefit the same institution that you would otherwise not ask them to fund. Turnabout is fair play: your Catholic children have probably attended a Purim carnival or two. But I digress.
In St. Louis the Friday fish fry has become so much a part of our fabric that it’s almost a religion by itself. There are churches that only do it during Lent, when the meat eating ban still stands (for the few of you who do not know, a long time ago all Catholics were forbidden from eating meat on all Fridays. Restaurants used to feature fish on their menus; school lunches reflected this reality. A while back the ban was rescinded; now it’s only forbidden to eat Friday meat during Lent). Some churches make it a permanent fixture. There is vigorous competition between churches as to which one provides the best fare. Many families look nowhere else when they think of where to go for Friday dinner.
In north St. Louis County, the fish fry at St. Ferdinand has an immaculate reputation. Before 4PM people are lined up on the gym floor waiting to be served. They run three lines, and a 45 minute wait is not unusual. People who were raised in the neighborhood and now live far away will come to reminisce about the old days. Most of the consumers take their meal home. A few stay around to eat with their families.
A few years ago I was getting ready to finish my Friday hours when my wife called up. She had a craving for St. Ferdinand fish (she was raised not far from this neighborhood). Would I stop by and pick up a few pieces? The church is three blocks away from my former office. Of course I could do this. She warned me to get there early; otherwise I’d have a long wait.
One thing led to another. The last patient of the day was a needy person. It took a long time to dispose of all her issues. There were a few phone calls that needed attention, and a couple of last-minute lab results were bounced on top of my desk. By the time I got to the church it was 4:30 and the parking lot was already full.
I exhaled a quiet curse, parked across the street, and ran out of my car. I passed a few families who were slowly walking to the gym. I felt that everyone was looking at me in a strange way, but I couldn’t figure out why. When I got to the top of the line I realized what I had done: I was wearing a jacket and tie, and my stethoscope was hanging out of the jacket pocket, almost falling out.
Nothing against north county residents: they have provided me with an excellent livelihood for all of my career. But you just don’t go to a fish fry in a gym wearing a jacket and tie, and it does look a bit presumptuous to have a stethoscope in full view. I stifled another curse, very conscious that I was next to the holy place. I decided I’d go through the line looking straight up to the ceiling. Maybe if I didn’t look at anyone they would ignore me. A mildly overweight gentleman who looked to be in his early sixties stood in line behind me. He was alone.
Ten minutes went by. I noticed that he took fifty peeks at my stethoscope during this time. With every look he inched closer to me, until I could almost hear him breathe. I braced myself. I knew what was coming.
“Are you a doctor?” There; it happened. I resigned myself to providing a half hour of free advice.
Yes; I practice just down the street.
“Doctors work very hard.” I nodded.
We all work hard; just different jobs.
“My wife had a good doctor, Dr. ____. Surely you know of him.”
I can’t say that I do. There are many of us; lots of good docs that I don’t know.
“He was very good to her. Always had time for her.”
“She died four months ago. Diabetes and a massive heart attack.”
I’m sorry. Quietly I wonder why we use the word “massive” when we tell patients about deadly heart attacks. No heart attack is anything to sneeze at. I wonder how much longer before we get to the fish.
I sneak a peek down the line, breaking my vow to look up to the ceiling.
“I left for work one day. She was fine. When I got to work I had a premonition.”
Funny how that happens. I hear that a lot; people who can tell from far away that a loved one is not well.
“I called and there was no answer. I left work. When I got home I found her lying on the living room floor. She was gone.” Now I know for sure that the fish craving was a bad idea.
I can’t imagine how you must have felt. It’s something that will always stay with you. I’m sorry.
A few moments of silence.
“She was a good woman. Took good care of me.”
I’m sure she did. How long were you together?
“Forty years next week.” His eyes moistened. Another minute of silence.
“I did not treat her well. Kind of took her for granted, you know?” I can see that we won’t get to the fish any time soon. This is going to be my baby to deliver. I realize that I better switch to my doctor mode.
Most of us guys are like that. I think women get used to it.
“She never complained. She cooked, and cleaned, and took care of the house. She was a great mother to our kids. I never thanked her; rarely took her anywhere. And she was always so happy!”
Maybe you were giving her most of the things she wanted. Women are very different from us. Most of all they want peace and security. They love beauty. Maybe she was fine knowing that she had a nice warm home, and a husband who came home every day. She probably enjoyed growing a few flowers. She felt that she had a good life.
He smiled. “She loved the yard. Grew a ton of flowers. All of our neighbors were jealous.”
There you go. So you did give her what she wanted.
“Maybe.” I can tell that he’s halfway to being convinced. “I still feel that I could have done better. Should have appreciated her more. Now look at me: I hate to go home to an empty house every day. I come to places like this so that I can feel that I’m around people. So that I don’t feel like I’m eating alone.”
I make an instant executive decision. My wife will eat cold fish tonight.
I’ll have dinner with you. I have a few ideas that may help you.
We ate fried fish and spaghetti on the folding tables that were spread on the gym floor. I told him about widower groups, and the need to go back to church and maybe join a study group or two. About volunteering as an usher at the Fox and the symphony. Walking in the park. Smelling his wife’s flowers. I didn’t shut up for twenty minutes.
You did nothing wrong. Stop punishing yourself. You’re not the one who died. Open your eyes and get busy. Help others.
He smiled. He promised to try. I went home to deliver cold fish and spaghetti to my much appreciated wife, who’s used to cold meals from my being late. This is not the first time. She eats her fish alone (I do sit down to watch her eat). She smiles when she listens to the story. At this very awkward moment, each one of us feels intense appreciation for what the other one brings to our lives.
Why are people lonely? Why do we find it so hard to let not only our loved ones, but anyone, how much we appreciate what they do? Why is it easier to be a total witch to the waiter who makes a mistake on our food order than it is to genuinely thank a good worker? When will we ever learn?

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  1. Cordell Webb

    It seems that you are often lead in the right direction, at the appropriate time and to the person who needs help that you can provide. Often the need is a kind person to listen or share a similar experience or some suggestions that can be of encouragement. You were lucky to have an understanding mate to understand the reason she had cold fish to eat that night.