My grandma used to do this thing where she’d get the daily paper, read the obituaries, and then phone my Mom to let her know “so and so” died. It used to be a running joke with my Mom and my Grandma, and now my Mom does the same thing with me. I guess you can’t fight genetics.
In addition to getting the “death news” from the old neighbourhood via my Mom, I am ALSO now getting death notices from a former employee. She retired a couple of years ago, and just as my Grandma would inform my Mom about “north end deaths” and me getting “St. James updates” from my Mom, I’m now getting updates from my former employee. I don’t mind it, really. A lot of our clients at the library are elderly and we really do look out for them when they are here. We get to know their favourite authors, their hobbies, and even their health concerns as they face the challenges of old age. Sometimes its easier to talk about personal issues with your local librarian than it is with your health care provider, or even members of your own family. My staff and I take it in stride, and exercise discreteness and confidentiality with every customer. In some small part, these people become a part of our lives, just as we become a part of them. If we haven’t seen a regular customer in a while, we worry about them, as you would worry about any friend or relation.
Sometimes we hear the sad news of a customer’s passing from a family member. That family member might know their Mom or Dad or Uncle was a library user, and as a courtesy will bring in their library books found beside their bed or on their couch and to let us know. Other times, we have sent condolence cards to the family. On rare occasions, we’ve actually attended funerals.
So it wasn’t really a surprise that I got an email this week from that retired employee telling me that a long-time customer had passed away. He was a favourite of mine, and I am truly sorry to receive this news.
Of course, he would never want to you to call him that. “Mr. Burgess was my father! Call me Doug.” That was his classic response, but you know what? I could never bring myself to call him Doug. To put him on that level. To me, Mr. Burgess deserved the respect of a Mr. in front. I can sort of see it from his side, though. To be called “Mr.” is a formality that might distance him from me, and he didn’t want any distance between us. But STILL.
Mr. Burgess and his wife would come in on a weekly basis. He always had a kind word for my staff, and he would shuffle down to the information desk. He had his favourites there, (his number one was the lady I mentioned early, the lady who recently retired), but he came to know me over the 10 years I’ve been a librarian here, too. He had his classic authors. I bet you can guess some of them without me even telling you. Grisham, Clancy, Baldacci, and Woods were his big four, but we could persuade him to branch out on occasion and take a Connelly or a Christie for a spin or even (GOD FORBID), a straight-up fiction title. He never loitered and monopolized your time, but he always made time for you, and wanted to get to you as well. He reminded me of some of my favourite men in my life of a certain generation (he was in his late 80s when he died). The kind of man who would talk to you and take an interest in you, and you would feel like your day was better for it by just having that chat. He would often bring in chocolates for us all to share. A huge bag of gold foil covered peanut butter and chocolate cups (the staff’s personal favourite), and an equally huge bag of red foiled caramel and chocolate cups (the staff’s consensus was that these ones were way too sweet, but we still ate them. What are we, crazy to turn down free chocolates?). The chocolates, (and Mr. Burgess for that matter), always had a slight smell of pipe and cigarette smoke about them. Not enough to be off-putting, but just there.
When my co-worker retired a couple of years back, we had a little retirement party for her here in the branch. We invited some former staff to the party, and we had a short-list of library customers we wanted to be there too. Mr. Burgess and his wife were among them. It may, in fact, have been the last time I saw him. He wasn’t even sure he was going to be able to make it. He was going for “tests” at the time, but I have a feeling he moved things around. I got the sense they were honoured to be included in this small gathering, and I know we were all thrilled that they made the effort to come.
My favourite memory of Mr. Burgess, though, comes around the time my daughter was born. When people hear you are having a baby, or have just had a baby, they tend to want to heap advice on you. Or, even worse, they try to paint a “worst-case-scenario” picture for you. “Say goodbye to your freedom and social life!” “You’ll never sleep again!” “Hope you’ve saved up some money for all those diapers and formula!” It’s not like I needed any help to elevate my anxiety levels. I was managing to do that quite well all on my own.
I guess some people are just assholes.
In any case, we just had our daughter for a couple of weeks and I was pretty fed up with all the “helpful” comments and unsolicited advice from everyone in earshot, but still, I was happy to tell Mr. Burgess about this big development in our life. He had a daughter, and when his only grand-daughter was born and his daughter had to go back to work, Mr. Burgess and his wife babysat her all the time, so it was fresh in his mind.
He smiled the kindest smile at me, and took me by the hand, one of those handshakes where the person takes his other hand and puts it on your forearm. Probably the closest thing to a hug a man of his generation could muster. He held my hand like that for a moment, and then said in his gravelly voice, “Oh, you have a little girl in your life? You’re going to have such a nice experience ahead of you.”
I’ll never forget that moment. And of all the “advice” that was given to me in that whirlwind first month, that’s the one piece I clung to.
And you know what? He was right.
I’m not saying that our daughter doesn’t present challenges ON A DAILY BASIS that drive me nuts, but on the whole, she is an amazing little kid who blows me away again and again, and who I sometimes just have to look at in wonder. She makes me smile, she makes me laugh, and she brings me to tears. We are seven years in, and I often think of Mr. Burgess and his quiet yet confident prediction.
I was delighted that Mr. Burgess could actually meet my daughter. She was about two at the time, and my wife had dropped by the library to pick me up. My daughter was flying around just at the moment Mr. Burgess and his wife came in on their weekly visit. I picked up my daughter and got her to say “Hi” to Mr. Burgess, but before long she squirmed out of my arms and went back to the board books. Mr. Burgess didn’t mind. He just smiled at me and said, “She’s beautiful. You’re very lucky.”
I am very lucky. Very lucky to have a daughter like that. Very lucky to have known a man like Mr. Burgess, even if it was just in our limited superficial way.
The news of his passing hit me pretty hard, even though I haven’t seen him in over two years. I’ll always be grateful for his kindness and the way he disarmed this new anxious Dad with one simple sentence. Rest in Peace, Mr. Burgess. Rest in Peace, Doug.