Saturday, November 20, 2010

What's important

This fall has been a blur. Can it really be Thanksgiving in a few days? Downtown buildings and streetlights are already wrapped in lights and Christmas greenery. Announcements and requests for holiday giving (from various sources—school, community, work) are piled up by this home computer. The calendar is booked, the deadline for my review article is looming, everything seems to be rush rush rushing toward the end of the year, time gathering itself and speeding into the vortex of December.

Somebody died last month. I didn’t know him well. But he was only 24, and he had a truly brilliant future ahead of him. He was a young, healthy 24-year old researcher at our institute—an athlete, a scholar, a valuable colleague and a wonderful friend to those who knew him well. We throw around words like “promising” and “bright,” but this young man truly had those qualities. He was a technician in the lab that I worked for last year when I did my stint as a scientific writer/editor. I am not exaggerating when I say that I trusted his scientific abilities more than I did some of the postdocs in that lab. And beyond all that: he was a truly caring and supportive person, always more than ready to go out of his way to help anyone at all who needed it.

I am not going to pretend to grieve, as I can’t say I knew him that well. Sitting in my office in front of the computer, I didn’t have quite the camaraderie with the lab group as one usually develops sharing a tissue culture room and squabbling over equipment and spent reagents. I still saw him in the hallways when I moved to my new lab, and we always said hello. I asked him for his protocol for growing cells in soft agar. He promptly e-mailed it to me, and at every sighting after he would ask if I needed any help with it, how I was coming along, to please let him know if I had any questions or needed any help with it at all.

Our institute is not large, and everyone knows everyone else, even if we don’t all know everyone well. A large number of people from work went to his memorial service. The line stretched down the hall. His college hockey jersey hung on the wall. Memorabilia of a life was displayed in the room—framed photos on tables, photos displayed on posterboard. On one table was a copy of the manuscript he’d been working on during the week he died, the manuscript which he had just finished. His first-ever first-author paper. His parents were so proud.

It’s sometimes at places like this that you learn for the first time of the life a colleague had outside of work. All the many activities and causes and groups he’d poured his energy into. He was a youth pastor. He taught Sunday school and also taught science classes for children at church. Who knew? Well, I guess it wasn’t a surprise after all—it fit perfectly.

I offered my condolences to his younger brother, who looked like a smaller, thinner copy of his older brother. He loved the Institute, his brother told me. He was so passionate about learning. And he’d just received word that he’d been accepted to medical school.

Around me I heard people murmuring platitudes, because really, that’s the only thing you can say at times like these. “It’s times like these,” I heard one colleague tell another, “that you remember what’s really important. We get all hung up on our egos, on getting into medical school, and our careers, and reputations, and things like that. But those aren’t really the important things in life at all.”

After greeting the boy’s brother and father, I waited an hour to shake hands with his mother (that’s how long the receiving lines were. And they were still growing when I left). The boy’s mother was such a picture of grace in tragedy that I cannot even describe it.

Then I walked outside, into the bright sunshine of a beautiful fall day.


I guess there was another reminder of what’s important this past week.

One of our laboratory technicians (and my best friend in the lab) is pregnant. Our PI is trying to finish a screen before the holidays, and she has been working hard. She’s also been working hard outside the lab, as her family is in the midst of moving into a new house. On Wednesday, she and a team of two or others were scheduled to spend a crazy 16-hour day with their round-the-clock screening assay. On Tuesday (the day before the Crazy Day), she was in the midst of work preparations and found herself bleeding.

She left work and went to her doctor, who said that she and her baby were both fine. But she was scared—who wouldn’t be? And she was tired. So she took the rest of the week off to take care of herself at home.

I wasn’t actually at work when all this drama occurred, because I was out sick myself that day. I then got scared myself the next day when I saw our PI’s e-mail regarding the incident: it was a general lab e-mail to say that he’d spoken with her, that both she and the baby were fine, and that he was sending her flowers in the name of the entire lab (the next day she texted him her thanks for the flowers). Another lab mate took her spot for the crazy 16-hour work day, and the screen went off without a hitch.

So I guess the point of this entire long post is just to say. . . or just to remind us all. . . of what’s really important again? Not papers, or medical school, or siRNA screens, even those all have their place?

Something like that, I guess.


chall said...

your post is spot on. It's hard to keep focus on those things (at least I find it) until something like that comes knocking on the shoulder. Maybe one of those things that comes with living in a "safe country" with food on the table and all those things taken for granted?!

thanks for writing this. I got a phone call this week from a friend who just found out her parents are both terminally ill.... even if it might be "more regular" with parents? it's still hard since they are young (i.e. under 60 while we are over 30...) perspective is a very powerful thing for me to remember sometimes.

The bean-mom said...

I'm so sorry for your friend. Under 60 is still young, and to have something like that happen to both parents at once... How awful.

Perpsective is good. Trouble is that it's so often fleeting....

Girlpostdoc said...

Your post is spot on. The things that matter are birth and death and not necessarily in that order.

I know that it's probably not an appropriate question -but someone so young always makes me wonder How did the young man die?

@chall I'm so sorry to hear about your friend's parents.

Anonymous said...

Sorry to hear this. It is all so fleeting. - Aurora

chall said...

BeanMom and GPD> thanks. as I said earlier, it's a bit strange, since it has nothing to do with me, but it's a bit hard knowing she's going through things and I can't help....

anyhow, I hope you have a good week (thanksgiving?) and looking forward seeing some of that Vancouver story soon :)

Cath@VWXYNot? said...

Beautiful post, as always. You've really captured what it's like to lose someone who's not a close friend or family member, but who impacted your life nonetheless.

Cloud said...

When I was in high school, a boy who took lessons from the same viola teacher was killed in an airplane crash. (Do you remember the crash outside of Detroit that the one little girl survived? It was that one.) I didn't know him well, but it still shook me up, as I think death always does when it comes close to you. His parents also handled the memorials with incredible grace. Looking back, I am even more impressed, because now that I have kids I can't imagine handling the loss of one of them well at all. I would rage against the world, I think.

The bean-mom said...

I absolutely cannot believe how the boy's parents were handling themselves at his memorial service. Just... wow. I suppose we all believe we couldn't survive it, and yet people do, but still... hopefully, of course, it's something we never have to experience.

Girlpostdoc, your question is a natural one. And the most bizarre thing about the whole affair. The announcement was that the boy died "unexpectedly of unknown causes." There was much quiet speculation at the service--heart arrythmia?--but the upshot is that no one knows. I think it must make it even harder to deal with--no closure, no explanation.

Aurora and Cath, thank you...