There are things that we all do (eat, sleep, shower) , things that we have to do (grade, write, read), things that we do out of habit (facebook, text, drink coffee), and things that we do when given an hour or two with no other options. I would like to say that’s when I write, but it isn’t always.
My husband says I can’t ever be alone. And I say, Not true. Because sometimes I have to be alone to do work. But I remember being alone a lot of my childhood. And a lot of my adolescence. But my husband’s right. Tonight, my father-in-law picked up the boys so I could do some work before the Writer’s Forum reading, and I have been cramming so much work in lately, that I’ve burned out. And the house was too quiet. I called my parents to see if they’d want to have a meal with me. They were out at a (fancy?) new bar at the mall in the most urban of suburbs in western NY, Greece.
So I ate five Brown N Serve sausages, alone, and sat down with my computer, thinking I might write.
Instead, my mind wandered. There are people I think of every day (my family, close friends, some students), people I think of on occasion (friends I had a falling out with, former teachers, former students), people I don’t even know, really, that I wonder about when I’m not busy with the people who need my attention and whose attention I need.
Today, my mind went to a professor at the college.
He was old enough that it was surprising he still taught. When he walked into Hartwell Cafe, my mother smiled. He and I were the only two in the cafe before it opened on a regular basis. If my grandfather had lived closer, and lived as long, I imagine they’d be similar in manner and voice. Though, this professor’s eyes were cinched in a perma-smile. A life spent laughing. He wore Christmas sweaters that my cool friends only wore to “Ugly Sweater Parties,” but he wore them in a serious way. I’d heard he was a great professor. He taught business. I wish more business-owners were as gentle.
One day last semester, I asked my mother where he went. She said his children had come in to clear his things from his office. I said, “Retirement, finally?”
“Oh, I don’t know, Sarah,” she said with her chin turned down, counting singles, and glanced up at me (meaning something happened to him).
Maybe she was thinking of the wrong person. She sometimes confused one person with another. No, she often confused one person with another. And she had cataracts.
Maybe he fell and was recovering.
He would always approach my mother with the smallest cup (a size I never thought anyone actually purchased), and said, “Today’s my freebie, right?”
And it always was.
And then, because the people I think of on a daily basis called, I bought my coffee and went off to teach.
Tonight, I don’t know what made me think of him. There’s this rule in fiction that the reader always wants to know “Why this story, why right now?” and for this story, I don’t know why, or why right now.
But tonight, I Googled him the way I Google tragic events, obsessively, hungrily, sadly, curiously, and all of these things at once. My hands cold from the keyboard, my jaw tight in worry, because suddenly, I would find out where he went.
I have a ritual. I check the Facebook pages of a family that lost a child last summer. It’s shameful, but it’s my way of knowing that life does go on. And how.
The Professor’s name came up in an obituary: Donald Borbee. I have always known his name on our small campus, but it was solidified by a simple morning routine. I felt sad that he died in February, and now it was November, and I had just now taken the time to let my curiosity find him. He didn’t know me, and he probably only recognized the features I share with my mother when he saw me in the hallway, but don’t we all want to know that when we are gone, someone we never knew, would look for us?