Terrible stories are everywhere it seems. Stage 4 cancer at age 40, hit by a car while buying cookies at the local bakery, aneurysm on the golf course. Sick kids, sick spouses, sick parents. Mental and physical illness. Accidents.
Last week I received shocking and sad news about a former boss. She died at 45 after being diagnosed with cancer only 3 months prior. I had no idea she was sick. I hadn’t seen her in a very long time, but she had just said something funny on a Facebook post I wrote in February, and I had been thinking about giving her a call. She was a PR maven and since I’m considering strategies to promote my upcoming book, it seemed like a nice symmetry to reconnect with her.
Of course, I now regret terribly waiting on this.
As I’ve grieved for my mom this past year, I’ve noticed a heightened state of nostalgia and an almost maniacal desire to record certain moments in time, to stamp them with recognition so that they never fade. Since Jen’s death last week, I’ve been perseverating over those early years in New York just after graduation, when I worked for her in the publicity department at Hyperion.
Details of the office on Lower 5th Avenue are front of mind. I can see the quality of the fluorescent light in the hallway where the assistants lined up like an entry-level army, fortifying their bosses’ windowed offices. Flicking through the cards on my Rolodex and calling the deli every morning with our breakfast orders. Jen liked a large iced coffee and a toasted cinnamon raisin bagel with butter. (This was back when people ate bagels). There was Neil, the super-friendly head of the mailroom pushing the overloaded mail cart, and the giant diamond engagement ring one of the book designers wore. The heft of the To Be Filed File that I hid in my drawer, hoping Jen wouldn’t ask me how the filing was going. The tiny yellow X-acto knife she gave me to open the millions of boxes of books that arrived daily for us to unpack and mail out to the media.
Jen taught me to take a thorough phone message. To create a travel itinerary that wasn’t nonsensical for our touring authors. To grill the “book reviewers” trying to get free review copies. To massage the egos of the needier authors and only get her out of “a meeting” if it was someone specific. She taught me to pitch reporters, the most awkward and agonizing part of publicity work.
Jen gave me amazing opportunities and cocktail party stories for years. We took authors to bookings at the network morning shows, to “Politically Incorrect” when it was on Comedy Central, and to Letterman. She let me take RuPaul on a four-city book tour at age 23, and to a Today Show taping at the MAC store, where I got a makeover and a ton of free makeup. And my favorite, taking authors to the old WNYC, which stoked my longtime love of radio and had the best author and musician sightings in their ratty greenroom.
After work I’d go home. I remember looking around at my neighbors, many older than me, most on a professional track, everyone heading to Central Park to exercise with the fervor they probably put into their jobs – running, biking, rollerblading, unicycling (ok, just this one guy). I was obsessed with people watching and wondering about their back-stories, their paths. If they were coupled, how did they meet their mates? And if they had children, um, how do you even do that in New York? I was fascinated with how one arrives at an adult place and the decisions and luck a person needed to get where they wanted to go. How did they know what they wanted to do and be? How were they brave and strong enough to make it in this crazy ass city?
And now, almost 20 years later, I’m there, firmly ensconced in my adult life. How I arrived here — my own back-story– is nothing special. I’m not always even sure what led to what. I feel super lucky most days, skating by, dealt a few blows here and there, but mostly incredibly grateful. But damn aware of the fragility of it all.
I wish we didn’t need these painful reminders that life is so fleeting and that we need to be good to each other. I guess all we can do to honor those who have passed through our lives is to live with compassion and humor and an incredible amount of humility.