Another loss, another reminder of life’s blessed fragility

“I can’t shake the sadness. Life is precious.”

The words float off the screen, wrapping themselves around an echoing sorrow.

On Sunday, a former co-worker whom I first met more than 15 years ago ago during my years as a journalist for a local paper, died suddenly after returning home from his regular shift as a copy editor. He was 42.

Perhaps it is the nature of having held so much of my own grief in recent years that such losses flatten me, wind their way through the routine of my days with a desolate hum. Perhaps it is his youth that has unhinged me, or the unexpectedness of his departure. Or maybe it is the sound of his voice, always sincere and interested, that keeps playing in my head, trilling my sadness.

I wasn’t close to Carlos, didn’t keep in touch with him after leaving the paper in 2014, aside from our occasional liking of each other’s Facebook posts. During my last years there, he worked in a different building than the office where I was based. Yet whenever I happened to be at his location, we always made a point to find each other and chat for a few moments.

Before that, when we worked in the same office, we talked almost daily — exchanging the usual pleasantries, occasionally commiserating over the frustrating aspects of our job, and often swapping stories of fun weekend plans. As we were both close to our families, and he had several nieces and nephews he enjoyed immensely, such tales usually revolved around birthday and holiday celebrations.

Once, we went to the movies, to the local premiere of “From Justin to Kelly,” when I was still covering all things Justin Guarini after charting the hometown favorite’s journey on the inaugural season of “American Idol.” Carlos was so happy that I’d invited him. Though I insisted he also accompany me to the after-party at a nearby restaurant, he decided to head home to be with his family.

I’ve been thinking about him for all these reasons. But what I keep coming back to is his voice.

“Hey, Nai. What’s up?”

I don’t remember when exactly he traded my full name for the nickname favored by much of my family and a handful of friends. But it must have been shortly after we met because it’s the only address I recall.

I never questioned it. Never wondered why he was the only one at the paper to use that moniker when even my close friends there called me “Naila.” It just seemed so Carlos — genuine, kind, a casual affirmation of his caring.

And now that he is gone, I realize how that small familiarity warmed our every encounter. But I will never get to tell him how much I appreciated that greeting or that his positivity made a difference to me — words of gratitude that would likely have remained tucked away had he lived.

Still, how I want him to know. How I wish I could have said thank you, for every laugh we shared, every glimpse of the vibrant family life he afforded me, every “Nai” that fastened us to a moment of true connection. heart-connection

His death isn’t the only one that has left me with such regret.

I’ve been thinking, too, of Helena — a vibrant, courageous soul who left this life two years ago after a battle with cancer that inspired everyone around her. I met her during my ministry training, and we bonded instantly, with our impromptu dancing in between classes and our giggling hugs. She was effervescent and profound, passionate about so many causes, from the environment to holistic living, and gloriously proud of her Brazilian heritage.

We stayed in touch for a while after we were ordained but then the usual busyness of life swept us along our own paths, and though I meant to reach out several times when I moved to a neighborhood not far from hers, I never did.

Bob was another student in that class, an elderly gentleman whose wife, Hannelore, founded the ministry school we were attending. And I adored them both. Bob and I would frequently sit next to each other in class. He was fond of teasing me, always good-naturedly, but mostly he wrapped me in the warmest smiles, the biggest hugs. Sometimes when we sat next to each other, we held hands. And he never stopped reminding me of how lucky I was to have a father who reminded me at a young age that I have all I need within me to take on whatever life throws my way, a piece of wisdom I once shared in a class project.

Hannelore, to me, was infinite wisdom and grace. She radiated love and childlike wonder yet possessed a laser-like insight that, while always delivered gently, could prompt huge revelations or shifts in perspective. I was lucky to be in one of the last classes when the school was run from her beautiful home, and I can remember how arriving every weekend felt like settling into a deep and reassuring embrace.

Once I was ordained, she invited me back to join the school’s staff but I feared overcommitting and turned down her request. I told myself I would at least attend a church service every now and then, to see her and Bob, to stay connected to a community that had given me so much.

But, again, I drifted away.

Bob died in 2014. Hannelore followed almost a year later. Before I saw her at Bob’s memorial service, it had been years since I’d seen them both. That day, as I was the one searching for the words to pay tribute to Bob and to honor her grieving heart, it was she who brought me comfort by sharing that I had been Bob’s favorite fellow minister-in-training, adding he would have wanted me to know that.

I loved them both, and was greatly inspired by their lives, the vast inclusivity of their hearts. But while I thought the world of them, I never shared my appreciation.

“I can’t shake the sadness. Life is precious.”

These were the closing words in a note from a former colleague at the newspaper, the one who informed me of Carlos’ death.

These fleeting hours we keep can hold so much beauty and sweetness it is easy to think they will go on, to veil our mortality. But I am not here to stay. None of us are, which is why I plan to offer my thanks now. To speak my words of gratitude and celebration now. To ladle my appreciation and praise while they are fresh — leaving a fragrant tremor of light in the smallest space of communion, in the ritual of heart greeting heart.