Sunday, September 20, 2015
On Labor Day, my co-worker, Louise, died after suffering for several months from a horrible illness. I haven't been able to cry about it or even truly process her loss in my mind yet. The only thing I've been sure of is that I need to write about it and to memorialize her in this blog.
Louise and I got off on the wrong foot in June 2000 when I first joined the company I am presently working for. We were both legal secretaries who type for attorneys. Back in 2000, we were still using cassette tapes that the attorneys recorded their voices on and then put the tapes in brown envelopes for us to listen to and type. During my first week, Louise would keep a basket of the tapes I had to do, and what was on the tapes was written on the outside of these envelopes. Of course, I tried to take the envelopes that had the things I wanted to do, like long letters where I could just daydream while typing them rather than taking motions that had 75 billion exhibits that had to be meticulously copied and then delivered to the courthouse. Louise noticed this and didn't appreciate it. "I like to pick and choose too!" she said sarcastically, meaning that since I was the "new kid on the block," I should just be happy to type everything that was in there. She was not happy with me and had no problem expressing it. After a few days of this, I said, "You obviously have a problem with me." You'd think I'd said, "You obviously need to be locked up in a mental institution where they throw away the key," because after our exchange, she refused to talk to me period. Not one word. Not a hello, a goodbye, or even a "thank you" one day when I found her glasses on the floor and had gotten down to pick them up to give them to her. This went on for a year, by the end of which, I had a dream that she and I were talking and became friends. I woke up wishing for that so much but knowing that it would take a miracle for that dream to come true. But shortly after my dream, 911 happened.
Our office is one block from where the World Trade Center terrorist attacks took place. Some of my co-workers watched from our windows and saw people jumping off the Towers. One of my former co-workers, Sally, was so traumatized, she just ran out of our building and walked from our office on downtown Broadway all the way uptown past 101st Street. But Louise and I were both still on our way to work, and our buses turned around. I'll never forget how I felt when I saw smoke and flames coming out from the tops of those beloved Towers in the distance through my bus windows. Our office was uninhabitable for over a month, and when we visited it for the first time about three weeks after the attacks, I saw my sweater still draped over my desk chair, both of which were covered in dust. We realized we had to remain a little longer at our temporary office on Water Street and didn't even want to visit our office again because the electricity was still out and was being run by generators that would shut down the elevators by late afternoon. I knew that Louise was just as shocked and saddened by the Trade Center attacks as I was, so one morning in our Water Street office, I decided to just take a chance and say "Hello" to her. "Hi," she finally said back, her voice still shaken and slightly breathy. That was the moment that my dream came true, and we finally became friends.
Louise was an enigma to everyone at our office. She was fiercely guarded about her personal life, both past and present, but because we used to see each other every day, she began giving me little glimpses into what her life had been and as it was now in the present. For most of the years I'd known her, she was a single woman in her fifties and then sixties who lived alone with her parrot, "Scarlett." She never had any children but told me she had been married once and was now divorced for many years. But even this simple fact was not common knowledge in our firm. Even our prior boss (a male attorney who is now split from our firm but who had worked with Louise for many years) didn't know Louise had once been married. Several years ago, when she had fallen ill and was briefly hospitalized due to a perforated ulcer, he had answered the phone when her friend called to let us know. "Oh, Louise is in the hospital," he told one of my former co-workers. "Yes. Her partner called to let us know." "Her partner?" my co-worker asked, confused. "Yes," he said. "That lady who always calls here for her. I know that she lives alone, but that woman must be her partner! Have you ever heard her speak about any man since she's worked here?" No, I guess she hadn't to him. But to me, she had.
In addition to her divorce, that surprisingly I seemed to be one of the only people to know about, not only did she have a crush on actor Sean Connery, but she often stayed up late at night to watch reruns of "Married With Children" because "young" Al Bundy reminded her of her ex-husband. "Oh, I've seen that actor in other things today," she'd say, "But now he looks very different. I'm talking about young Al Bundy. I love to stay up late and watch him." Her expression softened when she spoke about him. She spoke about "Al" a lot.
Besides looking just like Al Bundy, she told me that her ex-husband used to enjoy going to the racetrack a lot, and the two of them had gone there often and even saw Secretariat win the Triple Crown at Belmont in 1973. She said it was such a thrill to have been there in person! She and I even had a racetrack-oriented joke between us: We all had been having trouble with our computers, and one afternoon, a man named Dan who worked for the computer company, "Corstar," had called about coming to fix them. One of the attorneys named Ed took the phone message and had written down: "Corstar's Dan called." Louise brought me the note from the bulletin board and said, "Look at this. Ed took a phone message, and he wrote 'Corstar's Dan!' I mean, who called us anyway? A racehorse? That's how they name racehorses, you know! Sometimes they use the horse's father's name and then pair it with the name of the horse. That's what this looks like - Corstar's Dan - a racehorse!" She always came up with silly things like this to ease the tension of our law office and to make me laugh.
Louise was thin and tall, always wore plain, comfortable pants and t-shirts, and wore her long brown hair wrapped up in a simple bun. The only make-up she used was concealer, and she had tube after tube of it in all different shades in her work drawer. But again, because she said very little about herself, nobody would have expected how much into hairstyles she was. "I love to go to the beauty supply shop at lunchtime," she told me one afternoon. "When I was younger, I was really into hairstyles." She'd watch hairstyle shows on TV and give me pointers on how to keep my own long hair tangle-free. "The key is to run your fingers through it first, and separate the sections before you use the comb." Thinking about hairstyling, I had gotten her to watch one of my favorite TV shows, "Mad Men," and she liked it and watched the entire Season 1 but lamented: "That Peggy, always wearing her hair in a ponytail! This is supposed to take place in 1960, right? Women did NOT wear their hair in ponytails in 1960!" I explained to her that was the point of Peggy's character in Season 1. She was supposed to be awkward and out-of-style. But Louise was always set in her ways, and she seemed fixated on the idea that they should not have had Peggy's character wearing a ponytail in 1960. I believe that's why she wouldn't continue onto Season 2.
Sometimes, I liked to imagine what Louise had been like as a young woman in the late 1960's through the 1970's. I pictured her lounging around in her apartment, drinking coffee and smoking cigarettes. She told me that back then, she woke up every morning and immediately grabbed for a cigarette, smoked it, then took an aspirin, washing it down with a cup of coffee. In those days, she worked for a law firm she spoke very highly of. I believe it was there that she met the man who I think was probably the love of her life. Again, she only told me snippets, but apparently she had what she described as a secret relationship with one of male partners at the firm, and she told me that part of the thrill was all the "sneaking around" - the idea that people could only guess at what their actual relationship was, but nobody really knew. But "NG," she would say to me, meaning, "No Good!" She said that these things always ended badly, but at the time.....
"I tell you this because you and I have been friends for a long time, right?" So many things Louise said to me were prefaced like this. She was a worrywart who always had a lot of concerns regarding procedures at work and the way she perceived people were treating her. One former attorney she worked with once told me: "Louise is constantly worrying about nonsense!" She and I had a lot of chats about things that bothered us. We always talked about our work, what the attorneys thought about our work, and what our other co-workers thought about us. Sometimes, she'd obsess on something that happened during the day and kept on bringing it up to me again at various times, over and over, reiterating things like: "When I told her she came back late for lunch, I was just joking. I didn't mean to accuse her of coming back late for lunch, it was just a joke. It was because she came back carrying all these bags, saying I've discovered Chambers Street! So I told her she was late. But I didn't mean to say she had done anything wrong by shopping and coming back a few minutes late." Sometimes I vented to her about other people too. She always listened, and when I'd apologize later for my somewhat angry rants, she'd say: "Listen, we're friends. We help each other out."
She often took me even further into her confidence. A few years ago, we sat together during our office Christmas party, and I believe she took the opportunity that I'd had a little too much to drink to tell me a strange story about how years ago, one of her female friends came back to her apartment and made a pass at her. She said she told the woman she was NOT interested in her and to please not do that again. I think she believed I wouldn't remember this story the next day, but even when I'm very drunk, I always remember everything, and I'm always in control of what I'm doing. Of course that didn't prevent me from dropping my pizza bagel onto the floor at the ferry station on my way home from the party. A woman in line behind me ordered the man working behind the counter to get me another one since I'd dropped it. The worker was annoyed, looked me in the eye, and asked, "Was it MY fault that this happened? Or was it YOURS?" "Mine?" I answered feebly. But the woman didn't care, she still ordered the worker to give me another pizza pretzel. I wish I had this woman to walk around with me as my staunch supporter on a daily basis!
Louise had been extremely healthy for many years and had the best attendance out of everyone in our office. Even after her perforated ulcer surgery, she returned to work after a mere three weeks when most people who had that same surgery would have taken at least six. She often told us that we were really her family because outside of the office, she had no family (she and her sister were estranged, and she had only a handful of friends). I think that's why she always wanted to be at work - because it was lonely at home, and she wanted to be with "her family."
Last winter, she left work after being diagnosed with cancer of the esophagus. She had treatment and was in and out of the hospital. One afternoon, she called the office, and I answered it. "I'm so glad you answered and that I got to talk to you!" she said as if she realized this would be our last conversation. I told her how I always think of her when I watch Pat and Jamie on NY1 in the mornings because we both always watched them before we left our house for work, and she and I used to joke about their banter and just about them in general. Then her voice turned serious, and she said, "I wanted to make sure I told you this: That all these little things that used to concern us during the day, all these worries about work and people and all the little problems we used to worry about? Well listen, they just don't matter. Nothing that gets us upset during the day is important. Try not to let those things bother you at all, because after all, it's just not worth it."
Obviously, it's hard to lose a family member, any relative or close friend, but there's something different about losing someone who you've seen almost every day for the past fifteen years that is a special kind of loss that just breaks your heart. They're a part of your everyday routine, and that brings you comfort. It's scary when they go. You just expect them to always be there.