Tina’s desk is gone now. She cleared its drawers at the end of June, shredding old documents and passing off files to me. IT came the following week to remove her computer and its peripherals. Not long after, facilities hauled away her vacant desk and chair leaving behind a rectangle of unfaded carpet. I now have the office space I shared with her for five years all to myself.
Meanwhile, Tina is enjoying her new, larger cubicle. She has ample desk surface on which to spread out projects. She can roll her chair back without running into the wall and stand without banging her knee on the desk. She has built-in cabinets to stash the books she reads on her breaks. She has plenty of wall space to pin up her family photos and that drawing of Nick’s that used to hang on the now empty corkboard. She has more privacy. For all these reasons, I’m happy for Tina.
Yet, I’m saddened and worried about the change. This is one more transition in a series of upheavals. Over the course of eighteen months, our previous boss was asked to resign, a beloved colleague retired, my new supervisor was hired, a mentor died at work and then our division was restructured in such a way that three positions were eliminated and Tina was reassigned to a different department. When Tina’s move was announced, I cried.
No one criticized my reaction. A box of tissues was passed my way. When you share a space with someone for five years it is expected that you will form some kind of attachment. But I never told anyone what really made me cry that day.
Only Tina knew what happened the week before. She hadn’t left a voicemail that Thursday morning as she had done many times over the past year. No simple, “This is Tina. I’m not going to make it in today. I’ll see you tomorrow.” I had been expecting such a call. I knew she and her husband’s last counseling session was the previous evening. The days after those sessions were particularly hard. You share an office space with someone for five years and you are bound to talk.
Before the accident, when Tina and I were the first to arrive in the office, we debriefed on the previous day, shared anecdotes about our kids, complained about our husbands. We chatted about the books we were reading, divided up the workload, talked of our weekend plans. In the weeks after, I learned when to ask, “How are you?” and when to work in silence.
That’s why everyone always expected me to know “How’s Tina doing?” It’s the question coworkers have been asking since last August when Tina’s son, Nick, died in a car accident. They asked me because they were afraid to ask Tina. “I don’t want to make her cry,” they would say. It seemed to me that Tina would cry whether we “made” her or not.
Through counseling sessions and a support group, Tina discovered it was okay to talk about Nick. I told her she could talk to me as much as she wanted. Sometimes the memories were happy ones. Sometimes not. The sad ones made me cry.
I was honored when Tina asked for my advice on borders and layout as she put together a photo album of Nick. She made it as a Christmas present for herself and a few family members. The morning after that last counseling appointment Tina told me, “I took the album to our session.” As she spoke of sharing the photos with the doctor, I could feel my tears welling. I knew how therapeutic putting together the album had been. I knew how proud she was of her work and how she liked to show it to others, tell stories about the pictures, talk about her Nick. I was crying when she finished describing the session, unable to respond.
“I’m sorry I made you cry,” Tina said. “I guess shouldn’t talk about it so much.”
“No,” I croaked out. I wanted to tell her she shouldn’t apologize. I wanted to say she could talk as much and as often as she needed. I couldn’t say any of those things. I was crying too hard.
That is what I was thinking about when my boss announced Tina would be moving across campus. Who will Tina talk to? I wondered. Who will cry with her? Who will answer the phone when she calls to say, “I won’t make it in today”? Who will know when to ask how she is and when to give her space?
That’s what I’m thinking as I stare at the space where her desk once was: who will make her cry?