It has been written about before, under the guise of "Sensitivity Training," but my views on death are once again causing me strife.
A coworker didn't show up for work. She has worked with us for many years, and has rarely missed, and never missed without calling. They called me to cover for her. They were justifiably worried. They wondered aloud what could cause her to not show up like that. I thought it was a stupid thing to wonder about, and said, "She probably died." Luckily I was talking to a voicemail. Because a statement I might call prophetic, or at least prescient, might be considered insensitive by the Lambs of the County. I couldn't work the shift, so I had a day to process the possibility of her passing.
The brain in me says:
1) She smoked multiple packs a day since she was 9.
2) She was retired.
3) She had advanced lung disease, and required a constant flow of tube delivered oxygen.
4) She was divorced, never had kids, and lived alone. [editors note: she lived with three cats, an oxygen tank, and a hose, hence "alone" is here used in the moral, or even metaphorical sense of the word. The author does not consider cats and medical apparatus as company.]
5) The reason she was alone was that she was a bitter old crone from New York who was so set in her ways that a break in her routine might kill her before lung disease or old age. She was despised by the mental health clients and most of her coworkers dreaded working with her. She had offended almost everyone. On numerous occasions she had been invited to pow wow with the supervisor re: perceived rudeness.
All of these stipulations lead to the undeniable conclusion that Death was evidently imminent, if not past due. In any case it was inevitable, and possibly desirable.
The soul in me says:
1) I really did love the old gal. I knew her a little better than everyone else, because we worked the night shift together for years before any of the current staff even arrived. She had excellent taste in movies and was fun in a conversation. Seeing her wheezing around with an O2 tank, looking as if someone had dipped her in grey paint, was sad.
2) I've loved a lot of people who are now dead, and a good deal more who died long before I was even born. She is part of an overwhelming majority of human beings for whom Death has come a callin'. I'll miss her, but if I'm not used to that by now, I must be some kind of an idiot.
3) Whether in a metaphorical/poetical sense (for atheists), or a literal one, (for believelings), her "spirit," in whatever sense one wishes to construe it, lives on. Which is certainly a good deal more appealing than the rest of her dragging around in the state she was in. This is a win/win.
These stipulations seem to lead to the conclusion that Death was not just expected, but welcome. Put the two sets of stipulations together, and you have, I believe, good reason to not have to futz around with all the traditional pitiful piety and pious pity. Even the probability that she died alone on Christmas day and lay there (possibly being eaten by her "housemates" [ed: the cats]) for almost a week doesn't sweeten the pot enough to manufacture mourning. Not to a mind and soul making sense of the situation. What should be added to the pot is the woman's stated position on maudlin social conventions: she hated them. There was nothing, EVER, that would indicate that she would want people mourning her passing. Working with her for more than ten years, I can theorize with a fair amount of certainty her reaction: She would shrug her shoulders and say with her Brooklyn bred confidence: "Shit happens. I happened. Whatever. Get over it!"
So I show up to work on New Year's Eve to the news that I was right, even about the actual date. She did indeed die on Christmas day and lay there unnoticed by the world until a County Mental Health facility noticed she didn't show up. A note in everyone's box about the regrettable passing of "one of our workplace family," makes me smile a little, thinking about how much she would have hated that turn of phrase. Then co-workers, who knew her less than half as well as I did, approach me with their solemn declarations surprise and grief. I smile and say: "Oh, I knew it! I knew when I got the call about her not showing up yesterday. When I got the message, I said to myself 'She finally kicked the bucket! I bet she's been lying there since Christmas!'"
They stare at me blankly.
"Well, we've all been expecting it for a long time. Even she was. She used to joke about how the threat of immediate death was the only thing that got her to put down the cigarettes."
Someone clears their throat. "It's so sad" someone says. I give up. All the philosophy in the world is helpless in the face of maudlin social convention.
"Yeah," I say, slowly and with conviction, "it's a real tragedy. She'll be missed by one and all."