This morning our daily team huddle at work was delayed in starting; neither our team lead, Dan, or our manager, Lilly, were available right away. "There's Dan," I said, "he's just having a confab with the CEO." Sure enough, the two of them were visible through the glass doors, and when they came back through, Monica didn't head up to her third floor office like I expected; instead she came right over to the group of us, and her expression made it clear something was very wrong.
"I don't know how else to tell you this, but Lilly passed away on the weekend; I'm so very sorry..."
Two dozen hands went to two dozen throats and mouths. Part of me wondered why that was, since my hand moved like everyone else's. There was a gasp, and multiple expressions of disbelief. Then a sob. The news seemed too big to be real; after all, Lilly was only in her mid-forties, she had quit smoking two years ago and although she had been diagnosed with diabetes, she managed it by adjusting her diet and all that sort of thing.
David, our director (who is now kept very busy as an acting VP) came down from the third floor where he had been on the phone with Lilly's husband; he told us that apparently Lilly collapsed going up or coming down the stairs at home Saturday night, and Cliff heard her breathing irregularly, and I don't know if she passed in the ambulance or in the hospital or right there on the stairs, but she's gone.
I have been blessed with a succession of very decent bosses in my adult life, which I am very grateful for, and even among them Lilly was a standout. She was both plain-spoken and insightful, both blunt and compassionate; she took her work seriously and expected her subordinates to do the same, but always took measures to insure that work was an enjoyable place to come to. She had a profound effect on my workplace and our corporate culture.
There was an awful lot to like about Lilly, but what I admired the most about her was her total disregard for complacency. If she saw something that could be improved, she did not rest until it had either been changed or every possible alternative had been explored. By the time the rest of us had gotten used to the new arrangement, she had either found something else to update or was implementing something huge and new that the rest of us would need a lot of time to wrap our heads around. Where I feared change, she embraced it, and where I sat collecting my thoughts, she had already struck out for a new destination.
She was like a smiling whirlwind that blew through a room, and if you weren't simply swept up and carried along in her wake, you were probably changed by the experience regardless. Despite how busy her role as manager and acting director kept her, she always had time to ask how my girls were, or how Cindy's mum was doing after her stroke, or what plans you had for the long weekend.
I can't imagine not seeing her at work any more.
I got neck strain trying to avoid looking into Lilly's office all day, and as I was leaving at the end of the day, I checked out of habit, and saw the empty chair, and remembered she would never be coming back to it, and barely kept my composure on my way to the parking lot.
Work did a great job of helping us cope; instead of sending everyone home to grieve on their own, they gave us time to come to grips with it, and we all elected to go back on the phones, as much as a welcome distraction as anything else. The Education staff came around with juice and tea and coffee to keep everybody hydrated (between tears and snot I lost more fluid than James Brown at the '64 T.A.M.I. show), and a number of staff from other areas offered to help man the phones if needed. David came around several times to see how everyone was doing, or to borrow a tissue, and also had the presence of mind to call the new hires that were supposed to start work tomorrow and told them that while they would still be paid, they should come in next week instead.
A grief counselor came in this afternoon, and most of us met with her as a group. She insured us that whatever feelings we had at the moment were appropriate and valid, and said she was there to insure we had everything we need just to get through the present. The future was going to have to wait until we get through this tragic now. She asked us to take care of ourselves, and to listen to our bodies in terms of the food and water they would still require, and to beware of imbibing, as our metabolisms were probably working at an advanced rate, which could result in our becoming inebriated more quickly.
My faith is a comfort to me in a lot of ways, but it comes up short when dealing with a loss of this kind; I don't have any real belief in what happens after we die, but I am pretty sure it doesn't involve sitting on a cloud strumming a harp. I also don't believe that everything we are simply ceases to be once our biological computer stops firing. As far as a soul goes, I'm pretty sure I have one, because something has to be causing this pain I'm feeling.
All your thoughts, all your feelings, all your emotions, all the things that make you you, occur in the brain. Your brain is made of nerve cells called neurons, and they aren't much on their own, but in concert they constitute a neural network which is probably responsible for consciousness, although the labcoat types have a hard time agreeing on even that.
Thought itself probably happens in the gap between neurons, like the gap a spark plug has, which is called a synapse. It's a horrible oversimplification, I know, but I can't help but feel that there is something significant about the fact that so much of our individual humanity comes out of nothing, arrives out of a space between two other things.
Lilly was more than a collection of molecules, or an assembly of cells, or an agglomeration of tissues. She had a profound effect on a number of people, both in her personal and her professional life. While she may be gone from our lives, parts of her will live on through the lives of those she touched, at the very least.
In time I'll believe this again, but right now, I can't see that big picture; I can only see the empty space.