Wednesday, May 02, 2007

No Title Seems Appropriate

Like the first day of any job, I arrived nice and early. I knew very little about New Rochelle, except that it had an entertainment complex called “New Roc City” and that its high school sports are pretty good. I also knew that I’d only been off Interstate 95 in “New Ro” just a couple of times – once to eat at the Thruway Diner after a Rangers-Islanders hockey game, and a few times to pick up a back brace with my father.

I stayed in the parking lot reading my paper until just before 9:00 that first morning. Then I made my way to the building that I would be working in for the next few days, and joined a few women in the elevator. One of them noticed me and spoke.

“Are you Rob?”, she said.
“Yes”, I replied.
“Good. You’re working with my group. We need the help. I’m Sheila.”

Sheila would quickly establish herself in my eyes as a go-to person, and one of the great personalities that this office had to offer. If I had a question, I went to her first. When I needed a laugh or some sanity, a quick visit with Sheila would do the trick. She would be the first to roll her eyes at me if something was off base to her. If somebody was saying something stupid, we’d lock eyes, and she would roll hers, knowing that I couldn’t return the favor, but giving me a way of her saying “we agree.” That was Sheila – no BS.

“We didn’t think you could talk.”

She said that to me after I’d been here for a few days. Certainly I’m always quiet and wary when I first start. In fact I border on painfully shy. Sheila was quick to help offer suggestions for things like where to get lunch, and overall survival skills. She told me where Quizno’s was, and how it was about an eight-minute walk. That was good because it would give me some exercise.

As our brief time knowing each other went on she’d discover that yes indeed, I could talk. She also found that I was also a bit off-key, and she seemed to like that. She liked how one of my goals was to wake the office up a bit (a tall order, she and I agreed). She didn’t like the constant silence either but had gotten used to it. It was Sheila who told me to bring in my iPod, because the mundane nature of my work would drive me nuts. As I helped out her entire department, it seemed like I was helping her the most, and she was appreciative.

A few weeks into the assignment (that was initially supposed to last just two to three days), our boss Cathia came to me and said that Sheila would be out for about a week with a medical condition. It wasn’t expected to be life-threatening but was something that she would have to be conscious of. So yes it was serious and even dangerous but it seemed controllable.

Life went on in the office, and I took on some more of Sheila’s assignments. That way she’d be able to return and the stack of work wouldn’t be too overwhelming. Sheila would return in late April. She looked like herself but I noticed that she’d disappear around mid-afternoon. When we spoke about it, she said that she was getting tired but that she otherwise felt great. The doctor told her to take it easy and to not lift anything more than ten pounds, which would be tough because she and her husband were getting ready to move, but that she would do as the doctors told her. Besides, she’d have the movers do it all.

The weekend passed, and Sheila didn’t come in on Monday. She complained that she wasn’t feeling well so she just needed the day off to rest up. Monday night she went to bed.

At our house, The Wife has been working a lot of crazy hours lately, including getting up and out by about six each morning. She decided that after not getting home until after 9:00 Monday night, that she would drive The Son to her father’s house on Tuesday, and that I could just go to work. I made my way from Carmel to New Rochelle in less than 45 minutes. I was so early that I went into Stop and Shop to buy some yogurt, and still had time to stand outside the office door and read my newspaper because the office was still locked. About an hour later, my office mate Georgia turned and looked at me, horrified.

“Sheila’s dead.”

Sheila did not wake up Tuesday morning. Nothing I could say, do or analyze was going to make the situation better. Still like many, it was tough to concentrate on work. Though I had known her all of about eight weeks or so, I felt like we were friends. More so, I knew that our mutual friend Joanne would be devastated. I also felt awful for the many long, teary-eyed faces that I saw as the day went on.

So how would the office respond?

Life, they say, goes on. And so it did on Tuesday, May 1, 2006. There would be a small memorial in the office – fifteen minutes, tops – with lots of tears, a few heartfelt stories, and some rancid phoniness. After that, everyone went back to work. Knowing Sheila the way I barely did, I’d think that she would want everyone to carry on, but would have been thrilled to get her colleagues the rest of the day off.

But nobody wants that under the circumstances.

I’m not a part of this story, you see, but I’ve suddenly become the person who will take on many of Sheila’s duties. My worst fear has come true in that it was suggested that I sit at her desk beginning next week. Not to overstate this, but it would be like, say, Miguel Cairo taking over Thurman Munson’s locker. I’m just a temp, and a very small part of the promotions department (so much so that my name wasn’t mentioned when one of the higher-ups name-checked everyone in the department during the memorial). In the memorial, I even felt this glaze of people with the “who’s he” look. Believe me I didn’t want to go to the memorial, and questioned if I belonged there, but Georgia prompted me to go, and I know what Sheila would have said: “Come on. You belong in there also”, just as she did when there was a retirement luncheon that I questioned if I should be at.

In the end, I was glad to be in the memorial, if only to prepare Joanne for some hard crying without saying a word. As another colleague spoke, I knew she was going to refer to the last time she spoke to Sheila, and how Sheila’s last sentence was a huge compliment to JoJo. I grabbed Joanne’s shoulder as she started to speak, and I’m glad I did because Jo all but collapsed.

We finished the work day, and I had some deep thoughts about all that I had seen and heard. Everybody has a different way of handling grief. Some do it by rambling at the mouth, others cry for a person that they barely knew, others are more thoughtful about it, and a few put on a grand show. Some speak as if they knew the person, yet truly did not. These words have to come from the heart, not from paper. They have to be real.

Today, Sheila’s desk is adorned with flowers and plants, and people are carrying on as normal, albeit with heavy hearts, as if Sheila is going to walk in the room at any moment with a big smile on her face. It’s all just been a big joke, right? Not so. I walked to Quizno’s for lunch today, just as I did on that first day, and on my way back, on the other side of Huguenot Street, was Sheila’s best friend in the office, Tracy, walking with somebody else. It was just too weird, because Sheila was supposed to be there. That’s the way lunch always was for them.

So here we are. Yes, life does go on, but it doesn’t make any sense. Why take a vibrant, funny, brilliant 40 year-old woman? Because she didn’t have any kids? So what – there’s a husband, mother and others mourning her today. As always, we begin to question the powers that be, but it’s not going to do us any good. So without getting into any grand philosophical argument, let me just raise a glass.

Here’s to you, Sheila. And thanks for being the first to make me comfortable here.

1 comment:

Sean G. Kilkelly said...

I'm sorry to hear about your co-worker. I also think this is really great writing.