The Missing Stair

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It is a curious thing, the death of a loved one. We all know that our time in this world is limited, and that eventually all of us will end up underneath some sheet, never to wake up. And yet it is always a surprise when it happens to someone we know. It is like walking up the stairs to your bedroom in the dark, and thinking there is one more stair than there is. Your foot falls down, through the air, and there is a sickly moment of dark surprise as you try and readjust the way you thought of things.” ~ Lemony Snicket

I had that moment yesterday. I stopped into the local toy shop where I had my first job at seventeen. I live in a small town, so I was hoping to run into someone I knew working there. I wasn’t looking for anyone in particular, just someone I knew to exchange smiles and information, to find out how was business and how was life. I was disappointed when the face I encountered was new, but he was about my age and affable so I greeted him anyway. I explained I had worked there a few years ago and asked how everyone was. Then I asked if Joan still worked there.

The new face changed in a way that confused me. Then he told me that he was very sorry, but she had died suddenly a few weeks ago from a massive heart attack. I paused, suddenly isolated from the conversation in my own mind. We must be talking about two different people. The Joan I knew was healthy, about my mother’s age and very kind. I hadn’t seen her since the summer, when I asked her how her boys were doing and if the one had come home from Afghanistan yet. The Joan I knew asked about my boyfriend and school, because she remembered when we worked together and had long conversations in which she encouraged and I learned. The Joan I knew was probably just at home that night, getting ready for work the next morning.

No, it was the same Joan. He explained that it was completely unexpected, that he had in fact been on his way to pick her up from the hospital after a slight scare. That she had been planning on picking up her military son from the airport later that week. He was very sorry that he had been the one to tell me. My boss had tried to contact me because she thought I might like to go to the calling hours. I didn’t know what to say. I wanted to cry, but I didn’t. I gathered my wits, offered my own apologies and thanked him. We talked a while longer. I made a spontaneous purchase and left. I had missed the stair and stumbled.

I always have a peculiar feeling when I learn that someone has died. An irrational desire to go and look for the person comes over me. I want to go search the places I know they might be, maybe have one last conversation (though we wouldn’t say that) and say goodbye like it had been any other meeting. Sometimes I still want to go to my grandmother’s apartment to visit her, and because I don’t it’s like my mind won’t accept that she isn’t there any more. I think this will be much the same. I’ll keep visiting the shop when I’m home, hoping it’ll be a night that she’s working. I’ll want to ask when she’s scheduled to be there. And, because I don’t, my mind won’t accept that I won’t see her again this side of eternity. I dread the day when someone closer is absent and I am left behind to, as Snicket says, readjust the way I think of things.

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