Yesterday was a bizarre Monday for me. I discovered that an ex-coworker passed away on July 4th. He had not worked for our company for well over a year or maybe two. I trained him when he started and had to communicate with him on a daily basis since he worked in our department. He was an odd character at times, but he liked to write poetry so we had that in common. Our conversations were pleasant and we always made each other laugh. He had a daughter who he was raising, and there were often difficulties in his personal life that took a toll on his job. He had to take a medical leave for a while; we always assumed he’d had a mental breakdown. He came back shortly, and it was evident that one day he wasn’t in his right mind. He called me and wanted to transfer a call to me and I could tell by speaking to him, that he was breaking down. He wasn’t making any sense and was all over the map, and he never transferred the call successfully. That was his last day at work.
So yesterday another coworker brought a photo album in. A newer person in our department thumbed through it and asked who various people were. The ex-coworker above was in there. And then, the coworker with the photo album instant messages a link to me. It was an online tribute to the deceased coworker. I immediately thought he’d taken his own life. I called another person in the office, whose sister had dated him, and learned he fell in the bathroom and bumped his head. His mother had found him the following day. Luckily his daughter wasn’t home. He was 31.
Now, I had never spoken to him since his last day, had never even seen him. And before, I had never associated with him outside the office. He became a sketch in the background of the portrait of my time at the office, a photograph of workdays past and the people in them. He was a laugh to remember, an impression, a strange day to recall.
Reading his online tribute, I learned he had a second daughter. He’d never mentioned her before. I learned from the coworker who knew him outside the office that he’d given up parental rights to her and she lived with an adoptive family. So, having not known him or known much about him outside the cubicle walls, it seems strange to have gasped and held my breath when I saw his photo there on the computer screen in front of me, and saw that he’d died on July 4th. I slept well last night. I didn’t dream about him. But here I am writing this now and thinking about it all.
Death is strange. It’s an eraser taking away an odd mark on the page of life, but it leaves an impression. We write on those pages and know what’s on them, and sometimes we forget. Death makes us go back and reread it. It makes us remember what was there, even though we can’t see it anymore. We are helpless to forget. Helpless.
Sure, he was a vague and cluttered memory in my head, my office space of useless files that pop up from time to time in a thought, in a photo. But when you know something, someone like that isn’t on this earth anymore, isn’t breathing, it’s scary. It’s bizarre to think I could go into the office today and discover someone I just saw yesterday could be gone forever. I could be gone. I could die on the way to work and just like that, people would be in my place, where I am now recalling the last time I saw someone alive.
Time is precious and short, no matter how we spend it. We are slaves to numbers, to the marks on a clock, on a calendar. We are helpless to the hands ticking away time, to the twelve grids on the page on the wall. We are helpless.