A Beautiful Ending

By Jeanne Marie Laskas
Sunday, November 19, 2006

I'm at a memorial service, for someone I knew only slightly, an 80-year-old man whose cancer came quick and spread quick. He said he didn't want to bother with any medical intervention; he said it was time to just go on and die. The kids came, the grandkids, the relatives, the colleagues, the students -- plenty had time to come and say goodbye.

I want to be him. No, I don't want to be dead. I want to have a deathbed like his. And when I die, I want to fill a cathedral just like this one. I want this. How do you get this?

The service is so packed that they ran out of fancy programs, the full-color kind with a gold-braided tassel dangling, but someone ran off and made photocopies, and so now they're handing out those. "Thank you," I say to the woman next to me, who passes the pile, sort of like exam books in school. That's fitting. He was a college professor; he taught 19th-century British literature; he had a full roster of students for the fall semester. But then he died.

Also fitting: We're gathered for this memorial service on his birthday. He almost made it to 81. Instead, he died.

No one can believe he died. Why are we all so surprised? We just saw him. We were just talking to him. This is the way dying so often hits you: a bonk on the head. A reminder. Oh, that's right! Any of us could check out at any second. I never figured him for 80. He was one of those people who was just always there. A rock. A fixture. Fitting. He was a man who belonged. Before I was born, he started teaching at the college where I now teach.

One school, one city, one job -- for almost 50 years. I'm trying to get my arms around that one.

I have some things I never got to say to him. A few weeks before he died, he sent me a poem. He had read something of mine that reminded him of something he thought I would like, so he sent it to me. I never got a chance to tell him how much I liked the poem, or how much I liked getting the poem, from him, a man I knew only slightly. A colleague.

Listen, colleagues are not supposed to die. Colleagues are supposed to retire, get their watches, then fade off to Florida. Years later, you'll hear about one or the other dying, and you'll sigh, remember, give pause. But colleagues are not supposed to just get plucked out of your life on account of something so personal as . . . death. For heaven's sakes! Death does not belong in the workplace.

Around me, colleagues are weeping. Colleagues are not supposed to weep. When colleagues cry, they cease to be people who simply work together; they become people who weep together; they become family. This is what I'm resisting. Must not get too close. Must separate work from family. Must keep the guard up, do a good job and go home. Maintain your inner circle, and keep the outer circle outer. Well, he sure didn't live that way. His circle was huge and ever-expanding. He sent a poem to me, a person he knew only slightly, in a thoroughly random act of kindness. I suppose if you live that sort of life, you get this: a cathedral full of people grieving.

After the service, we file outside, scatter all over the lawn, greet the harsh sun. In a half-hour, a group of undergrads from the film department will screen the documentary they started making about him last year: a class project about a cool old guy on campus, a fixture. In the meantime, we stand here and say the essential nothings you say after funerals. "It was a beautiful service; he would have loved it; and remember the time . . . ?"

"That was really inspirational," a woman about my age says. We sort of know each other. She teaches medieval literature or maybe postmodern something? "I just want to be him," she says.

"I was thinking the same thing," I say.

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