The Knock

A friend has two jobs in our town: policeman and soldier. In both, he is the guy who knocks on doors to tell mothers and fathers, wives and husbands that their son or daughter, husband or wife is dead. He has to knock on a door five or six times a year. He has become a student of doors and how people open them.

First, you never bang on the door, even if you are knocking for the fifth time and have been freezing on the porch for ten minutes. “I always start with my knuckles, then go to the knocker or the bell if I have to. Most doors have a good loud hollow sound. Usually people answer right away. You would think that with houses bigger than they used to be, people wouldn’t hear a knock. But this isn’t so. Women who answer the door look first to see who you are. Men just open it. I don’t think I have ever had a child open the door.

“When I wear my Army uniform, people know immediately why I am there, whereas if I am a policeman, it could be for anything. I have had people cry in my arms. Some invite me in and give me tea, even after I have delivered the news. It’s like their automatic-pilot function is to show courtesy. I’ve had some people refuse to believe me, and some who got angry and asked me to leave. I’ve never had someone swing at me, but I have heard stories like that.

“The thing I look for is shock. I’ve had people faint, men as well as women. People can go into serious shock and you have to be prepared for that. I carry a medical kit in the car. I try to visit in the late morning. I stay as long as necessary. I have been in some houses for hours. Sometimes I have waited with a person all afternoon until his or her spouse comes home from work. You mostly just listen.

“People tell stories. Often their first reaction, after the initial shock and grief, is to tell stories. They have to get their feelings out. I have heard thousands of these stories. Friends tell me I should write them down, but I say they are a private matter, that it wouldn’t be right. I also convey information about counseling, funeral arrangements, and legal matters. Most people aren’t ready to discuss the details. They are too stunned. But they do want to discuss the facts of the death.

“It is a difficult job and it wears you down. I try to do it with as much dignity and courtesy as possible. There are more visits now with the wars, but I still make more calls as a policeman. The message I deliver most is that a loved one has been killed in an automobile accident. Often teenagers. The hardest messages to deliver are about the deaths of children. There is nothing I can say-other than the facts-to a mother or a father in that situation. So I don’t try. I have often thought that what I am doing is a communal act, that it represents the town itself, standing there on the porch. I stand straight, speak clearly, and wear the full uniform. I ask permission to enter the domicile but never sit down. It’s easier to speak directly if you stand. I remove my hat, make sure the person is sitting down if possible, and deliver the message. I take as much time as is needed. When I am absolutely sure the initial shock has lessened and the person is safe to be alone in the house, I express my condolences and prepare to leave. At the door, before I put on my hat, I usually add that I will keep the deceased in my prayers. I make it clear that I am saying this as a private citizen, not as a soldier or a policeman. In my experience, saying that and meaning it matters a lot. Generally, I stop at the church on the way back and say the rosary. It’s become a form of closure for me, a way to hand over the pain.

“That’s about it. I’ll check in on the person or family if necessary, and I keep abreast of funeral details, but rarely go to the services. I don’t want to be a disruptive presence. I keep the deceased in my prayers for at least a month, longer if the person was a child. Generally, I direct my prayers to the Madonna. At one point, I wrote down all the names of the deceased, but I don’t do that anymore. The list was getting too long, and I realized Mary knows all their names, especially the children’s.”

Published in the 2007-02-09 issue: 

Brian Doyle is the editor of Portland magazine at the University of Portland.

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