“I doubt I’ll have a story this afternoon,” I told my new GRA supervisor after our quick lunch meeting. “I should be able to swing by to fill out the paperwork this afternoon.”
Our meeting was more “lunch” in name than practice. I posted up at the main desk to actually eat, and before I’d finished my applesauce cup – don’t laugh, applesauce is delicious, and it was strawberry applesauce! – Kathleen decided to offer up an obituary.
I had the slightest inclination that this wasn’t going to be a quick story. We discussed the importance of life stories in the morning meeting, and somehow, this one was going to suck me in.
I was prepared for the kindly, 95-year-old year old grandma who had passed away peacefully in her sleep. Instead, the obituary was for a prominent, internationally-known researcher of prolific proportions, and a member of the MU community.
She did not leave this world under the venerated auspices of old age, but was, in fact, quite young. About my mom’s age. Cancer. 54.
It was one o’clock, and I desperately did not want to begin calling her friends on the faculty around campus. This woman had only died one week ago, and here I was, barging into stranger’s life at a most vulnerable time.
The friends were easy. No crying; no broken, choked-up voices; no long pauses. They were reservedly cheerful.
Then I phoned the woman’s parents. Her mom confirmed a few details, but wouldn’t talk anymore. She gave me the husband’s cell phone number. Mark hadn’t answered his office phone on campus, but, for whatever reason, definitely picked up the cell at home.
At his home. I could hear family members in the background. Pots and pans clanked occasionally. Voices rustled in the other rooms.
I might as well have said, “Hi, I’m Dustin, I’ll be tearing open your fresh wounds a little more. Feel free to thank me later.”
He didn’t want to talk. He’d written the press release. That was exhausting for him, he said. He’d quoted the Chancellor. That was enough, he said. He didn’t want his words taken out of context. That was too much, he said.
“I’ll fact check everything,” I promised.
“I’m not worried about a misquote,” he replied.
But wait, he didn’t want his words removed, yet a misquote hadn’t crossed his mind? Was I getting somewhere? Was this progress? A pinhole of light in the darkness of grief? It was something, right? Right?
I’d rephrased my intentions a handful of times already. I couldn’t believe he hadn’t hung up. I spoke infrequently. I spoke softly.
It was a hostage situation by now. A quote, a story, was being held at gunpoint by the grief-ridden mind of this husband who had lost his wife in an unexplainable fashion far too early in her life. Cancer doesn’t care for rich, poor, fashionable, trashy, smart, dumb, man or woman.
Still, Mark was talking to me, and I was listening. I think it was close to 15 minutes of me listening and softly pleading with him that I merely wanted to find the human element, before he finally said, “What makes somebody successful…”
There it was. A small piece of darkness had cleared in his mind, perhaps in the world, and he talked. He talked to me about his spouse whom he had lost seven days prior.
“Some of us who aren’t as accomplished might say to ourselves, ‘I don’t know if I can do this.’ ‘Gee, have I bitten off too much?’ ‘I wish I’d never started this.’ The things we say to ourselves when we have doubts, I never heard her say those things.”
By the end of the interview, Mark was asking ME if I had any other questions.
Sandi Abell was a rare woman, a rare leader, a rare human being. Her friends and family told me, and I believe them.
Rarer still is the person with the capacity to trust a stranger, a voice on the other end of a speaker, with the precious memories of a loved one lost too soon.
I am exhausted, but immensely grateful. And I called my parents tonight as I walked out of the newsroom, almost 7 hours after my first phone call.