Throughout my day, others come to me for advice, for guidance, for affirmation, and for reassurance that all will be well once again. My job requires I share information with employees. That I advise of federal law’s, rights and responsibilities. My nature demands that I listen and reassure that these darkest days will brighten. My compassion demands that I really hear their fears. I comfort, sometimes lend a shoulder, and always lend a hand. I have performed this job well for many years. My thick skin created after mourning dozens of lost husbands and wives, fathers and mothers. The light I hold onto comes from the babies born or adopted. The joy of watching so many that have struggled with conception now prepare for impending birth. Those are the moments that I pull from when the darkness gets too close.
Even the deaths which eventually come are handled with efficient sympathy. I’ve done this before, I guide through the heartache. Share information as they are ready to listen. Email the essential phone numbers, email addresses and forms. Ensure that all avenues of assistance are notified. Take care of the work issues so that the widows and widowers are free to concentrate on grieving. It’s not that I don’t sympathize with those who have lost, its that it’s my job to assist others. My feelings about a tragedy in someone else’s life are secondary. All efforts need to focus on those who’ve been effected. I may take a quiet moment, say a silent prayer, but then I do, as I’m expected to do, and move on.
It was when this pattern was interuppted that my stride faultered. I was so taken by surprise, that when I learned of her passing, I literally lost my breath and crumbled to the ground. This isn’t how the story goes, she didn’t follow protocol. She fought her disease like a champ, chin up, shoulders back, head onward. That is who she is…was. From the first talks of doctors appointments and stages of diagnosis we joked our way through the process. I wouldn’t insult her by giving her the sad face and telling her it’s only hair, it will grow back. She would have punched me if I did. We didn’t sit and talk about the negatives. We simply spoke of everyday, mundane work stuff. She wasn’t the cancer patient in my office. She was the Captain, the volunteer, the woman getting flustered while talking about a guy she thought was handsome. She was more than her disease.
When her hair grew back enough to require a haircut, we shouted with joy. Not everyone understood why a haircut was a big deal, but we knew. The disease had been beaten and she was not going to dwell on what was..she forged ahead. The resurgence of her cap was my first indication that the fight was back on. My heart yearned to offer comfort knowing that she must feel frustrated that she was once again being challenged but, again, we acknowledged but did not dwell on her fight. She wouldn’t be defined by what she so hated.
It was a routine email that was sent out after not hearing from her for a few days. We had laughed about how her having chemo failed in comparison to my struggles with finding time for a pedicure. She understood the plight of a busy woman. We laughed at what scared her, we took away its power. Her reply message is what knocked me off kilter. She was too weak to speak. The treatment had taken a lot out of her and she would need time away. This was my first time realizing that something was terribly wrong. She never admitted to any weakness, wouldn’t speak of feeling ill. It was the next message, just three days later that stopped me cold; hospice. She would never walk through the doors again. She was losing her fight with terrifying rapidity.
In sheer panic, I began to rally the troops, calling for financial resources, who would make casseroles, who will stop by to check on the kids? I left voice messages, all pretense and bravado lost. I’m here to help, it’s what I do. A final conversation, an email saying it is ok to share, to finally accept the help, to open up and allow this work family in. “I don’t want my kids to feel alone” were her last words to me. As I would later learn, she died hours later.
The news spread through every hallway and office in no time at all. We’d lost the Captain, all had not gone to plan. We moved through the motions, tears falling in silence. The flag needed to be lowered, the badges shroud, a member of the family had fallen.
There wasn’t time to prepare; no time to adjust to the thought. The days were blurred between the job that must be done and the phone calls with the family to arrange for the exchange of her belongings. The father she spoke so fondly of asked to meet. He had things of hers he wanted to return, he couldn’t bring himself to look at her uniforms any longer.
As we do, many offered ideas of how to honor one of our own. A flag? A memorial plaque? Her badge and Captain’s bars saved in a shadow box? All of these seem so trite now, but the straws I tried to grasp were proving to be elusive. What in the world could we offer that would alleviate one ounce of his pain, or the pain of her now displaced children? I went over the options with her father and after nothing but silence for a moment I finally said that a decision didn’t need to be made now, all of this could wait. He cleared his throat, and finally whispered that her Captain’s badge was in his pocket where he intended for it to stay. He would keep something of hers with him until the end of his days.
Within the week, all of the arrangements had been finalized and carried out. Her family was now in the next phase of their lives; learning to live without her. Work continues, duties are disseminated, and talks of filling her position began. It all swirled around me; a tornado of perfectly normal activity. I was the one stuck. Her death crippled me. Her laughing face coming to mind over and over again. I couldn’t reconcile the fact that she, one of the strongest women I knew, had been beaten. Tears would come out of nowhere, stopping me in my tracks like a gut punch.
I couldn’t reconcile the thought of her being beaten by this thing. I had to dwell in the sadness for a time in order to realize that, in fact, she would never be beaten. She may have moved on but I am certain that she is kicking somebody’s ass in heaven. She’s probably formulating plans and organizing lists and letting St. Peter know a more efficient selection process. Her strength will stay with us all. There was never a more Type A woman who unashamedly took charge and for that I am eternally grateful.