“Very Sad News,” the subject line read.
I clicked, apprehensive as to the email’s contents.
“With immense personal sadness,” the email began, “I write to let you know that our friend, colleague, and mentor, AB, passed away this afternoon.”
Although I had suspected it more than a year before, I had not known that he was ill.
Márgarét, áre you gríeving
Over Goldengrove unleaving?– Gerard Manley Hopkins
I picked up my phone to text a former Visiting Scholar and a former student whom I knew would want to know.
It was late on a Saturday afternoon. The email had said that, once arrangements had been made, we would be notified.
Monday morning, the email came. The funeral would take place that Wednesday, with shiva Wednesday and Thursday evenings. I could go on Thursday, I announced to my friends, in case they wanted to send any messages to the family. What I hadn’t counted on was that my role as a law librarian would bring people, dispersed all over the world, back together.
I prepared by reading online about what to bring to a shiva. Don’t bring flowers. Kosher chocolates are acceptable. I checked the box of Frango chocolates in my fridge; they had a kosher symbol. I had to Google those, too. The next day after work, I headed to Macy’s on State Street to buy a box of Frango chocolates to bring with me.
Thursday evening proved to be cold, dark, and windy. Definitely not appealing late autumn weather in which to have to leave the house. But I had promised my friends, so off I went. It was only about a half hour drive from my parents’ house. I had planned the trip, and figured out all of the logistics. I couldn’t back out, now.
Rounding the corner to the street on which his family lived, my heart sped up. What if I’m the only person there? It would be so awkward. But then I could probably leave quickly.
Squinting in the darkness illuminated by street lamps, I tried to figure out which house was theirs.
Vehicles lined both sides of the residential street and filled the L-shaped driveway of a house on the right. That must be it. I needn’t have worried. It looked like the image on Google Street View. I continued down the street, looking for parking. Finally, I pulled up to the curb several houses away, avoiding piles of leaves.
An elderly couple walked down the sidewalk. Maybe they were going to the same place.
I stepped out of the driver’s seat, donned my black cross-body purse that mom had taken out of the closet to bring to Hong Kong for Popo’s funeral. What would I say to them? What would it be like? I had taped the card to the box of chocolates.
Until I had approached the house, I hadn’t felt nervous. I had done this before. Even more extreme, arguably. Flown halfway – more than halfway – across the country to attend the funeral of someone whom I had met twice. Motored through the rain on the highway, lost my way despite using GPS, arrived late to the service, walked out to the black-clad figures gathered under and around the canopy in the distance.
Scanning the couple about to drive away from the driveway, the people chatting in the kitchen, the guests standing in conversation in the foyer, spilling out of the living room and family room beyond, I was surprised to see some people I knew from work. I caught their attention and waved when there was a break in their conversation. One of them went into the living room to lead the prayers. While we waited for the prayers to start, I spoke with the colleague in the foyer.
“I wasn’t planning to stay long,” I whispered. “I was just going to drop this off then leave,” as I gestured to the box of chocolates that I was clutching under my arm. The card was still secured to the front.
We chatted in low tones about work, about mutual friends and colleagues, about the departed.
“It was great to speak with you. I hadn’t really spoken with you before,” he remarked. To my surprise, he added, “Law librarians are great people.”
“I think it’s the service orientation,” I explained.
The colleague introduced me to the bereaved spouse, still reeling from the sudden and early loss.
I handed the envelope-clad box. “A student from Armenia wrote a letter, I wrote something, students from all over the world sent messages,” I described the contents.
The conversation turned to the transitory nature of life. “Carpe diem,” the colleague concluded.
The colleague had heard from a mutual friend whom I had notified about the professor’s passing. “I’m glad you two are back in touch,” I called out, then turned to walk to my car. When I arrived home, I texted my colleague to let him know. I texted my friends to let them know that I had delivered their messages. I was back in touch with several people. I shared with them the positive comments about them that I had gleaned from my conversations.
I had hoped that, by going there, I could offer some comfort to the family, as well as to the friends who were suffering in their grief.
As it turns out, totally unexpectedly, I also received validation for my profession, and was able to share words of encouragement with some of my friends/peers/colleagues.
Notes Between Us (NBU) is a blog about conversations and topics of interest to the writers. The writers are expressing their personal opinions solely. Their essays represent their personal beliefs and not that of their workplaces or any organization they are associated with.