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Friday, April 28, 2017

Jonathan


I rushed out of my morning class. I had to get on the road and drive someplace I have never been. I get lost easily and I went a long time without driving so when I do get lost I'm *really* lost. I may be in the state I was born in but I may as well be wandering around the North Pole.

I got lost about halfway there. Are route 23, route 202, and the Newark-Pompton Turnpike all the same road? It seemed that way. The GPS kept insisting I was on route 202, and the signs all said I was on route 23.

I stopped at a gas station, holding the printout of the google map directions in my hand. The black guy pumping gas asked the old, white guy in the expensive car to tell me where to go. The white guy got out of the car and insisted that he knew exactly where I needed to go. He grabbed the google map instructions out of my hand and started reading them to me! Really!

I didn't want to grab them back – that would be rude – but I needed them so I grabbed them back and walked over to a scruffy-looking white guy working on some chewing tobacco who talked like Quint from Jaws – a verified local. He told me where to go.

I got to St Joseph's Church just in time for the start of Jonathan Shanoian's funeral. It was a good turnout. Nice to see young and older men in formal suits so early on a weekday morning.

My work colleague Tony Krucinski had kindly invited me to attend the wake yesterday. I couldn't go then; had to work. Too, wakes require small talk and as verbal as I am, I really suck at small talk. My idea of small talk is to walk up to a complete stranger and ask, "So, what do you think of the bombing of Syria?"

I'm Catholic and I wanted to pray for Jonathan at mass. I was surprised that he was Catholic. I thought being Armenian he would be some exotic Middle Eastern branch of orthodoxy. Armenia was the first nation to adopt Christianity as the state religion – which is the kind of thing I'd say if I had attempted to make small talk at the wake. Too, I knew Jonathan from work only, and I didn't know his family at all, so, being a stranger, I'd be doubly relieved from having to make small talk.

I wondered if, during mass, as sometimes happens – as happened at my sister Antoinette's funeral – the priest would ask those of us in the pews if we had any reminiscences we wanted to offer. If he did that, I knew exactly what I wanted to say.

When it came time for the sermon, the officiating priest, who, if Google is not misleading me, is named Fr. Thomas Mangieri, did something I'd never before seen a priest do at a funeral. He came down from the altar (St Joseph's is an intimate church so he didn't have far to go), and he stood in front of two women in the front pew, and held one woman's hand in one of his hands, and the other woman's hand in his other hand, and he never let go. The obituary mentions mother Barbara and sister Alexis. I have to assume those are the ladies whose hands the priest held, and never let go of, throughout his sermon.

Before father began his sermon, he looked at the woman and his wordless look said it all. There was no excuse in this look. No platitudes. No attempt to escape from the gravity of death. Father could have stopped right there and he would have done better than many another person attempting to address a too-early death to a mother who has lost her son. I know. My mother lost two sons, Phil and Mike, and I saw people struggle with saying the right thing to my mother. Father said the right thing this morning with that brutally honest, deeply compassionate look on his face.

But then he did more. He gave a sermon, and it was fine. He talked about Jonathan as a person. Father mentioned that Jonathan's job title was "support." Father remarked that that word said so much about Jonathan's character. Father used the word "sweetness" and it was *just* the right word.

Father's sermon had a narrative arch. It began with the desolation of death. It moved through the molasses-thick memory of what is lost. It promised the effulgence of heavenly reunion. Father's facial expressions fully reflected each moment in the journey of grief. And he never let go of the grieved ladies' hands.

Tears flowed silently down my face throughout this sermon.

One of the things I like about being Catholic: the mass is the same. Someone just died: the mass is the same. Someone was just born: the mass is the same. You are in the US or Africa or Poland or Nepal: the mass is the same. Yes, the songs vary, and the readings. I attended a high holyday mass in Poland that lasted for what felt like two hours. People were kneeling in the aisles and beating their breasts, which really doesn't happen in the US; the fire marshals wouldn't allow it. But the basic structure is the same, as the world spins around you.

During mass, this weird thing kept happening inside my head. It's as if my mind replayed all my Jonathan tapes. I never realized how much attention I had paid to him. I was noting his facial expressions and habitual body language and word choice. Hearing, again, things he would say. This didn't feel emotional – not happy, not sad, not yearning – just my mind saying, "This is him, the person you are saying goodbye to."

That happens with my sister regularly. I will hear her voice, conjure up her reaction to this or that. Given that she was my sister, it often happens when I hear my own voice sounding like hers, or feel my own lips form a facial expression she often used, my head tilt at the same angle her head would tilt, at a similar moment.  

It's as if we contain holograms of each other.

As the mass was ending, I felt that feeling I'd been looking for since I first heard the news: this isn't a prank or a dream or one of my bigger dyslexic errors. This is real. I get that now. I won't go to the library and expect to see him there. There is nothing I can do to fix this. Now it's over and done, and I am resigned to one more sad thing in the world.

Father did wait at the door of the church to greet everyone as we exited. I was sure to say to him, "Great sermon." He shook my hand. I hope he realizes how sincere my comment was, and how rare – this is the first time I've said this to a priest.

So, there was no moment at the funeral where we were asked for comments, so here is my comment.

I live alone and have no family and because of this I am more or less invisible. If you have no one, you are not seen.

And yet.

The other morning I had just parked and a uniformed officer began walking toward me. She was an African American woman. I just was not in the mood. I parked legally! She wasn't there to give me a ticket, though. She yelled at me, "So! You're all right!"

"Yes," I said. "I'm all right." I had no idea what was going on.

"The guy at the gas station has been worried about you!"

Whoa.

I walk daily. People see me walk. One of the people who sees me walk is a Syrian guy, Imad, who pumps gas at Faisal's in Paterson. I found a better route and I haven't walked past Faisal's in a while.

The point of this story: some woman I've never met, somehow knew that I'm the woman that a guy at a gas station was worried about, because I hadn't walked past his gas station in a while.

In other words, we may feel invisible, we may be invisible, but we don't know what impact we are having on others.

I know Jonathan solely through work. As many of us have said since he got his diagnosis, Jonathan was a quiet and private guy. At one point, he had been out of work for a while, and I was feeling sad about that and wishing I could help in some way, and one of the librarians (the one who smokes on the bench outside – for God's sake quit!) said to me that he cared about Jonathan, too, but Jonathan was a very private person.

I knew Charlene back in the 1990s before I went to grad school. I gave her my bulky goat-hair Nepali blankets to store, thinking I'd be back in New Jersey in a year or two. Little did I know I'd be gone over a decade, and Charlene would have to keep those itchy monsters much longer. God bless her.

When I returned to Jersey, Charlene and I reunited. I used to hang out in her office at the library, and she, Tony, Jonathan and I would chat.

Chatting with these folks was one of the highlights of my day. There would often be leftover cookies or other snacks on the table from this or that office party or campus event. But I wasn't there for the food.

I'm a woman and I'm a writer and my words are out there for all to see. People have told me that they love me for what I write – if they like what I say – and people (sometimes the same people) – have told me that they hate me for what I write – if they don't like what I say. No one has ever told me that they love me because I write. That grief that women get for being verbal is unavoidable.

I reflected that Jonathan and I have been chatting with each other since I returned to Jersey in 2004, I think, and he *never* gave me a hard time for voicing an opinion that was different than his. And that is special and wonderful and unique. Jonathan, thank you.

And here's an "I'm sorry."

The past few years have been tough for me. I broke my arm, was diagnosed with cancer, was diagnosed with a chronic illness, my sister was diagnosed with cancer, and she died. I have retreated a bit, fearing that the heavy stuff I've been going through was just too much for others to hear about or be exposed to. There were times when I could have interacted with Jonathan more – I was in the library, I needed to be in his office – but I chose not to, thinking, people don't want to be around me. I'm Miss Catastrophe.

I remember the last conversation I had with Jonathan. It never finished, and I kind of melted into the metal shelves back there, and didn't seek him out to say goodbye that day. That was the last day I ever saw him. And I wish I could have that moment back to say, "I know you only from the library, but I cherish you for what you have offered to my life, and, truly, no one will replace you."

I'm sorry, and I wish I had known how bad it had gotten for you, and I wish I had been supportive, and thank you.


And I tell this little story to say what people always want to say when they just get in from a funeral – let people know that you value them. 

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