On Death, in Sadness

Widow Walking Through Cemetery, The New York Public Library Digital Collections

I work in a place where customers become family, where family become customers, where everybody knows your name. Well, maybe not quite. But it’s my own version of Cheers, except without the booze. (Sigh. If only we had booze.) It’s also a place where the age range of our customers is three to ninety-three. Yes, really.

Little Nina just turned three this past month. She had a ‘Breakfast at Tiffany’s’ themed birthday party, which brought a lot of innocence back to the Halloween costume that I exhausted through most of my college years.

Matt and Rich just bought their first house together. They’ve been furnishing it with items purchased here. They once posted a photo of their bedroom on Instagram; I swear I thought it was an Anthropologie catalog spread.

And then there’s Rita. She’s in her 90s and focuses her interest in random pieces; a tavern table, a Victorian side chair, a washstand. There’s no rhyme or reason, because, do you really need one once you’ve lived for a century?

Because of this age range, there is a cyclical nature to the customer base. As a young family begins to look at decor for their nursery, an elderly gentleman stops coming because his spouse has passed on. Our stories change with the season; Life and death, ebb and flow, the circle of life.

We are a close knit group here – us and our customers, that is – so many times, a customer will bring in an obituary to hang on the office window or the bulletin board. We allow this. Everyone should have the opportunity to grieve in their own way, even if they only ever saw them here in our establishment. We grieve in our own way, too. We tell stories about our interactions with that person, things they collected, what their special interests were, what they did for work, if they had any family to handle their arrangements. That’s always the saddest thing to talk about. You don’t realize how alone people are until they die.

I lost my father almost five years ago. Death doesn’t quite hit me in the same way as it once did. Now, I oftentimes shift my focus to thinking about the afterlife – what comes next (eternity), what it’s like (glorious), if they can still connect with us (absolutely). I think about these losses, I grieve, I pray, I move on.

Until Maggie.

Maggie passed away… Well, actually, I don’t know when she passed away. I can’t find her obituary online, but I was lead to believe that her passing was recent. Her cancer came back – quickly and aggressively – and her family chose to handle things quietly and in their own way.

Maggie and I weren’t close, but she acted as if we were every time she saw me. She would make a fuss over how perfect the weather was, or how great her meal at lunch was, or how much she loved my outfit. I barely knew her, but she wanted me to know that she knew me. She saw me.

We float through life so often just noticing things. We notice the weather. We notice our food, we notice our friends, our family. But how often do we see these things? I mean, really see them? Consider this: What did you have for lunch yesterday? Did you eat it while your desk while you were working? Can you take a mental picture and thank God (the universe, Spirit, Mother Nature, whoever) for blessing you with access to water and food? Did you savor the first bite, and wonder how amazing it is that the human body can experience things through our senses? What shoes did your partner have on when they left the house this morning? What color was their shirt? Did you notice what they had for breakfast?

When was the last time that you laid down on the grass and watched the clouds go by?

I’m sure you’ve heard this before (but whether you heard it or listened to it are two different things, and is also my point entirely): How often are you floating through life? 

One of my colleagues who had also noticed Maggie’s infectious radiance finally asked her one day, How are you so positive? She smirked, and I swear that in that smirk she let us know that she had all of life’s questions figured out. I had cancer, she said. You don’t swear the small stuff after you’ve had cancer. 

My dad had cancer. The kind that comes out of the shadows to take someone away just after a few months. The kind that devastates your whole world, leaving a trail of motionless souls in its wake. The kind that leaves you, his youngest daughter, floating through life.

I think she would want someone here to know, another customer said. I wanted to make sure you found out. She really loved you all so much. 

Maggie is dead. And all I can think about, aside from the trail of motionless souls in death’s wake, is this: Who will be infectiously radiant if Maggie isn’t around?

The answer, obviously, is me. And you. And them.

Stephen had on his black and red Saucony running shoes this morning. He had on a grey Arc’teryx polo shirt. He had scrambled eggs and toast for breakfast, with a side of blackberries and blueberries. I know this, because he made some for me, too. I kissed him on the forehead when I left, messenger bag over one shoulder and dog in tow, and told him that I loved him and would see him at work later. I told him today was going to be a great day.

Because it is. It always is. You don’t sweat the small stuff, she said.

*Names have been changed.

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