Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Good-bye, Unexpected Friend

Unexpected, as in, "passed away unexpectedly." Saturday evening, in his favorite chair. Peacefully. Not so peaceful for his wife who tried, desperately, to revive him, or for the rest of us. Left.

It's like he just left. I look up when the door opens, thinking he might be coming to see me. Last week he gave me a yellowed, 35-year-old tried-and-true paperback, "Toilet Training in Less than a Day," and was eager to hear the results. His daughter is about my age, and her daughter is my daughter's age. We circled each other but never crossed.

Years ago when I learned I would share an office with him, I cringed. I didn't know what it would be like. Didn't anticipate his openness or patience; the way he never condescended. Wouldn't have guessed his Air Force veteran, engineering Ph.D. to my "knows how to spell" credentials could enjoy sharing time. He even humored me by letting me review his work because it was my job, unlike others not as senior as he.

"I don't think I'll ever get to Paris," I lamented one day when my first baby was small.

"Oh, you have to," he replied, giving me a Top 5 European destinations, in priority order. He gave me a sample itinerary for Paris in a (long) weekend.

I only knew how impressive his career was because I put together his resume. Though he loved sharing stories, it wasn't his style to boast. The nature of the projects we worked on lent itself to friendship, if you were so inclined. He was. He loved barbecue and single malt Scotch; he couldn't handle tomatoes. We joked about being too lazy to plan ahead for lunch, which left us standing together at the community freezer on more than one occasion, eyeing the frozen pot pies. Last week he said, "You know, I think we're the only ones who eat these things. But they're good."

His beloved wife, the doula, was the subject of many of our conversations, especially when I was pregnant with my second daughter. He liked to relate. When I was out on bed rest he and our other teammates called me just to brighten my day. One day I received a package in the mail, unexpectedly. There was no card, but I knew it could only be from one place. In the midst of the Tiger Woods scandal, it was a maternity shirt emblazoned with . . . a suggestion that a certain golfer might be the baby's father. Apparently, when a co-worker pulled the shirt up on a website, Bob, pulled out a $20 bill. "You have to buy it," he said. On conference calls thereafter, he told me I had to take a picture wearing it and send it to the team. The perfect storm over, I was going to give the shirt away. I think I'll keep it now.

When I came back from maternity leave, I spent two hours in his office while he filled me in on what I missed and asked about my babies. "I'm glad I got to hear the story," he said. Our joint project over, he asked me what I was working on now. Of a potential new alliance, he cautioned, "Don't do anything unethical."

I told him about my first boss who, upon being told I wouldn't lie for him said, "Christina, don't let your conscience get in the way of your job." Typically when I tell this story, I do so with a chuckle. Bob was not amused.

"That's when you know it's time to get a new job, Christina. Okay? I'm serious."

I hate when, in death, people only speak the fond memories of the departed. As if the incomplete picture is more appropriate once they're gone. It wasn't all sweetness. He was passionate and opinionated, and we disagreed on many occasions. At times like these he sat quietly, fiddling with his hands, listening longer than anyone else in the room. When he spoke, it was strongly. Sometimes it was loud. Mostly it was fair, except in the case of first impressions. He was prone to snap judgments of people that he would share without hesitation. Once he changed his mind, which he often did, he'd tell you he was wrong.

I have only ever cried at work twice. The first time, I had stayed up most of the night working on our project from home. Because other team members did not follow the proper procedures, when I arrived at work, bleary-eyed for our review Monday morning, Bob was booming. "The version on the wall is not the correct version," he kept repeating. I said I couldn't understand why, and then, frustrated, complained that I had been up working on it all night and we would figure it out. "We were all working the weekend, Christina," he snapped, "Not just at the last minute last night." I was pregnant and exhausted and retreated to the ladies room to fight back tears. I fixed it and it was over.

The second time was Monday, when I learned he was gone.

He believed passionately in his faith and was unapologetic about his politics, even when they weren't popular; even though they weren't mine. He was willing to be proven wrong, or at least to bend when ideology faced reality.

Earlier this year, when he turned 62, he joked that he wasn't coming in the next day. "I'm out of here," he said. Nobody believed him. He worked on Saturdays even when he didn't need to, and especially when he did. He stayed at work for 30 hours straight, with a cold, to make sure our team delivered. He performed tasks miles below his pay grade without ever mentioning it. We knew he wouldn't retire any time soon; we knew he would miss it too much to leave.

On what would be his last day at work, he unexpectedly decided to leave at noon. "I'm going to have lunch with the misses," he told one co-worker. And, "I'm going to put the top down and take a drive." I am so grateful he had this kind of day.

This first week without him has been hard on so many of us, least of all his colleagues, I know. I have been surprised how hard this loss has hit me. If life is short and death is certain, as a friend told me the other day, then why does it feel so shocking when it comes? Why is it so hard? And why does this loss hurt this way? Maybe because ours was an unlikely friendship that, logically, never should have been. To him, I'm sure I was just the young girl in the office. I used to think he was just the sweet older man. Now that he's gone, I see he was so much more than that.
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