Last Saturday I attended a memorial service for the spouse of a retired colleague of Mark's. They were favorites of ours and at every social event within the department and med center we would sit with them. They were both avid cyclists as well as avid believers in doing their part in the name of social justice - touring the world by bike or working for Habitat for Humanity.
Caroline came home from a meeting on the East Coast this summer where she got to bike for days - the last 200 hundred miles by herself. Upon her return she went to the doctor for stomach pain and was diagnosed with an aggressive cancer. Mark first heard via email and then she began a Caring Bridge page that she updated occasionally. There weren't very many entries of hers before her husband took over and three months later she died.
We live on a corner house that is the route for many biking groups in town and they would often ride past our house. If we were out in the yard they would stop and talk before making their way home. This sudden illness of Caroline's and seemingly quick death left us stunned. It is hard to imagine any healthier, more vibrant people than the two of them.
Mark had an all-day conference that day and couldn't attend the service. I had to work as well but negotiated my hours so I could come in a little later. I sat with another faculty spouse in that packed church and wondered if Caroline had any idea how many people she touched. I wondered if any of us know that when we go about our life.
Like everything these days, even my attempt at paying my respects was half-ass. I couldn't stay until the end as I was already an hour late to being an hour late to work. I couldn't talk to George, couldn't meet the grown kids I'd heard them talk about for more than twenty years, couldn't meet the sister from Indiana or the middle-school geography teachers that Caroline worked with for decades. Before this final send-off for Caroline I had to get up and leave.
As soon as I walked out of the church I started crying. For Caroline, for George, for their kids, for work commitments that were getting in the way of something more important.
I drove to work, clocked in, and waited on customers in my standard funeral dress - quite overdressed for the rest of my day. Melancholy seemed to seep out of me even though the store was so packed I barely had a minute to think about anything but the next person in line.
One after another I wrote up tickets and sent people on their way with ornaments and garland and reindeer pillows and candles that smell like Christmas. As I was writing up a ticket for one woman she asked me if I was okay.
"Yes, I'm fine. Just a little overwhelmed at the moment."
"I can see why. It's so busy here today but I do hope you've checked on your suppliers to see if they are okay."
"Yes, your suppliers in France. Has somebody checked on them to make sure they're okay after last night?"
"I don't know. I think so," I said - not having the heart to say that the store she was in with the very French name on the outside gets nearly everything from China.
"It's so terrible, isn't it? I can't imagine....," she said and my eyes welled up with tears for a place that is an unchecked dream on my bucket list.
I wrapped her ornaments and handed her bag to her.
She patted my hand.
"We'll be okay," she whispered and that was the first thing I believed all day.