My entire office had been preparing for weeks for David’s impending death. Our recently retired boss had finally given in to his failing health and allowed our second-in-command to step into his shoes so he could give his body some rest. Don was David’s right-hand man, his confidant and trusted partner in our business. We were being left in good hands.
The two men could not have been any more different from one another. David was a former Marine, a cancer survivor, and a Vietnam veteran who cheered us on with his motto “Continue the march!” while Don was a happy-go-lucky retired banker and organizer of soap box derbies, outwardly and immensely in love with his wife, a prominent local volunteer, and a man of a million smiles. The office morale certainly changed with Don’s arrival. Not that David’s way of being the boss was ineffective or smothering, only that Don’s spirit and liveliness helped us to see more than the inevitable sorrow with which we would all soon be confronted.
So when my telephone rang on Leap Day four years ago, the words he’s gone were not too much of a surprise. David was very sick and could barely keep up with his own body’s need to breathe. But this phone call wasn’t about David. It was about Don. Don was the one who was gone. He had had a heart attack while driving his truck and hit a tree. A neighbor was out walking her dog and found him. Nobody expected this.
That Leap Day phone call set off an unprecedented series of events. I still went to work the next day, unsure of what else I was supposed to do. Thankfully, I wasn’t the only one. Not much got accomplished, understandably. Grief is a heavy, heavy chore to work through. My body was tired and I was exhausted from being so damn sad all the time. Concentrating on anything became a sport. I could stare at a phone number and prepare to make a call only to realize I had been trying to memorize those seven digits for over half an hour. I couldn’t have picked up the phone anyway since trying to lift my arms was like swimming through a thick, heavy mud. It was better than being at home by myself, though. At least there at work, we could all cry together. And that’s what we did, if nothing else.
That afternoon I decided to visit David in his hospital room. The sight of him made me immediately queasy. I had seen dead people before this, but never someone who was dying. It is a completely different kind of experience. I whispered into David’s ear “Air Force Blue is a good color on you!” (our inside joke) and I told him my goodbyes. I’m pretty sure I wasn’t the only one to give him permission to go. David’s body jerked, I thought maybe in reaction to the sound of my voice but maybe it was more in reaction to the pain he was in. Before walking away for the last time, I looked back at him once more as he slept and gave him a nod, all the while wishing I had reached out and touched his hand. To this day I wish I would have touched his hand. I found my coworker in the hospital’s garden where we tried to cry some more, but there just wasn’t anything left in us. So, yes, it is possible to run out of tears…in case you have ever wondered.
A few days later, we were all gathered at the office to head out to Don’s funeral. The mood was a little lighter as some of us remembered a few of Don’s favorite jokes. They were usually R-rated (he often commented on Sandy’s “knockers” or my “skinny little ass”, often garnering laughter and a trusting friendship rather than a slap in the face or even a lawsuit). He had a pet name for every single one of us. Mine was Dena Dear. I can still hear him saying it to me with his thick, southern drawl and smiling eyes. Don never let anyone feel left out or unappreciated. If you ever felt like you didn’t play a big part in the world at large, Don made sure you knew you played a big part in his world. Through the uplifting chatter, our moods improved. We were ready to celebrate Don and send him off with a final Hey buddy!, another one of his favorite greetings. As we made our way through the building’s front door to carpool and commiserate and find our seats at the church, someone’s cell phone rang.
And there it was – David was gone, too. It was all over. Shit, it was finally OVER.
I can’t speak for everyone else, but David’s death completed that week for me. It was an immeasurable kind of relief. A huge sigh, probably, and I felt like I could exhale. I could finally start to breathe again. Finally, it was all over. My body and spirit had never felt so broken before or since, unable to cope with the amount of heartbreak that was thrust upon me in just five days. Don’s service was so damn depressing and I walked out early because I just couldn’t take it anymore. I never did make it to David’s memorial. Besides, I had already said my goodbyes to the Colonel. I come from a military family. The 21-gun salute is an emotionally startling experience. There was no need to put myself through anymore.
A few months later, I left that job. Before a new director could come in and interrupt the flow of good memories I had with those people in that place, I bailed. It was never the same for me and, from what I’ve heard, the company was never the same for anyone else who stayed. Don and David were a dynamic pair. Irreplaceable, even. I’m so lucky to have known them.