by gillis

It’s funny how we start to think of our work friends as family, or even part of the fabric of our lives after a while. Sometimes you don’t know just what someone means to you, or how their presence informs yours, until they are gone from your daily life.  I learned of the sudden death of a coworker yesterday. She died while vacationing in Jamaica and because it’s a school vacation week, the information made its way along an informal, jagged path of phone calls, texts, and facebook posts until finally the school administration issued a group email to all of us letting us know about our colleague’s passing. It’s terribly sad.

I’m still trying to process this loss. Laurie was one of the secretaries at our middle school. Before that, she worked in the resource room of the elementary school as an instructional aide. Today we would refer to that position as a paraprofessional, but Laurie wasn’t “para” anything, she was  quite full-blown. Laurie was a wise-cracking, call-it-what-it-is, no-nonsense type of gal. She was one of my first friends here in Berkshire county. We worked in the same resource room that first year and she gave me the lowdown on all things local. She listened to me grieve over recurrent lost pregnancies, took me out for drinks when I thought my marriage was ending, and gave me heartfelt, solid advice as a mother when things in my life took a more hopeful turn. Once Laurie even convinced me to go to a casino. On a bus. And she made it fun. Sort of. She funneled funny stories and emails to me on a regular basis and became a touchstone.

On most school days, Laurie was literally the first person I would see in the morning. I’d leave my slumbering family in the wee dark hours, drive to school, and enter the building where Laurie would already be stationed at the front desk at 6:30 am. Her voice was the first I’d hear saying, “Good mornin’ Gillis” and I’d mumble “mornin’ Laur” as I found my way to my classroom. Laurie was the person who made all of our copies, saw us sign in and out for appointments, gave students passes to and from classes, and took attendance. She knew everyone’s secrets. She gave everyone counsel. She complained about people in the building who took her services for granted, but never by name. I always assumed she wasn’t referring to me, but now that I think of it, I may have been one of the people who caused her grief on a daily basis with my disorganization and urgent requests for things. She didn’t express irritation with me when she had to call in to my classroom to find out who was out because, once again, I had forgotten to use the online attendance program. Now that I think of it, I was most certainly a pain in the ass for Laurie. But she had a gift for making us all feel that we were in on the joke with her, when perhaps we were, each of us, our own punchline.

Laurie’s life was short and parts of it were difficult. She often had responsibility piled upon her because she was a caring person who had trouble saying no to those in need. In recent years she had cared for her elderly, chronically ill mother and had very little respite from that role. After her mother died, she was looking forward to seeing her daughter marry and her son graduate high school in several years’ time. She was imagining making changes in her life and thinking about how she wanted to spend her “second act.” This trip to Jamaica was a long-awaited vacation and the horrible irony of her life ending just as she was contemplating new beginnings for herself strikes me as a cruel joke of the fates. I dread going back to school next week and encountering a hollow space where Laurie and her warm smile greeted me daily. I will miss her terribly.