When I hear that someone died, my first thought always is, “Well, that’s what people do.” I don’t mean to sound cocky but even though I haven’t lost too many people close to me to the unavoidable oblivion, I’m conditioned to death and destruction. Every day, I walk to work on the perilous national highway. I’d witness an accident or what remains of an accident at least once a week. Many a Monday morning, I’ve walked over streaks of dried blood and stepped over shattered glass. Perhaps that’s why I’ve become a little hard on the inside, and cold about reacting to news of death.
However, when I heard a colleague passed away yesterday, I realised that even I’m not all parched on the inside.
He wasn’t a friend, and so we seldom conversed. Though we sat in close proximity to one another, we didn’t work on the same projects, and so both os us were happy not forcing small talk.
But I knew him and he knew me.
He’d spend his day making phone calls to customers while I spend my day hunched over my keyboard writing to customers. Our work lives pivoted on the same matters, even though our paths never crossed.
Sometimes, when he’d pick up a call, I’d pick up my headphones because I wouldn’t want to get distracted by his whimsical narratives to people halfway across the world. Despite that though, I’ve observed him.
I know his routine: He reaches the office at 10 but comes to his place at around 10.15 clutching a cup of coffee, he skips breakfast and grabs an early lunch so that he wouldn’t miss much of his shift time, and as the clock strikes eight in the evening he gathers his things ready to leave. He’d then commute an hour to reach home.
I know all of this because I’ve seen him at it—every day for months together. I’ve had no reason to strike up a conversation, but he was an active part of my routine, too. Perhaps that’s why I went blank when I heard he was dying. I couldn’t think, I couldn’t work, I couldn’t write to customers without him nearby, chatting with customers.
I’m not grieving his loss — why would I grieve someone I didn’t even know? And yet, ever since I heard the news, abstracts of his conversations with others keep ringing in my ear. He hated artificial sugar — he once explained to new recruits in our team that they shouldn’t ever add sugar to their coffee. He vouched for natural sweetness, mocking those who claimed refined sugar is, indeed, refined. And I’ve seen him smile and decline when people offered chocolate—and yet, he’d always bring candy for his friends from his trips abroad.
Sitting at my desk, I wondered why my mind wouldn’t drift away from this man I knew so well, yet knew nothing about. Memories flooded one after the other as I thought of a distant afternoon when we sat in a meeting proofreading a slide show presentation for a common friend. We both discussed — debated — the use of American spelling over the more rightful British spelling. We both preferred the British version, but when I suggested we use American, which is more familiar to our audience, he shrugged in a casual way. He just couldn’t accept “z” in the stead of “s”.
It’s the little things that linger the longest. I didn’t have to talk to him for hours over a coffee to understand his tastes, I didn’t have to spend time and money outside of work to get to know him. I can still picture his almost-always black shirt, his swaying walk and the skip in his step, the whisper of a song on his lips. I didn’t have to be his friend for his death to impact me.
For me he was one of five-thousand colleagues, one of fifty team members, one of twenty cubicle mates. People die all the time; he’s no different. Except that this time, I felt it a little closer than I had expected.