One night in a cramped office I was contemplating suicide while entering food prices into a restaurant database. I’m a manager and my neck and lower back were throbbing and aching. Scroll, click, type. My eyes felt like they were bleeding. Someone knocked on the door.
“Who is it?”
“*Sigh* Come in.”
“Are you busy?”
“Yes, but tell me what’s going on. Are you still sick?”
“Yes, I…I…but I have a doctor’s note.” She handed me a piece of paper. Elena has been gone for the past two weeks. She is a homely, frowzy, middle-aged bartender. She has a nice, pleasant smile but is very fat and plain. Her personality is quirky and nervous. According to her, she only feels comfortable talking to people when she’s working behind a bar. She has five cats. I have a strong suspicious that she’s a virgin.
“When can I put you back on the schedule?”
“I…that’s why I’m here.” She wrung her pudgy hands and looked down. It was at that moment that I noticed she was distraught. Her face was pale, sweaty, and her lips were moving.
“Elena, is everything alright?”
“I’m sorry, it’s just…I shouldn’t…the doctors say I have ovarian cancer.” As she turned her head away I saw her unsuccessfully try to wipe a tear that was sliding rapidly down her cheek.
“I’m so sorry. I shouldn’t be making a scene like this.”
“No. It’s all right.”
“It’s just…I…I don’t have any family or close friends. I haven’t told anybody…and now that I’m telling you-” she stifled a sob.
“Please, sit down.” I stood up and let her take the only chair in the room. The computer screen was blinking because I hadn’t entered a food price into the database correctly.
“Cancer was in my family. My mother died of ovarian cancer fifteen years ago. I’ve been feeling under the weather the past two months, you know that, but I’ve been putting off going to the doctor’s. I’m such an idiot.” She bent down and began weeping into her hands. It was clear to me that I was the only person outside of the hospital she had told. Her first contact with human sympathy beyond the medical profession had opened the floodgates. I stood there in silence because I dislike cliché statements of consolation from people who can’t possibly understand. But I had to say something.
“We’re…we’re here for you Elena. If there’s anything we can do.” She sat up and let out a long, stuttering exhale in order to gain composure. She stared vacantly with bloodshot eyes at the upcoming sporting events calendar on the wall. I don’t think she heard what I said. “Whatever time you need-”
“I’m sorry. I didn’t expect that to happen. I don’t usually have outbursts like that.” She abruptly stood up and we bumped into each other because the office is so small.
“No. It’s fine.”
“And I didn’t mean to interrupt what you were doing and…and burden you with all my problems.”
“No. That’s little stuff. Stay if you need to.”
“I guess it’s different telling your cats you have cancer than telling your boss you have cancer.” She let out a sound that was both a laugh and a sob. Without even realizing or comprehending what I was doing, I leaned over and gave Elena a hug. She nestled her head into the crook of my neck and wrapped her arms around my lower back. We stayed in the embrace for about thirty seconds. I patted her on the back,
“It’s all right Elena. You’ll be alright.”
“Thank you, Jack.” When we separated she let out, once again, her long, stuttering exhale. “Now I can’t even remember why I came here.”
“The doctor’s note.”
“Yes. No. I mean yes, but also I…I was hoping, despite all this…” She wiped her trembling hands on her gray sweatpants while looking down. Then she abruptly looked up and stared at me with a pleading expression. “Can I still work one day a week?”
“Are you sure you don’t want the entire time off? To fully recover?”
“No. Not at all. I’d go insane. I can’t sit around all day with my cats. I just need one shift a week, something to look forward to, someplace I can hear gossip, talk to people, do something productive outside of my apartment.”
“Of course. I’ll put you on the schedule for next week.”
“Thank you. I better get going now.” She seemed anxious to leave now that her goal was accomplished.
“Feel free to give me a call if you…need to talk…you have my number, right?”
“Yes.” She started to walk away.
“Oh wait, before you go, I forgot.” I took a key out of my pocket and opened a safe beneath the desk. “Here’s your…W2 form…for last year.”
“Oh, thank you. Yes, I need that.”
“Feel better Elena. See you next week.”
“Yes, see you next week.”
She left and I shut the door. Then I turned back to the computer to enter more food prices into the restaurant database.
The next week Elena did not come in for her one shift. The cancer had become more aggressive and she had to stay in the hospital. She didn’t come in the following week, either.
One morning, recently, I received a phone call from a doctor. He told me that Elena had passed away. According to him, he was with her during her final moments. She asked him, if she died, to call me and have me come to the hospital to retrieve her apartment key. She wanted me to help her neighbor, who was feeding her cats, help the cats find new homes.
“Can I come in at four?” the doctor asked.
After hanging up the phone I walked to my desk, sat in a chair, and cried.
Now I have a cat. We don’t get along, but we make it work.
Header Image: Time record sheet: By Emile Garcke and J. M. Fells, 1889 (Factory accounts, their principles and practice) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons