Two weeks ago I learned a colleague of mine, Laurette, a pleasant, positive woman in her late forties had a sudden brain aneurysm and had fallen into a coma. She had just gotten back from vacation and hadn't been stressed or sick.
It was jarring, most especially because she didn't appear to be one of those people who smile only with their mouths, their eyes and body language betraying sadness or depression or even ill will. When she smiled, her whole face followed, her head tilted a bit to the side. She always made time to say hello and ask how you were.
There was still hope she might pull through - the ambulance had been called right away.
She died last Saturday.
This is for Laurette, who brightened so many people's lives with a simple smile.
When I first started working on the CEO's floor almost four years ago, I was totally overwhelmed and scared to death I wasn't up to the task. I had never worked for someone as high profile as the CFO of a major corporation, never had to answer phone calls from government ministers, or arrange flights on private jets or coordinate with dedicated chauffeurs.
Every Thursday I had to distribute a weekly schedule of visitors and appointments (including where my boss would be eating) to the front desk, floor receptionist and special events coordinator. There was a restaurant on the floor below reserved for the executive board, complete with a personal chef and a white jacket-clad waiter. If there were visitors at lunch or breakfast, my boss would receive them in the private restaurant. If there were no mealtime visitors, he would often have the waiter bring him lunch in his office.
It always smelled divine.
Annick was the special events coordinator. She was in charge of the executive restaurant and other special events, like the annual champagne reception. Always impeccably dressed, not a hair out of place, she carried herself with poise. She knew the best tables in the city, the best florist and chocolatier, where to find the perfect oh-so-French corporate gift, and which card stock was appropriate for formal invitations.
She intimidated the hell out of me.
Because of this, I invariably made the dumbest mistakes on her section of the weekly schedule, and numerous times had to call her at the last minute to awkwardly sputter an explanation and ask for her help in fixing it. I was sure she despised me. Which of course made me make more mistakes. One day in my second month on the job, I couldn't stand it anymore. I went to her and assured her I wasn't a complete and total idiot, wanted very much to not unnecessarily complicate her life, and asked for her patience while I got the hang of things. It totally broke the ice.
I got to see her in a different light. We shared some good laughs about a few particularly despicable colleagues, and she grew to appreciate my extraverted and occasionally shockingly irreverent self, as I grew to appreciate, rather than be intimidated by, her style and class.
She revealed herself to be unfailingly generous. One day, I happened to mention that I couldn't find a punch bowl in the whole city for my annual egg nog party, and not only did she know immediately what I was talking about, but she also offered on the spot to lend me her (no doubt impeccable) set. In her perfect handwriting, she wrote me instructions how to get to her house in Versailles.
I arrived at the door of a lovely three storey grey stone house, a wrought iron gate surrounding the small garden in front. Annick was waiting at the front door and invited me in. She showed me into the living room and told me to make myself comfortable on the the black leather couch. Le Corbusier, of course.
Her husband came in to join us for a cocktail. Dressed in coal black jeans and button down shirt, he cut a handsome figure. He was relaxed, open and charming, asking me questions about myself and making me feel welcome. Annick sat on the other side of the room, her back razor straight. She didn't seem more relaxed at home than at the office. I had just finished an impersonation of our most hated colleague, which had made them both laugh, when she remarked that she had no idea I was so full of personality. I assured her she hadn't seen anything yet.
She had prepared the punch bowl and cups wrapped in newspaper and packed in sturdy shopping bags I could easily carry back with me on the train. Before I left, she asked her son in to play a piece for us on the piano, noting with exasperation that his piano teacher had let them know he preferred ragtime to Rachmaninov.
They all three walked me to the door and waved goodbye. It had been a refreshing visit and a nice change from the cramped quarters of Paris.
The punch bowl was the centrepiece of my egg nog party. I returned it to her at work and thanked her again for her kindness. She called me a week later to say she had been rearranging some things in her dining room and it had suddenly broken in her hands. She laughed it off saying at least it had gone out with a last bash.
When I left the CEO's floor after changing jobs, I didn't see her as often. We ate lunch together a few times, until one time she abruptly cancelled without explanation or any apparent desire to reschedule. The CEO's floor is a stressful place to work, and I assumed it was as simple as that.
More and more often, though, when I saw her and said hello, I felt her distance. She seemed changed - an emptiness had settled in her eyes.
On one occasion, I even felt her total indifference. I had called her to get her advice on a courier service to deliver a bottle of champagne and she curtly replied that I could always have it mailed. In a rush to fill the awkward silence, I gushed that I wanted to thank some people who had helped Handsome and me look at apartments, that had bought an apartment together and wasn't that great. I had no idea it was the worst possible thing I could have said.
"What do you want me to say, Penelope? Be happy," she shot back and hung up the phone. The total iciness in her voice left me stunned.
A few days later while I was eating with two friends, she passed by our table, paused to say hello and hesitated a bit, as if she had lost her way. She slowly walked by, a weak smile still frozen on her face.
"What on earth is wrong with Annick?" I asked. "Doesn't she seem a little out of it to you guys? She's got this strange look on her face. Is she on drugs?"
I didn't realize it at the time, but my friends deftly changed the subject. They knew she was going through a rough patch but didn't want to betray her confidence.
A few days after that, - on Good Friday to be exact - I was in the cafeteria by myself and saw her sitting alone, staring off into space, her hand bringing her fork up mechanically to her mouth. She seemed so incredibly lonely and sad. For a moment, I hesitated. I wanted to go over and sit down, ask her what was wrong, offer to help. But then I remembered how summarily she had brushed me off on the phone. I didn't feel like being told off again, so I walked past her and pretended I hadn't seen her.
Two days later, she committed suicide.
Annick was a very private person. The reasons that made her take her own life, the titillating details of her private life, have been spread around, discussed and analyzed ad nauseum. It was a shock to everyone. But despite the theories, opinions and analyses - which might be comforting to some - I'm not sure it's really possible to understand 'why'.
I can't get that image of her alone at the table out of my head. But I know it wouldn't have changed anything if I had stopped to talk to her.
There are those among us who appear to be put together, confident and polished, but are very fragile and cracked underneath. They can, one day, suddenly break apart in your hands.
I hope to handle the next ones I meet with more care and understanding.
This is for Annick. May she rest in peace.