Four years ago, a colleague at the library informed me that one of the other Reference librarians, Helene, had been diagnosed with stage 4 lung cancer. This was not that long after my own sister, Virginia, had died of the same disease.
Earlier this week I found out that that was incorrect; because this past Monday, Helene finally succumbed to what I learned was breast cancer. Quite possibly, the colleague who informed me of Helene's illness had actually said the cancer had spread to Helene's lungs and I had misheard. Because at the viewing yesterday, I learned from Helene's brother, as he spoke about her, that Helene had been battling breast cancer for fourteen years. It had gone into remission, but came back four years ago.
Think about the utterly inexplicable cruelty of that stark fact.
I really don't hang out with anyone at the library, which is not a judgment against them on my part, because I really don't hang out with anyone other than my family. (I basically inherited Teh 'Dad's homebody tendencies; he'd never have left the house for socializing if Teh 'Mom didn't make him.) And so I didn't know that much about Helene personally. In fact, I didn't even know she was Jewish until two days ago. (Her married surname is classically Irish.)
What I did know, I liked.
Until recently, my job at the library was mostly in the IT department, coding the library's web site and doing other PC-related stuff as needed. But for the longest time now, I have had a Monday night shift on the Reference desk, working from 5:30 till closing at 9:00 p.m. There are three PCs at the Reference desk, but only one of them is set up with my web-authoring tools, so I always sit at that one when I work the desk so I can work on the site when there are no patron questions to research. That PC happened also to be the one Helene favored. When I would come up at 5:30 on Mondays, Helene would be sitting there and she always seemed to be finishing up a reference question; it was not unusual for me to have to stand there, idly twiddling my thumbs — Put me in, Coach, I'm ready! — as Helene took an additional 5, 10, maybe even as much as 20 minutes to finish the final question of her day — for her workday ended at 5:30, or was supposed to.
It simply didn't occur to her to hurry the process up; she took the time she needed to answer the patron's question properly; she never tried to hand it off to me so she could leave (and it's better she didn't because when you hand off a particularly involved reference question, the librarian you hand it off to inevitably ends up re-doing at least some of the work you've already done, no matter how well you explain which strategies you've already tried). Helene was the consummate professional in this and all other aspects of her job. She did this even very recently — while she was in the last stages of her disease; she only stopped working a couple of weeks ago, when she became too ill to come to work.
I found this aspect of her personality particularly admirable, especially now that the state of New Jersey is being run by an ideologue, a fanatic who has effectively fetishized his unfounded belief that all public employees are lazy, tax-wasting cheats, and has spent his time in office vilifying teachers, librarians and other hard-working (and poorly-paid) public workers.
You might read the paragraph above and accuse me of using Helene's death to score political points, thereby diminishing the enormity of it, possibly even disrespecting her memory. But I would disagree with you vehemently.
Because even as I was typing this blog post, I received an e-mail from our union local's president noting the passing of "Executive Board member" Helene. Which sounds like an honorary title, and probably is, for the most part. But for the longest time, Helene was a active member of our union, attending every meeting, keeping us all informed of what was going on in our union, working to better both our working conditions and the union itself, to make our union reflect our needs. She was the library's shop steward and I believe gave up that position only when her illness imposed so many time constraints on her.
Helene herself was, until this week, a living refutation of the viciously cruel canard that public servants are lazy, overpaid wasters of taxpayers' money. She continued to work unstintingly for the public good while she was literally dying — coming in every day, even after undergoing energy-sapping cancer treatments on the very same day. But she also believed that hard-working people should be treated fairly and compensated for their good work and dedication— and she worked hard to achieve that end, for all of us. Is pointing out the conditions under which she continued to do that for all of us really a good example of my scoring petty political points? It's what she did and these were the conditions under which she did it; she did it even though she had a family — a husband and three daughters — to take care of.
It is a large part of the reason I admired her.
As I said, I did not know Helene that well personally, but there is much more I could say about her on a personal level. I enjoyed her sense of humor. I liked how, whenever she would call down to the IT Department to report a problem or ask a question, she would greet me with the words, "Well, hello, Mister Glaven." (I do not require people to call me "Mister Glaven", mostly because if I did require it, I think most people would make a point of not doing so for that very reason.)
Helene will be missed terribly by me and many others.