Far Too Soon.

On Wednesday, I attended my first Shiv'ah.

Nearly seven years ago, when I began working at my current company, I had a lot to learn. For four years prior I'd been employed by a much smaller firm with a staff of about twenty, but now found myself in a full blown office with rows and rows of cubicles, and hundreds of people. I was intimidated. It helped that Rey already worked there, so I knew at least one person, but getting used to new people is hard for me. During my first two weeks, my supervisor didn't overwhelm me with work, and since the girl whose position I was filling had moved to a different spot in the company, she was around to walk me through the work flow. Another person that helped me out a great deal was my first copywriter, Lori.

Often, people take work too seriously. I found myself using the full version of my real name because I thought it was more professional than my nickname. Lori was the first person I heard refer to what we did as “junk mail”, and I remember our supervisor looking shocked. It's easy to confuse doing a good job with elevating it to a level that it's not. She was a great writer and took her job seriously, but never took it too seriously. She was cool and a little tomboyish, and at times I felt like I'd found a big sister. She had a way of putting people at ease, especially in meetings. Picking up on my quirky tastes, she once gave me a magazine with Mikey from Life cereal on the cover, his pupils replaced by demonic spirals. “I saw this on the rack by my desk and it reminded me of you.”

Another thing she was great at was organizing celebrations within the company. Once when one of our supervisors had a birthday, Lori got us all in at 8 AM to decorate her office and surprise her. She ran a trail of confetti from the elevator, down the hall to our boss' office. But, by the time she'd finished, our office services had already noticed it and had the cleaning people vacuum it up.

We worked together for about two and a half years, and after her daughter was born she left the company to be a full-time mom. Once or twice she visited with the baby, and there would be the occasional e-mail, but eventually we lost touch. Early in 2005, I heard from my other copywriter, who started at the same time I did and worked together with Lori, that she had taken ill. No one ever wants to believe something like that is as serious as you fear it to be, and a sort of hopeful denial occurs, even when in the back of your mind you know lymphoma is really bad. I sent a card wishing her well and letting her know she was in my thoughts and prayers. A lot of people in the office did. I'm sure plenty of people did more; looking back now, a card seems so insignificant.

This past Monday, my other writer sent out an e-mail with Lori's name in the subject line. It had been months since I'd heard anything, wishfully thinking no news was good news, with no inkling of how dire things really were. After not hearing anything for so long, and suddenly seeing her name, it knew it wasn't going to be good. As I suspected, it contained a short message confirming the worst, that our friend and former co-worker had lost her battle a few days earlier, leaving behind a husband and a five-year-old daughter.

The funeral had already taken place, and I learned how Jewish customs differ from the Catholic ones I'm used to. Normally we have a Wake with an open casket, during which friends and family gather at a funeral home to see the deceased one last time and comfort one another. There are usually 3 sessions over the course of a few days, followed by a funeral. In the Jewish faith, the burial happens first, and for the next seven days the family is sitting Shiv'ah, which is sort of an open house. I asked around the office, and learned that one simply walks in to the person's home. There is no knocking, and no ringing of the doorbell. It's a time when the family receives food and visitors, and ceases their routine to remember their loved one. It is a time to celebrate the person’s life, moreso than mourn the death.

I had never met any of her family, save for her daughter when she was an infant and possibly her husband briefly in passing at the office. Her mother-in-law happens to be a guidance counselor at the school of my other former writer's daughter, so at least one person knew someone. I went at the same time as other people from our office, so her mother-in-law was able to meet us as a group. She was an admirable host, giving us a tour of the home, and sitting with us the entire time. Any time someone new arrived, she'd pull someone else over, introduce us, and make sure we were never alone until she returned. She told us the story of Lori's last hours, how they knew Thursday things weren't good, and how they visited for one final goodbye. Lori’s daughter leaned on her, and though in terrible pain, she bore that final embrace for as long as possible before saying goodbye.

Distracted by cousins and other children, the daughter ran about the house. The reality will no doubt sink in when it's a quieter place. Her father had explained to her that cancer is like a weed growing in a beautiful garden, that eventually spreads out and destroys all the flowers around it. She understands that she won't be seeing her mother anymore, and threw dirt on the coffin at the funeral as part of their tradition.

From what I heard, the funeral attendance rivaled that of jazz musicians or firemen. Our office manager wasn't surprised to hear it, accurately pointing out that there was no one that didn't like her in our company. My other former writer shared how Lori made work fun. Most writers who shared duties would go through the list of books we sell, and choose which ones they'd be writing about. Lori used to put all the names on slips of paper, drop them in a hat, and they'd draw to see who was writing what.

Her mother-in-law shared with us the beautiful letter her son had written to his wife and read for the funeral, pointing out how he'd overcome dyslexia and childhood learning difficulties. We passed the letter around the table reading it, a marvelous tribute. He apologized in advance for any grammatical errors, pointing out that she always did his proofreading. There were no mistakes that I could see. In three pages he captured the beautiful life and love they had. Childhood companions, he knew her for 19 years and was fortunate enough to marry his best friend. They coached soccer games together and shared the same humor and values. “NEVER QUIT” was perhaps the strongest lesson he took from their time together, and pointed out that she never gave up, not with this illness, not with other ailments, and not when they were trying to have a baby. He vowed that if their daughter grew up with anything, it would be those words: “NEVER QUIT”.

We spent about an hour there, and the house was never empty. At one point, the entire girls soccer team that they coached together showed up. Her mother-in-law was pleasantly surprised that we were all there, after the years since her daughter-in-law had worked with us, but when you touch people's lives like she did, people will remember and show their respects. There was talk of some scholarship in her name, some plaque or something tangible for her daughter, and we were all enthusiastic about the idea. Her mother-in-law and her husband both promised they'd be in touch.

She was 37 years old. In the seven years I've been with this company, she's now the third woman to pass away from cancer in her thirties. It's not right. It's really not right. She's someone who touched a lot of lives, and will definitely be missed.


Blogger TheWriteJerry said...

It breaks my heart that such an obviously wonderful person has left us so young. I never worked directly with Lori, but I knew her a little through some of the parties she threw at work.

A wonderful tribute you wrote here, MCF.

12/14/2006 9:20 AM  
Blogger Darrell said...

This is a really, really moving blog entry.

You got me started ...

Before I went "out on the machine" at the place where I work, I was a lab tech. I worked closely with an old man named Leon who taught me everything I was able to actually learn about how to do my job. I loved the old guy, he was immediately like an uncle or something. I bought my first home shortly before I went into the lab, and Leon gave me lots of invaluable advice that helped me as a first-time home owner. We got in the habit of bring family pictures to work to show each other, of bring food from home for each other, all that stuff that makes a co-worker into a friend. He retired in February '04 after I'd worked with him for two years. Three months later he was found dead in his swimming pool; he'd either had a heart attack and drowned or started drowing and had a heart attack. Either way, a terrible, awful way to go. His wake was huge, he'd made a lot of friends over his lifetime. My last memory of him, though, is a memory of running into him at Wal-Mart with Wendy and the kids about a month after he'd retired. I finally had the chance to introduce Wendy and the kids to Leon, the old guy I'd been talking about for two years. He hugged the kids and was very warm and friendly with Wendy ... he was always warm and friendly with everyone. I'm glad I ran into him that day. Shortly after he died I nicknamed Liam "Leon," party as a silly play on words (I sometimes call Willow "Waldo" and Hailey "Harry"). Mostly, though, I gave Liam that nickname as a small, personal tribute.

I found myself using the full version of my real name because I thought it was more professional than my nickname.... she once gave me a magazine with Mikey from Life cereal on the cover... "it reminded me of you.”

Dude, you'll never convince me that your real name is not Michael unless Rey, Jerry, the Greek, Curt and B13 all verify that it isn't. Michael Whorenelli. That's you.

12/14/2006 5:39 PM  
Blogger Kev said...

I lost a Jewish friend recently as well. I didn't know about the Shi'vah custom.
None of his close friends were invited to his funeral or anything.
A few of us got together on our own and held a small "wake" in his honor.

12/14/2006 7:13 PM  
Blogger Janet said...

I'm a bit spooked that there have been three women in their thirties to die so young from cancer where you work. It's like all of those people who developed Parkinson's who worked on that tv set with Michael J Fox. Freaky.

12/14/2006 7:22 PM  
Blogger Otis said...

I'm very sorry about your loss. Lori sounds like she touched many lives and I thank you for giving me the opportunity to read about how she made a difference in yours.

12/14/2006 9:39 PM  
Blogger TheWriteJerry said...

Like Janet, I too am spooked -- and actually rather worried -- about the fact that 3 young women contracted cancer while working here. Last night I told Mrs.Write that she's never allowed to spend time in my office building again.

(Uh, and not for nothing, but 2 of the women sat in the same general area, now that I think about it.)

12/15/2006 11:22 AM  
Blogger MCF said...

"...2 of the women sat in the same general area..."

Thinking about moving to a different cubicle? I had made the same observation, but if it is something in our building, I doubt a few feet would help.

One thing I noticed driving home from the Shiv'ah were my surroundings. Powerlines ran along both sides of the road. On one side, the largest smokestacks I've ever seen loomed in the sky, lost in their own smoke. And on the other side, a massive landfill blotted out the entire horizon. Long Island has a lot of hotzones, and I imagine that area is one of them. It sucks. :(

12/15/2006 11:54 AM  

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