Friday, November 23, 2007

How well do you know the person next to you?

Last Sunday I mentioned that Yajeev’s entry about imaginary friends reminded me of two posts I needed to write. This is the second one, and this one I must treat gently. If this story were made into a movie, my role would be that of a bit player. The main character would be a woman I’ll call “Gina.”

Years and years ago, I was one of seven secretaries working in a corporate office. Because there were so few of us, we knew each other fairly well. Gina was the newest member of our group. She was thirty-something, average in appearance, with a pretty smile we didn’t see often enough. During her first week there, we learned that she had standing doctor’s appointments twice a week. Cancer treatments, we were told, and the look on her face let us know she didn’t want us to ask any questions.

The rest of this story would be better told in a straightforward fashion, but I’m going to be deliberately vague. I'll beat around the bush a little now and explain why later.

Gina told us almost from the beginning that she was preparing for a "major event" in her life, an event that would be equally important to her "special man." She told us his name and his occupation, which, if I remember correctly, involved big red trucks with sirens. She brought in magazines dedicated to events of the type she was planning. She showed us pictures of several long dresses, white ones, and asked our opinions about which one she should order to wear to that event. She also talked about colors for the dresses her close friends would wear. She included us in discussions about invitations, decorations, and all the other details that needed attention.

This planning went on for months. The rest of us were happy for Gina, which we told her, and worried at the same time, which we tried not to show. She still visited the doctor regularly, and we crossed our fingers that she’d stay well enough to make it through her special day. And we did one more thing.

About six weeks prior to her special event, on an afternoon when she’d gone to the doctor, we got together and planned a "pre-event, gift-giving party." We decided which of us would be responsible for decorations, who’d bring what refreshments, etc. We also decided to have this party away from the office and to include her family and special friends. One of the secretaries approached the personnel manager, explained our plans, and obtained a phone number for Gina’s emergency contact, her mother.

We thought Gina's family would be pleased that she was well liked at work and had friends who would do something nice for her. We gathered around as our designated caller dialed the emergency number, identified herself and began to outline our plans. Then we watched as her smile changed to a look of confusion and her eyes darted from one of us to the other, indicating her obvious distress about what she was hearing. Her final words before hanging up the phone were, “I understand. I’m so sorry.”

Our co-worker became teary-eyed as she related Gina’s mother’s response: "I don’t know what she's been telling you," the mother had said, "but none of it is true.” There was no special man, no special event was planned. There was no cancer. There were doctor’s appointments, two a week, with a psychiatrist.

We were heartsick. All of us. I still feel sad and sick when I think about it all these years later. With good intentions, we had torn down a friend’s carefully constructed fantasy, and we had done it in a way that left her no room to work her way out of it. We'd created new problems for her both at work and at home.

Gina missed work the next day but showed up the day after that, long enough to submit her resignation. We apologized to her, and we cried before she did. All Gina said was, “It’s okay. I can’t explain to you why I did it, but it’ll be okay. There’s a doctor who’s helping me.” We never saw or heard from her again.

I’ve been careful about the words I’ve used in telling this story because I don’t know what happened to Gina. I hope she got better, but what if she got worse? Just in case her mental condition has deteriorated to a dangerous level and her computer skills have grown, I’ve tried not to describe this bizarre incident in phrases that might lead her, through a Google search, to this blog. If that sounds silly and melodramatic, it probably is, but I’ll tell you one more little piece of the story:

A couple of months after Gina began working at our office, the weather changed suddenly one afternoon. Snow began falling hard and fast, piling up several inches high in a matter of minutes. It was too late in the day for snowplows to clear the roads before afternoon rush hour, so driving would be hellish.

I knew Gina lived much farther from the office than I did, so I asked her if she’d like to ride home with me and spend the night with me and my family. The city would have the roads cleared by the next morning, and Gina would be able to ride to work with me, then drive herself home from there later. Gina thought about it for a few minutes and finally agreed. It made sense, given the weather conditions.

We made it home safely, had a nice dinner, visited and watched TV for a while, and then we showed Gina where she’d sleep. My younger daughter would bunk in her sister’s room for the night so Gina could have a bedroom to herself...almost. There was a bird cage in my younger daughter's room, but the bird (I won't name the breed) always went to sleep early. That night he sat on his perch with one leg pulled close to his breast and his head tucked under his wing. He barely cracked one eye open as we covered his cage with a dark cloth the way we did every night.

The next morning brought the usual rush as we got ready for work and school. Gina and I were dressed and having breakfast in the kitchen when my daughter came in crying. She’d gone to her room to give food and water to the bird, a routine morning chore. When she'd removed the cage cover, she'd found her pet bird lying dead in the bottom of the cage.

The bird was only two years old and had never had any problems. He'd seemed to be in perfect health the day before. Even so, we accepted his death as natural, a heart problem, perhaps, and we recognized the timing as unfortunate. I certainly didn’t want Gina, whom I believed was battling cancer, to think that a bird dying next to her as she slept was some kind of ominous sign.

My girls weren’t so sure that the bird’s death was natural. They didn’t make outright accusations when we talked about it later that night, but they asked several pointed questions.

Ever since I learned the truth about Gina, I've had questions of my own.


  1. That's a sad story, I wonder if the lesson is not to plan surprises for people you don't know very well?

    Hard to say about the bird-probably a coincidence, but I'd wonder, too.

  2. Such a deep story....and I can understand your caution now. Thank you for sharing it. I'm so sorry your well-intentioned plans went awry.

  3. Such a strong story. Hopeful and pure, and yet fragile and perplexing. I believe that no kindness is ever waisted - we are all intricately woven and cannot always know what our gifts bring down the road. As for the bird, I believe it best that it remains a mystery.

  4. Wowser. Well-told. A mystery that has only been partially revealed, Velvet.

    They say a writer should "write what they know" and you did a wonderful job here.

  5. Janet, that was certainly the lesson I got out of it. (Just in case there's someone out there who thinks I should have hosted a shower for them sometime in the last 35 years, this is my excuse.)

    Val, part of my caution was not wanting to hurt Gina's feelings if she happened to stumble onto this blog. Mostly, though, I exercised caution because of a clear mental image of Glenn Close and a certain boiled bunny.

    Duly Inspired, I agree with you that the bird's untimely demise should remain a mystery. Finding out for sure at this point would really creep me out.

    Annie, thanks. Can you imagine the movie scene? It would be a close-up of the inside of the bird cage, the pretty bird on his swing, light filtering through the dark cage cover, and slowly, very slowly, we'd see a thumb and forefinger grasp the bottom of the cover and begin to lift it. Then we'd see eyes and a nose pressed up against the bars of the cage from the outside, and the bird would become skittish, and the music would increase in intensity. Ooh, goosebumps!

  6. this could be a movie someday we are sure! this is so creepy and odd and ....? wow! don't blame you for being careful, not at all.

    peace and blessings



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