Elizabeth liked having Ron Cafarella as her boss when she returned to the workforce after her two children were old enough to start full time school. It helped that she had known 'Caffey' in their high school days and their shared sense of familiarity of the past gave them a common connection. The past didn't matter much working as a call center operator but Elizabeth hoped that she was a good employee and that she impressed her supervisor, Caffey.
Caffey was a fair and supportive manager and that helped keep the stress level down. He had an open door policy and the Staff was free to approach him with their problems, issues, concerns, conflicts and ranting needs. Caffey respected confidences and he never violated personal boundaries or engaged in gossip in the workplace. He was a nice guy but not a push over when it came to job related policies and standards. Consistency was Caffey's strong suit. You always knew where you stood with the guy.
Elizabeth's life was going well. Her marriage was strong and happy, her children were successful in their talents and pursuits, and she was enjoying the typical American middle class dream, helped by the fact that she enjoyed her job. Then, on a Saturday afternoon, her life changed forever when Elizabeth answered the door to find two graved faced Hillsboro Police Officers standing on her porch and she knew something terrible had happened. For a moment, she found herself mentally trying to pick between her husband, son or daughter which struck her as a very weird reaction.
It was her (forty-three year old) husband, killed an hour earlier in a motorcycle accident out on Route 36 when a truck crossed the center line coming around a curve in the road. Elizabeth didn't remember much about the next few days, dazed and blurred by uncontrollable waves of shock, fear, grief, despair, anger, pain, denial and a horrible sense of loss. People came and went, bringing food and offering condolences. Her father accompanied her to the funeral home to make the arrangements. She didn't remember what choices they made when they left the place.
The wake was a haze of cloudy faces, blurry conversations, and a sense of out of body experiences. She remembered Caffey showing up with a few other people from work which was a generous gesture. The stoned faced yet understanding Caffey told his employee to take as much time as she needed before coming back to work and Elizabeth accepted his awkward hug, almost as if she was a rag doll needing to be held up.
The funeral was more of the same – music that Elizabeth was unable to make out, prayers she couldn't remember, and a homily that made her laugh and cry at the same time. Her fellow mourners looked like ghosts in the pews but she remembered Caffey and some of the girls from work being there and that was kind of them. Elizabeth wanted to throw herself into the grave along with Rick's coffin at the cemetery and she relied on her parents to be her tower of strength as she limped from the burial spot on legs of rubber.
The reception was unbearable torture. Elizabeth resented people laughing while eating and it was the last place she wanted to be. In the coming days, Elizabeth stayed strong ("For the kids," her parents advised) and even in her despair and annoyance she appreciated the kindness of the people in her life, including Caffey who once again told her not to worry about work and to take care of herself.
She stayed out two weeks, trying to rebuild her emotional strength while her father helped with the legal matters, insurance needs, and other concerns. The kids seemed more resilient than she could ever hope to be, getting back to their lives in a matter of days and never before had the house felt so empty to her. It was one of the reasons why Elizabeth needed to get back to work – just to get out of the house.
Elizabeth returned to the call center on a rainy Monday morning, not quite sure what to expect. Those she was close too welcomed her back with smiles and hugs, others weren't sure how to react and some just plain avoided her. Caffey showed up at her cubical a few minutes later.
"Once you're settled in, come see me," he said.
Elizabeth felt uncomfortable and awkward as she glanced at the sympathy cards left on her desk. A few people stopped by to express their condolences and then quickly moved on.
"It's hard for people to know what to say or do," Caffey told her as she stepped into his office. He stood and closed the door before returning to his desk. "There are no perfect answers. People get confused. Are they sad for you or for themselves, remembering their own losses in their lives? Maybe they're freaked because they don't want this happening to them. Some just aren't good at handling death, especially at work."
"Sounds like you've gone through this before," Elizabeth remarked.
"Once or twice," he replied and she assumed he meant with other employees. "Let me know what you need and don't need. Come in here if you're having a bad day or even a bad moment."
"Thanks," Elizabeth smiled. "I don't expect or want special treatment but a smile would beat being shunned."
"I understand," Caffey said. "This place will either be a refuge or a torture chamber," he warned. "You might be able to escape from reality here, focusing on the work and phone calls but there might also be some tough loneliness for you too."
"I was making the coffee in the kitchen this morning and I burst into tears because that's when Rick and I used to talk," she said. "Sitting at the kitchen table with our coffee. I don't want to be an emotional wreck coming to work but I don't want to have the koodees either."
"Just do what you need to do for yourself," Caffey told her. "Go home early if you have to. Come in here if you need to vent. Ask for help. We'll be here for you."
"Thanks." Elizabeth gave him a look of appreciation.
Elizabeth did her best during the next few weeks, surviving the good days and tolerating the bad. She retreated to Caffey's office a few times to catch her breath or recover from a pang of grief or a wave of despair. Sometimes somebody would say something stupid or insensitive, like if she wanted to go out on a date with one of their friends or family members, or they'd brag about something they did with their husband, or imply that Elizabeth didn't have it "as bad" as somebody else they knew who lost a child or a richer husband .
"People can be tactless," Caffey agreed during one of Elizabeth's rants in the privacy of his office. "They think just because they've experienced loss they can empathize but they forget they're much further along the timeline than you. Your loss is one of the most traumatic events of your life, different from everybody else's because it is yours."
"I really appreciate your empathy and compassion," Elizabeth said. "You've really made a difference in me being able to get through these days."
"You've been a hard worker with a good work ethic even with what you've been going through," an impressed Caffey replied. "You show up on time. You dress well. You put on a good demeanor. You're an inspiration to a lot of people."
"I realized I had two choices," Elizabeth revealed. "I could either succumb to misery or I could accept the reality of what I must face each and every day."
"You're doing good," Caffey said positively.
"No I'm not," she admitted with a heavy sigh. "Life is hard. I feel alone, afraid, hurt, angry and even guilty. I'm in charge of the house, the finances, the kids, the repairs – everything that needs to be done." She was sitting slumped in the chair now. "Turns out 'til death do us part' was bullshit. I feel abandoned and deserted. Rick is supposed to be here to help take care of everything. I guess I still haven't completely accepted the reality that he's gone. Late at night, in that empty house, in that lonely bed….." Her voice trailed off.
"You will always have lost your husband," Caffey told her. "There's nothing you can do about that. For the rest of your life, he will be a part of who you are. You won't ever 'get over it'. But you will move on."
"Maybe I don't want to," Elizabeth grumbled.
"You don't have to lose your grief," Caffey said. "You'll always be a widow and nothing will change that. But, as you say, you can face your challenges every day."
"Did you take a course in this stuff or something?" Elizabeth wondered. "You're very sympathetic."
"We didn't see each other after high school," Caffey said. "You went to the community college, got married, had kids. It was several years later when you got this job."
"Did I miss something?" She asked.
"I met a girl at Green College," Caffey revealed. "We got engaged. We were going to get married when she finished with her Master's."
"She got sick," Caffey said.
"Twenty-six years old," Caffey confirmed, standing and stepping to the widow wall overlooking the call center. He stuffed his hands in his pockets. "I was in Claims. Rose Waters was my boss. She was very compassionate and understanding. Never forgot her caring advice and counsel. I transferred to this division not long after."
"I can't believe I never knew that," Elizabeth said with shocked amazement. "I'm so sorry, Caffey."
He turned his head and looked at her. "I'm further along the timeline than you," he said. "But you never forget."
Elizabeth nodded her head in understanding. "Thanks for sharing that," she said as she stood and stepped close to him. "Now I know why you understand so well."
"You're going to be okay," he told her. "Eventually."
"Thanks," she said, opening the door and returning to her cubical.
Caffey watched her through the window. Elizabeth was a beautiful girl in high school with legendary long blond hair, one of those girls known for her appearance and her personality. She still had the look though her hair was darker now and cut to her shoulders. Caffey remembered how pretty she was then and how great she looked now, even if life had been so unfair to her.
He was glad he could offer her some comfort and support in her time of need.