Wakes are not my thing, especially this one, but the whole office was going, and the Dean asked me to drive him and the other two Assistant Deans in the big green Chrysler New Yorker my aunt had wangled for me from her pal at Hertz for a song. The Dean loved its luxury. Having previously owned an old Corvair and an Impala with a leaky windshield, I too loved Big Mama, as the Dean dubbed it.
We avoided University politics and instead talked movies and shows. The Dean and I had just seen the revival of Kiss Me Kate at the Martin Beck Theatre. The Dean thought the production was “Wunderbar” and burst out, repeatedly, with the chorus of that number from the show, but he settled down as we exited the highway heading toward the funeral home. My colleague Jeanne, who herself would die of lung cancer within five years, said again that she couldn’t believe Florence was gone. “So fast. One Friday she’s as ebullient as ever—”
“And likely less than industrious as ever,” the Dean interrupted.
“Oh, I know,” Jeanne snorted and took a drag on her Parliament, “but she always did everything we asked.”
“And nothing more,” Sal, the other Assistant, interjected. “But what do you want from a part-time Secretary? At the pathetic salary the University pays these people?”
“Exactly,” Jeanne said. “But her liveliness . . . the good humor she shared.”
“She gave you ice cream?” Sal joked.
Jeanne snorted and puffed.
“Remember her story of how she burned her house down?” the Dean asked. “That was hysterical!”
Jeanne again defended Florence, “Not the whole house. Just the kitchen.”
“But she herself laughed when she told us how she carried the pot of par-boiled chicken out to her husband at the barbecue in her yard, but forgot to turn off the burner. A breeze blew the kitchen curtains across the stove and whoosh!” The Dean giggled as he spoke. “‘Whoosh!’ That was Florence’s word! ‘Whoosh!'”
Sal recalled, “She said it was the only way she could get her husband to remodel the kitchen. What a pisser!”
“But,” said the Dean again breaking out into another tune from Kiss Me Kate, “It was too darn hot, too darn hot.”
“But you know what I mean,” Jeanne waited for the music to subside before continuing her thought. “She was her usual self one Friday, and then bam! she’s out sick, and then a week later her husband tells the Dean she’s dying of breast cancer.”
“Too late,” the Dean said. “She must have learned too late. This is it on the right, Jack.”
I pulled into the parking lot. We waited for the rest of the office staff to arrive and made our way into the chapel together.
Florence didn’t look sick. Well, corpses rarely do. But she wasn’t wizened. Because, I assumed, she went fast.
We shook hands with her husband and expressed our sympathy and, as well, how much we had appreciated this woman who had cheered us every morning for five years.
What I didn’t tell her husband . . . what I haven’t told anyone . . . is that about a year before Florence fell sick, I arrived at work with reddened eyes. Florence must have noticed, and so she came to the open door of my office to ask if she could do anything.
“No. It’s silly.”
“Doesn’t look silly.”
“It’s my dog.”
“Yes, I had to put her to sleep last night.”
“Oh, dear.” Florence entered my office and sat in a chair near mine. “I’m so sorry. I know you loved that dog. What happened?”
“Last week, I felt this bulge in her belly. It turned out to be a tumor.”
“Yes. The vet said we could operate, but it didn’t seem fair to put her through it, to start removing pieces of her. She had a good life. Why torture her, you know?”
“You made the right decision, I think,” Florence said. “But it still hurts.”
“Yes, it does.”
“Why don’t you talk a walk around the campus for a while. I’ll tell the Dean you had to go to the Registrar to check on an applicant.”
Whoosh, I said to myself at Florence’s wake. Whoosh!