There was a pretty dark period in my life, thousands of miles away from my mother as she was dying.
I worked as a headhunter in Manhattan. Mostly I was an account coordinator, which meant I supported the other headhunters and occasionally placed an Executive Assistant. The office was plain, but in such a great location; right across from the library (which I never entered) and Bryant Park.
My bosses were fantastic; powerhouse women who’d started a recruiting firm together. I was the only Shiksa in the office, and they took good care of me. They knew I was broke, and “leftover” food would make its way to my desk. During that Summer, when my mother’s cancer returned and I was flying back home once a month, I spent a lot of time on the phone with Karyn. We hadn’t yet met, thought we’d been introduced, and all of the other women in the office were in their forties (THEIR FORTIES. ANCIENT!) and didn’t need jobs; their husbands worked. So, they talked on the phone a lot, gossiped with each other, kvetched. I was definitely the odd woman out. Linda Maier, in particular, was a devastation of a human being. A woman in her fifties held together with bad facelifts and a nightmare attitude, it took me until my forties to realize how very much she resented me the simple fact of my youth. I just thought she was hateful. I mean, I was right, but I didn’t know at the time, couldn’t know, why. She insisted the hotel at which I surprised my boyfriend (on a work trip) wasn’t award-winning (just Conde Nast, bitch, your husband ever take you there?). She told me I couldn’t take my lunch from 2-3, after the crowds died down, as this was “unusual” and “frowned upon”. The owners specifically pulled me aside to tell me otherwise, and remind me that Linda wasn’t my boss. Once, during a slow period, she turned to one of our other co-workers and said “It’s a good thing our husbands have jobs, isn’t it?” and looked at me and laughed. Because she knew I had to work my ass off, that I was hungry every day, that I walked several miles instead of taking the subway, to save money. I mean, I was fresh out of school; everyone does this. Again, youth.
The phone system was … old. There was shared storage for all of the voicemail messages, so we were supposed to delete them.
Except those from my dying mother. We, as a family, were sort of in denial about the dying; “metastasis” isn’t a work that’s often associated with happy endings, but we were optimistic until the end. So, I saved my mother’s messages, and they took up space, but not too much space. I kept meaning to record them, but we got the news so suddenly, there was no time.
I was in the office; I think it was August 1st. And I got the call that my mother’s cancer was terminal; she had two to six months. It had taken two days for my family on the West Coast to realize that no one had told me. I was 22. I shook. I ran to my colleague Marian’s office. Marian had been kind to me, had honestly split commissions with me 50/50 when she was only obligated to give me 5%. Had told me about her marriage, her daughter, Dev, who had come back from England with a British accent. (Dev would, a bit more than 3 years later, become the first stranger I ever picked up in my Mutant Vehicle at Burning Man. During that drive, she would tell me that she was from New York, and that she had developed the accent during her time in England. I would ask her if her mother’s name was Marian. Just a few short weeks after that, on Tuesday, September 11, I would be the person who would connect them, tell them that the other was ok, because they couldn’t make calls within New York, but long distance calls out were easier.) Marian was interviewing a candidate. She looked at me, said “Can this wait?” I didn’t respond, and she said “I’m sorry, this interview is over,” and ushered the candidate out. In hysterics, I made a plan to leave the office. I didn’t have anything that wouldn’t fit in my bag. The owners said they would call me a car, and I foolishly turned it down, insisting it would be too expensive as I lived in Jersey. I told them I should quit, as I wasn’t sure when I would be back, and I took the bus back to Jersey.
I flew home on August 3rd. I reenrolled in school, thinking I might as well finish my master’s degree if I was going to be there 2-6 months anyway; I only needed one semester to do it, and it was a short semester.
My uncle and older cousin had visited the United States for their first, and only, time, to visit. I had been the one to tell them to come. I said, “Wenn du dein Schwester nochmal am leben sehen willst, dann musst du fliegen.” I took them driving, to my old haunts, to the wall, overlooking the Bay. The day they left was the last time my mother left the house. She died August 13th.
(I wrapped myself in the unimaginable love of those around me. It has been 19 years and I have not forgotten any act of kindness shown in that devastating time.)
I unenrolled. I went back to New York. I spent thousands and thousands of dollars on whatever I wanted, racking up a massive credit card debt. I went to Renaissance Fairs. I had my first girlfriend. I flew home for my birthday, for a couple of concerts, and on the flight back I huddled in the back of the plane in hysterics as the back of every seat showed Meryl Streep, who looked not unlike my mother, in “One True Thing”.
In early October, I went back to the placement firm. I said hello. It was my touchpoint. Plus, I had my pick of any job for which they were placing. But first, I went to check my voice mails, to collect my mother’s voice.
They were gone. They were gone, and the only person who knew the password was Linda. She’d requested it right before I left. I was in haste, and I gave it to her.
She’d deleted them. She hadn’t needed the space. She had done it because she could. That woman had taken my mother’s voice, my mother’s messages, from me, irretrievably.
Linda’s either dead by now, or she’s still old(er than I am, if she’s alive). But despite her small, shitty pettiness, and my dead mom, my life is still a million times better than hers. Because I have never once held anyone’s youth and spirit against them, and because I have decided to use her as reminder to not resent anyone the time I certainly never wasted.
Oh, and, fuck you, Linda Maier. You’re a bad person.