Last night, I was working on my résumé. As I looked over my previous employers and my reference list, I realized that I had lost touch with a former colleague of mine from my days in the Deputy Prime Minister's Office. Marie Jubinville-Carrière worked at the desk across the room from mine. Between us was a comfortable distance and a wide stretch of carpet that carried the feet of countless political advisers, speech writers and Members of Parliament who clamoured for the DPM's ears. Sometimes, they would sweep through the space between us, stopping only fast enough to announce their arrival to Marie, whoosh through the DPM's double doors, and fly back out with the DPM between them. One would be holding her purse, the other her coat, which floated in the wake left behind them. Our large desks, mine piled high with constituent correspondence and hers strewn with schedules and sticky notes, were the only two being used in this government office. Besides, of course, the desk of the Deputy Prime Minister herself - the Honourable A. Anne McLellan - which sat stolidly behind heavy wooden doors more often closed than not.
Marie was usually smiling, even when I knew she couldn't possibly be feeling the smile inside her. Someone had clearly taught her that complaining about life never changed anything for the better. When something ticked her off, she would just look at me and say "bon", as if to invite me in the fun of ignoring what had just happened.
Through the window behind Marie's back, I could see the on-goings of busy parliamentarians below and a large Canadian flag fluttering in the wind. Unlike mine, her desk was flooded with light because of that enviable window. I often wished that we could trade desks, but I reasoned that she had earned that spot, having worked for the federal government for fifteen years.
When we weren't buried nose-deep in work with phones on both ears - when Parliament wasn't sitting, for example - we sometimes chatted. She told me all about her many siblings with their varied personalities, her endless battle with her weight (chips and dip were her go-to after-work snack), and the fact that she and her husband, Rick, slept in separate beds - not because they didn't love each other deeply but because of his intolerably loud snoring. She gushed to me about her cat, whom she loved like a child, having no children of her own. She counseled me through a wedding planning crisis (arranging my Toronto wedding from Ottawa was proving to be more stressful that I had imagined it would be) and she loved to give me morsels of marital advice, always straight from the heart. During my breaks, I would often bring back a green tea latté for myself and rave about how delicious it was. After finally tasting mine one day, Marie agreed and would always request that I bring one back for her too. I happily did, loving that I had introduced her to something we could both indulge in while we quietly worked.
When seven phone lines were engaged at once, Marie would sometimes swear in her native French Canadian way. I always giggled when that happened, being careful to do it quietly. Nobody likes to be giggled at when they're stressed out. Despite empathizing with her, I learned not to offer help in those moments - there was nothing I could do, she would tell me, exasperated but thankful that I had offered.
These are the moments that crackle in my head when I think back to my office companion in that corner of Parliament Hill. We weren't friends in the traditional sense of the word - she was almost twenty years my senior - but she did quickly become a mentor to me in a number of ways. I was particularly grateful to share such close working quarters with someone who always looked on the bright side of life. Later, through my various future work experiences, I would learn that colleagues like that are to be cherished. Many people choose to be unhappy and ignore the gifts available to them in their lives. Marie was the antidote to people like that.
The last time I had tried to get in touch with Marie was in 2008. I knew that she was likely no longer reachable at her old e-mail address (she had been seconded from her post at Health Canada when we worked together) but I tried anyway. Last night, I tried again. I figured that LinkedIn would be the perfect way to find her. I was surprised when a search for her name produced nothing. I decided that maybe a Google search would bring me more luck. Sadly, it did. The first search result to appear was a link to Marie's obituary in the Ottawa Citizen. She died "after a courageous battle with brain cancer on January 15th, 2011 at the age of 49 years."
Despite not having seen Marie for eight years, I am still having trouble processing the fact that she is no longer here. She was vibrant and happy and showed no sign of illness when I knew her. Especially not in her mind. Now I wonder if maybe she was struggling with a terrifying new diagnosis when my last e-mail landed in her inbox. Or perhaps she was too busy praying for a successful surgery to bother with her e-mails. Or maybe she was reeling from chemotherapy. Maybe she had given up on the conventions of communication by that June of 2008, too sick or too far gone to respond. Or maybe she was still perfectly healthy, back at her old Health Canada job, unaware that there was a tumour growing in her brain that would swiftly take her life two and a half years later.
In the few moments that I stared at Marie's obituary page, I was reminded of the time that I wished we could trade places so that I could also enjoy some of the sun that streamed through our office window. Now I'm obviously grateful that she was the one who was given that privilege. It also reminds me to appreciate the rays of light that I am given on a daily basis - my incredible kids, my exemplary husband, my 92 year-old grandmother, my own and my family's health. It can all be swept up from under my feet tomorrow, so best to appreciate every minute now while I can. And so, Marie continues to be a mentor to me, even in her death. Thank you for everything, Marie. You may be gone, but you are certainly not forgotten.
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