Sunday, August 14, 2005


[I'll be out of town for a few days, and should resume blogging on 8/19.]

It was a heck of a drive. I was assigned there for over two years, writing software for them. Let's call her Lucille. She loved conversation and a good laugh. She was always laughing and having a good time, making people feel good. She was also serious, and a hard worker. She did so much detail work that sometimes I felt bad for her. She never seemed to feel bad.

She liked Star Trek, which in my experience is a near-universal attribute of Cool People.

What I didn't know at the time was that she had been diagnosed with a rare brain cancer. She must have been about 44 when I met her. After two years, I moved into another role within our company, and stopped going to their company.

The years went by. She came to our wedding. She loved the pictures of our kids that I sent around.

Later I learned about her diagnosis. I spoke with her about it. She did really well, for a long time, with what was supposed to be a sudden death. She came to my company for a training, and stopped to have lunch with me.

She was engaged. She told me this story about driving down a mountain in the dark with her new man. He said he wanted to marry her. She reminded him that she might die soon after they married. She asked him if he was OK with that. They were driving in the dark. "That's OK," he said quietly.

When she told me this story in the restaurant, I started tearing up and had to ask her to stop. I don't think it was an early symptom of ALS.

When I was diagnosed with ALS, I sent an email to various people. She wrote back:

You voiced the same feelings I had when first diagnosed. I thank God my children are old enough, 28 and 25, to understand what will happen. Not that it will not make their pain any less when I go.

Not to be too personal, but do you believe in a higher being or after life?

I wrote:

I know it sounds trite, but it's true that everyone is in our same position. It may take them longer to get there, and yet most of them act like they don't know it.

I am so glad you were at my wedding.

No, your question is not too personal. But in return, I hope you won't be offended by my answer. I feel that there is a benevolent mercy inherent in the universe that is more subtle and profound than any of us are capable of understanding. Something that by definition is a mystery and both invests us and enables us to transcend. I wouldn't call it a Being, but just the fact that I am choking on my tears right now with feelings for you, and not for myself, betrays some of the nature of it, which is Love. Likewise, I think the afterlife, if it exists, will be both better than, and completely different from what human minds have tried to describe. For someone who is churchgoing (and I don't know if you are), this may all sound frustratingly vague. But you asked, so I answered.

To my knowledge, that is the last email I ever sent her. I like the fact that it conveys that I love her. She died a few days ago at the age of 50, and her husband sent out an email. There was a follow-up email about the visitation and time of sharing.

It was over an hour of driving, and I don't do so well sitting down for extended period without a chance to get up and move around. Plus the tie and the tight shoes. I decided to wear a suit so that I wouldn't be underdressed. I have two suits, green and black. I wore the green one, thinking that Lucille would like Spring colors, rather than funereal ones.

I thought I was going to a memorial. On the way down, I worried that I would disrupt the event with sobbing and wailing due to the ALS disinhibition. So, when I got there, I sat in the car and wrote a note on a piece of paper:

"Please excuse me -- I have a neurological disorder (ALS) which causes uncontrolled crying and laughing. I don't mean to cause a disturbance. I'm sorry."

I was the first one there. From the entrance of the room, I spied a coffin, at the other end. Her little bangs were the only part visible. I had expected a memorial, sans corpse1. But this was a visitation, instead.

My note came in handy when I tried to speak to her mother, and to her husband. I was squeaky and often sobbing. If it hadn't been for ALS, I think I would have been calm and respectful, with a few wet tears, but no sobbing.

I sat towards the back and tried to control myself. I was glad that I wasn't laughing. I didn't feel very sad, even though I was almost sobbing. Mostly I felt happy for Lucille and glad to have known her. To control my sobbing, I pictured Worf, the Klingon from Star Trek, sitting in the pew and berating me: "This is no time for tears! When a Klingon dies with honor, we celebrate!" The image of Worf shouting at me in the pews, plus some deep breathing, helped me get a grip. Truly, Lucille had completed her life in an honorable way, and there was very little silliness to my mulling Star Trek theology in a chapel with a great big crucifix on the wall. I knew Lucille would have chuckled at the story, if I could have told her.

I was overdressed. There were only eight of us there, and everyone else was in casual clothes. Her son was in jeans, t-shirt, and tattoos. Just like me at the wedding of a friend those years ago, I think he knew that his mom knew he would be uncomfortable in fancy clothes, and that she wanted him to relax and be himself. The black, soft-soled shoes were the sign that he was dressed up. Ordinarily I think it would have been basketball slippers.

Lucille's mom was very kind, and patted me on the back while I tried to control myself. I told her that her daughter was fun, and so nice, and happy. Her mom said that Lucille had suffered a lot at the end, due to the drugs and chemo. I could tell that her mom was very kind and sweet, and I managed to squeak out that I could tell Lucille had a very good mother. "Thank you," she said. "She came to me, and I had her as my own. It's hard to believe that she is gone. But you know what? She is not suffering now. She is at peace."

It bothered me that Lucile's mom would wind up comforting me at Lucille's visitation, instead of the other way around. But I did manage once to pat her on the back.

I spoke (squeaked) some with her husband, and managed to tell him about the time she'd had lunch with me and told me about their conversation in the car at night, plunging down the mountain in the dark.

Which reminds me of a piece by some 20th Century poet. And I may misremember the lines, but I think they go:

I beg my life to lay me down at last
gently, if possible, or fast,
the way a horse, plunging into darkness
kicks a stone out of its path

No one else was in the room with the coffin by this point, and I hadn't seen her body yet, so I limped down there as my last step before driving home. I notice that I limp more when emotional -- anything from being annoyed by a clerk in a store to Lucille's death. As I walked toward her coffin, it was like my left leg was an oar, and I was rowing with it.

When I saw her body, it didn't upset me as much as I feared it might. I could tell that she was gone. The Lucille we knew was not lying in that coffin. She had escaped.

Any observer would have only seen my back, and would have thought I was putting my hand to my heart when I gave what I thought was a Klingon salute and muttered the Klingon K'plagh!

Loosely translated, this means "Well done!"

Lucille would chuckle at this phrase, and deliver it with her goofy smile, which is why I use it here.
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