personal eye

We joke about people being married to their jobs, but the numbers in my own life tell quite a tale. A typical workday sees me awake for 17 hours. I spend nine of those with co-workers. Since Jeff and I keep slightly different work schedules, I only see him for about five hours per weekday.

The jokes become less comfortable when you realize that you're spending more hours per day with your co-workers than you do with the person you married. Co-workers don't have the same commitment to permanence that spouses do; they are people you spend time with, but not people you share everything with. I marvel at how few people find this strange or unusual.

A co-worker of mine died this past week after an extended illness. I did not know her as well as many of my co-workers did, but I was greatly saddened by her death. I enjoyed her company, though our social circles did not overlap. She was well-liked, and with reason. She was both pragmatic and knowledgeable, and -- important for someone in my line of work -- embraced computers and technology to a level that was not often seen in the books-and-paper world of libraries.

We had warning, of course; the quiet step of co-workers passing news down the hall told us that she had been worsening fast, but no endpoint or timeline was given us. I assumed days, not hours, but I was wrong. Another quiet step, another knock on the door, later that afternoon passed the news to our department.

I ached to see my co-workers cry, those people that I spent more time with on a daily basis than my spouse, but whom I didn't feel I had permission to hug. Later that afternoon, I was approached by other co-workers who asked, "Would you mind designing the memorial flyers?"

I did not cry then, not to the level of my co-workers, but the tears came when I slotted her photo into the layout. The combination of personal distress and professional graphic design was too dichotomous for my brain to handle well, and it unsettled me greatly when each step of the design approval process brought fresh tears from my co-workers. Someone had to approach the project with a professional, not a personal, eye, and evidently that someone needed to be me.

If you like the people you work with, the line between professional and personal can blur all too quickly.

I got word late last week that the funeral would be Monday, and harbored plans to attend the services between taking the last remaining visiting friends to the airport. As the weekend went on, I realized that my plans were plausible but perhaps not well thought out; by attending the funeral I would miss out on the last few hours of visiting with two people who had flown from South Carolina and Arizona to stay with us.

On Sunday night, I made up my mind to skip the funeral. I should have attended, but I also should have spent time with my houseguest-friends; given no good option, I chose to side with the living. I thought about her as we had lunch and bought coffee and gradually talked faster, trying to fit in months' worth of conversations in the half-hour left before airport time.

I thought about how the professional and personal worlds collide, whether we want them to or not. I put Jake and Scott on planes and thought of Helen, and wished them all well.

All three mattered, but choices had to be made.