Has this ever happened to you: you’re minding your own business, thinking about whatever perfectly normal thing is passing through your head, when next thing you know you’re thinking about someone or something you haven’t thought about in years? Without even realizing what took you there, you’ve somehow been transported to another place and/or time in your life that hadn’t come up in ages? That happened to me yesterday when I found myself thinking about my old coworker Rolonda.
When I worked for my previous employer, I was pretty unhappy. I can be good at hiding it (dare I say a master) so a lot of people never would’ve guessed, but I was depressed and unsatisfied with almost every aspect of my life. The only real bright spot that came from the years at that previous employer was that I rediscovered my writing. Other than that, things were pretty glum. I made a couple pretty good friends that I’ve managed to keep in contact with (and coincidentally or not, we all work somewhere else now–what that might say about said previous employer I’m not sure but I have an idea), but most everyone there were acquaintances at best who I tolerated to various degrees. There were exceptions, of course–people who I didn’t talk to outside work yet enjoyed seeing every day–and one of them was a ball of light and positivity named Rolonda Menifee.
Rolonda was born and raised in Kansas, lived there her whole life, I believe. She worked for a loan company prior to coming to work for the utility company I called home for just over five years. She was practically a walking smile–every time you saw her she was either smiling or about to smile. It wasn’t one of those phony, “Hi, good to see you!” smiles that coworkers get so good at giving each other and don’t really mean. She always seemed genuinely interested in the well-being of whoever she was talking to. A warm smile, a small joke, and a big laugh: the one-two-three combo that could stop any grumpy asshole dead in their tracks.
She complained now and then, like we all do. Show me someone who doesn’t complain about their job from time to time and I’ll show you someone predisposed to keel over with a brain aneurism. She was human. She had a sharp tongue after (or sometimes during, thanks to her phone’s MVP, the mute button) interactions with troubling customers, having those of us within earshot in stitches from her barbed jabs at their expense, but the vast majority of the time she was genuine, polite, pleasant, and just plain kind. I told her once she was nice to customers on the phone even if they didn’t deserve it, to which she laughed that big laugh of hers and told me life was too short to be nasty to people.
Our cubicles were only two down from each other, and we were both notorious for being the last ones on the phone at the end of the day–the two who customers seemed to latch onto, wanting to talk and share way past the point of us caring but us too polite to cut them off. That put the two of us usually being the last two out of the office every day, walking to the elevator together and trekking out to the parking garage chatting about our day, maybe a small amount of idle chit chat about what we were going to do with the rest of our night after we left. Those short walks and pleasant conversations meant a lot to me. They helped me decompress and unwind from my soul-crushing day in mere minutes as much if not more than anything else I did the rest of the night. She really brightened my day every time I saw her
One random Wednesday I walked into the office and could feel something off. There was a weird vibe, a sour feel to the air I could almost taste, that made me uneasy. The supervisors were avoiding eye contact with everyone as much as the could, coming to people’s desks and having them step into their offices in small groups of three or four. Upon leaving the offices, my coworkers’ faces were blank and expressionless, impossible to read. After about twenty minutes of wondering what the hell was going on, I was called into my supervisor’s office with two others.
Rolonda had called in sick on Monday, which, while rare, was not completely out of the norm. She didn’t come in on Tuesday, either, and I didn’t find out until later that she hadn’t called in–she just plain didn’t show up, which was odd. A friend was supposed to meet Rolonda at the gym on Tuesday night and when she was a no-show and not answering her phone, her friend go worried. On Wednesday morning when she didn’t show up for work yet again, the friend called the police to do a welfare check on Rolonda. They found her cold and stiff in her bed, where she’d been somewhere between 24 and 36 hours. She was 46.
Everyone at the office was stunned, of course. It was like we’d collectively been punched in the gut. I have no recollection of the rest of that day. I could’ve told someone I was King Fractoid from the planet Jobinius and would’ve had no memory of it. It was all a blur, almost not real. There’s a certain surreal quality that surrounds truly awful events that’s always fascinated me. Hurricane Katrina, 9/11, you name it–they all have a not-real-ness that is hard to describe. The death of a friend or loved one has that same quality for me, just on a somewhat smaller, more personal scale.
It took about two weeks. Two weeks of hanging up with my final customer of the day and lifting my head to look around the office and realize everything was quiet and I was alone. In my head I could still hear Rolonda’s voice, as loud and clear as if she were still sitting two cubicles down, finishing up with her own last customer before she joined me for our walk to the elevator.
Two weeks of walking to the elevator alone, feeling like I should be waiting for her–she was simply gathering her things, she’d be along any minute–not wanting to leave the office without her.
Two weeks of plodding out to the parking lot and seeing my truck sitting sadly by itself, a lone speck of metal in a sea of asphalt. Two weeks before the uneven feeling inside, the off-kilter pull at my guts, the voice in my head, her voice, began to fade. Those two weeks are among the loneliest times of my life.
I know how depressing this sounds, and I didn’t intend for it to come across that way. The fact is it’s been over five years since Rolonda died, and as clear as that Wednesday in July of 2010 is in my head, it pales in comparison to the mental images burned into my brain of Rolonda smiling, making a joke, and laughing loud enough for the people across the office to know she was there. She probably didn’t know how much she was helping keep me stay sane–she was just being her. But she did help me, and every time she pops in my head seemingly at random like she did yesterday, I can’t help but smile. She was a light for me in a pit of darkness, and I never stopped appreciating it. I never will.