A woman named Olga joined my department this last November. She transferred from another place in the company; she took her new job for a lot of reasons, I’m sure, but one of them was probably an increased focus on complex regulations that would provide better opportunity for her to put her law degree to work without actually being a lawyer.
She was about eight months pregnant when she joined the department, so we knew she wasn’t going to be in her new position for too long before she was going to be taking an extended leave. After she joined, our department had between 15 and 20 people, and since she worked in a different group than I did, I can’t say I ever had a one-on-one conversation with her. I knew she was from the Ukraine and I knew she seemed nice and I knew she was about to have a baby any minute. I figured I would get to know her as time went by.
She had her baby in early December, a girl named Ella.
In late January, Olga started having pain in her side and a nosebleed that wouldn’t stop. A trip to the hospital turned into some tests, which turned into a trip to the Mayo Clinic, which turned into a bleak diagnosis of a rare kind of cancer. Her funeral was today, about two months after she was diagnosed, about three months after she gave birth. She did at least get to spend her last few days at home with her family and daughter, and she died in her sleep. When something like that happens, you look for silver linings wherever you can find them.
I didn’t know her, really. But it has been hard not to think about her ever since we heard about her diagnosis. The speed with which she left was stunning. By comparison, my uncle Herschel, my dad’s brother, also has bad cancer in his colon, 35 of 36 lymph nodes, and possibly in his lungs. He’s far older and less healthy than Olga was, and yet even his dire cancer diagnosis has potential for survival measuring in years. He’s fighting long odds there, but it’s possible. Of course, he didn’t grow up near Chernobyl, either. But it just goes to show there’s bad cancer, and there’s bad cancer.
I have thought often of Olga’s baby, Ella, and what it must be like for Olga’s husband, family and close friends to simultaneously be missing Olga and having to care for this infant who will never know her mother. I suppose in some ways that may be a fortunate thing; I have thought about how I would explain to Linus and Lily if Jane were to be gone in two months, and that seems like a harder thing for them and me to get through, especially for Lily, who’s not quite able to comprehend the permanence of death. I suppose there’s never really a good time for a parent to die, and for a child to hear the news. It’s just a different set of problems.
The other thing I wonder is how Olga felt, knowing in all likelihood that she was going to die very soon, and knowing her little girl was going to face the world without her. I have to believe she was happy she was on this Earth long enough to bring Ella to life. It seems a cruel twist of fate that she would be gone so soon after achieving what was probably her greatest life work, bearing her first child.
I know there is room for disagreement there, and I don’t really know what Olga felt about having a baby at all, but I believe strongly that we, the Royal We, are largely alive for one purpose, and that is to procreate and give our progeny a rich life. Which, of course, means giving ourselves a rich life. My outspokenness on this point has been controversial at times with friends and associates, and it’s hard for me to reconcile this belief with the fact that I believe people who choose not to have kids, or for whatever reason do not have kids, can still lead meaningful lives. Because I do believe that, and know many people who exemplify that. But on the whole, I think having children is about as close to God as we can get; it’s the whole point of Us.
I think most anybody who has intentionally had a child understands this, if not immediately, then eventually. I hope Olga felt that way about her daughter and her own life before she died.
Her cubicle is still filled with her things, the same as the day she left it. It’s like she’s on vacation, or even more painful, maternity leave. There is a picture of Ella, perhaps a day old, that someone put on her whiteboard, back before everything changed. I look into her cube as I pass by every day, but I don’t stop and peer inside. I feel like I want to, though I’m not sure why. It’s almost like a museum or a memorial, the way they sometimes put plexiglass over a fallen player’s locker and keep it just the way it is inside. Today as I passed by I wondered: Who will clean out Olga’s cube? It’s a job that’s likely to fall to her boss, a very nice guy who just became a boss himself a short time ago, and has taken all of this pretty hard. I think Olga may have been his first hire.
Maybe we should all pitch in and help box her things up. Someday.