I received some difficult and painful news yesterday morning. A woman who worked for me years ago, and became a good friend in the process, died yesterday. Joyce and I stayed in touch over the years, occasionally getting together for lunch and keeping in contact via email and my blog and Facebook. She had been getting progressively frail as she aged, battling brittle bones and dealing with pain that I’m sure must have been excruciating. But she toughed it out. I learned yesterday that a bout of pneumonia put her in the hospital; she simply wasn’t able to recover from it. Her last days were spent in hospice, where she was finally pain-free until the end.
As I think of her, two things stand out in my mind. First, she had an acerbic wit matched to an acute and sometimes caustic sense of humor. Second, in contrast to those sharp-edged characteristics, she was kind and gentle and had a good, good heart. She hid (but not terribly well) the kindness of a “softie” beneath a sometimes rough demeanor. This evening, as I reflect on how our friendship grew over the years, something I’d never really considered popped into my mind. She demonstrated, perfectly, how a person can be impatient and demanding while simultaneously imperturbable and exceedingly tolerant. She knew how to balance those traits in a way that manifested strength, on the one hand, and compassion, on the other.
I remember the day, in February 1997, that I witnessed her grace and compassion and humanity in full flower. She and a few other members of my staff attended a board of directors meeting at which I outlined to the board my plans for guiding the association (for which we all worked) into the future. After my presentation, the board went into executive session for what seemed like a long, long time. During our wait, Joyce commented that she thought my presentation was strong. She said she expected the board would accept my plan because it was clear and responsive to the business climate in which the association found itself, despite the fact that she didn’t think many of the board members were sufficiently intelligent enough to know it. She didn’t hide her disdain for certain members of the board who, in her view (and mine), were grandstanding when they challenged my plans. But when I was finally called back in to the board room after most of the members of the board had left, the remaining members of the executive committee told me the board had reached a decision not to renew my employment contract. I was surprised and crushed. When I left the meeting, I informed Joyce and the other staff members. She was especially surprised, I think. She was supportive. They all suggested we get away from the Long Beach hotel for a private dinner that evening, but I was not in the mood for company, so they went out later on their own.
The next morning, Joyce gave me a jar of habanero salsa she bought for me the night before. It was a simple thing, but it was her way of saying, “This is the sort of stuff that excites you, not the political bullshit of association boards, so don’t let this surprise setback get you down.” She knew my passion for fiery foods. She knew I was far more interested in culinary adventures than in board politics. Her little gift was meant to encourage me to focus on the things that really matter, not on the things that keep you from them.
Even now, I know that a little gift of habanero salsa might seem an odd way to help me get centered, but it did exactly that. And she knew it would. We spoke later about how that gift meant so much to me then and continued to mean a great deal from then on. Later, her stubborn insistence on speaking her mind, consequences be damned, got her fired from the job for which I hired her. But she bounced back, as she always did. I will miss our occasional exchanges. She was hard-nosed and gentle, a beautiful friend I will always miss.