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Signing Off

This Good Friday is all about death.

This observation crosses my mind on this solemn holy day as I make the hour-long journey northward from the South Hills to Butler County for a viewing of a friend’s father, who was also a friend in the respectful way that one is friends with an elder.

The intense rays of sunshine pierce into my car and swell like pillars of fire, reflected and compounded by the windows. The vivid blue sky starkly contrasts to the unseasonal spring snowstorm the day before, which would have been more fitting for the occasion.

The deceased’s last words to me arrived via Facebook exactly one week earlier.

“Unfortunately this may be my last FB post. 2021 — the year of many hospital visits for me. I am home now with Lorna and will be staying here. I returned home in hospice care. Lorna takes great care of me too. She has been by my side for 63 years. Love her so much.

Cancer certainly sucks. The doctors tell me I don’t have much time left. Would love to hear back from you all. Please share a memory you have of me in the comments. How did we meet? Where did we meet? Any funny stories? Your replies will definitely brighten my day.

Love to All

Dan”

Four days later, he was dead.

Dutifully, I had responded in time.

To the father…

“Remember that time when you kept my little girl occupied at the Sewickley Y swimming pool while I brought the car around? I really appreciate that.

Because you are Jake’s dad, and because Jake loves you so, you are also the dad of all of us who have worked with him. You’ve raised a fine family, Mr. Lewey. Much love and peace to you, Dan.”

…and to the son.

“Love and peace to you and your family, Jake. Love endures all things.”

My heartfelt hug emojis followed, post mortem, on every recollection. recognition, and funeral arrangement posted by the son, my dear work friend and extraordinary TV news photographer, Jake Lewey. In the newsroom, everyone collegially called him Lewey or Lew.

Lew, like me, grew up in Ohio, same age, same grade. Our hometowns were only 45 minutes from each other, but our paths didn’t cross until we both came to work at WAOK in 2002.

For a long time, he was my work spouse. The assignment desk frequently paired us together. We had such a rapport, we didn’t even have to exchange words. We instinctively knew what the other needed out of the set up, the interview, the video, the stand up. We filled our road trips to news shoots across southwestern Pennsylvania with lively conversation. His blue eyes lit up like neon as he babbled enthusiastically about weekend fun with family and friends, vacation adventures, and even work sometimes. He was a devoted husband and father; salt of the earth, like the one who begat him.

He would never concede how strikingly handsome he was. He brushed off compliments with snark.

“Do you need glasses?”

“I work behind the camera.”

Every once in a while I’d ogle him in the driver’s seat and wonder if we had met when we were single, could we have made a go of it? Then I’d scoff at my fleeting delusion, realizing his neat freak OCD would be maddening. But as features reporter and versatile photographer, we had team chemistry. I was Bensen to his Stabler, Scully to his Mulder.

I arrive within the first half hour of the viewing. I had avoided such events during the pandemic, and this was my first in these unprecedented times. By my calculated gestalt, the risk would be comparatively lower early on. Over the course of the day, the throngs of well-wishers could potentially infect the family of the popular patriarch.

Tentatively, I plod toward the entrance where Lew’s two daughters assemble for an al fresco lunch with other female teenage cousins, a veritable blonde-tourage. His younger daughter, his spitting image, waves to me and I smile behind my face covering at her friendly welcome. I tell the eighth grader my seventh grader says hello. With high school graduation upon his older daughter, I inquire about her college plans. I hug his accomplished, beautiful, virtuous, fair-haired wife, Gwen, and offer my condolences.

Inside, I spy Lew’s tuft of platinum beyond the guests gathered in the receiving room. While waiting my turn, I peruse the various photo displays stationed throughout the foyer. I lean forward and gasp at how much Lew looks like his father as a younger man.

“So what’s going on with you?”

I turn to the unmistakable booming inflection behind me. Lew’s work bestie, Nick Akron, a former anchor who was unceremoniously dismissed from the station in a round of corporate layoffs, hugs me warmly. He is one of the few insiders in whom I had confided my newsroom angst.

“I need to get with you about that at some point.” I evade his question, but we exchange discerning glances above our masks. I congratulate him on his successful new gig in drive time radio.

“Well, let me know when you can talk.” Nick winks and nods before heading out.

Lew is now free, and I approach him slowly, compassionately. I had not seen him since the start of the pandemic, since everyone was working in fixed teams away from the building. He looks like his same old self, and yet different. He wears a dapper, light blue suit and matching tie, a far cry from the t-shirt and cargo pants uniform of a news photographer. We scan each other’s cloaked faces and wrap our arms around each other.

“I’m so sorry.” I murmur into his ear next to my mouth. I start to pull away, but he hangs on to me a little longer.

After he lets go, our eyes bend to his father, lying in repose like a wax statue. I notice the cross, the military paraphernalia, the strong smell of roses from the enormous bouquets above and around the coffin.

“Yep, that’s my dad.” Lew winces affectionately. “But in the end, he wasn’t looking so much like my dad.”

Lew fills me in on his father’s health struggles. I assumed the liver cancer had returned, but that’s not what got him. He had developed locally advanced bladder cancer. The 85 year old decided the treatment would be worse than the disease, and chose to live out his remaining days as is.

“On Tuesday, he said he was signing off.”

With a sympathetic exhale, I silently note that Lew will have to repeat this explanation through the course of the day. I am glad to be there early while the story is still fresh and not rote.

I peer into the casket again and ponder the resemblance between the father and the son. Would this be what Lew will look like someday? I take in the preview of a scene I’ll probably never see.

“What’s this? You, Mindy, and Blaine?” I refer to Lew’s siblings as I point to three rubber duckies perched on the outer edge of the stately box.

“Well, you know my dad.” Lew draws a fond smile. “What did he always say? Get your….”

“…ducks in a row.” We chime in together and bob our heads in unison as he flourishes his hand along the trio. The apple does not fall far from the tree.

Through his glasses, I see tears welling up in Lew’s baby blues.

“He said, I don’t know how to go.” Lew’s voice cracks. “I told him, just go. We’ll be okay.”

Aware of how close he was to his father, I hold back my doubt. His words tug at my heart.

I touch his shoulder and look my grieving buddy in the eye. “He did it perfectly. He did it just right.”

From his long, noble life of making the world a better place with his heart and his hands, to planning his entire funeral so his family wouldn’t have to do anything in their time of mourning, to his endcap on Facebook, Mr. Dan Lewey left a blueprint for life and death for the rest of us.

I don’t have the heart to tell Lew I’m going, too, and I yearn for a blueprint myself, to wind down this chapter of my professional life, to say goodbye. In six weeks, my resignation will hit the boss’s desk.

My mind drifts back to early 2019 when Lew left me.

We were heading back to the station after lunch on a cold, rainy winter day. The windshield wipers scraped and thumped to the rhythm of our chatter about our kids’ activities and the latest office gossip.

“And you know, once I get the chief sports photographer job…”

“Wait. What?” I interrupted him abruptly, full of alarm.

“The chief…sports…photographer…job?” He spoke deliberately, with exaggerated enunciation, as if I were dense. “You know I applied for that, right?”

“No. You never said anything about it.” My indignant tone smacked the glibness from his mouth. I suspected he didn’t mention his plans in anticipation of my harsh reaction.

“Well, I did.”

“Oh.” I crumpled in the passenger seat and gazed through the raindrops trickling down my window.

“Hey. I don’t have the job yet.”

“You will, though.”

I couldn’t believe how blind I had been to his ambition. The former sports chief had recently retired, Lew enjoyed going on sports shoots and knew every sport inside and out, and he had been at WAOK for a long time. The promotion would be the ideal move at this stage in his career. And if he got it, he and I would no longer work together. His win would be my loss.

To his dismay, and to mine, I started to cry.

“Come on, now. Don’t you want me to get the job?” Lew sounded irritated at my emotion.

“Of course, I do! I want only good things for you! The best things!” I flung exasperation back at him. I paused, then blubbered as if I were confronting a lover. “But I don’t want to lose you.”

My work partner gently huffed and reached over to put his hand on my forearm. “You won’t.”

“You know that’s not true.” My voice quivered. I pulled away.

“I’ll still see you at work.”

“But we won’t be working together.” I raised my voice, as if he were the dense one now. “Why do you think I like working with you? Your video is stellar! That’s YOU — YOUR photographer’s eye — YOUR brain! It’s not something that can be taught. Because of what YOU do, my pieces sparkle!”

He sat passively to let me vent.

“But it’s not just that. We get along so well, Jake. I love stopping for lunch with you. I love hearing about what’s going on with you and Gwen and the girls. We. Connect. It’s not like this with the other photogs.”

“We’ll keep in touch.” He insisted, pleaded, hoping I’d stop my tirade.

“It won’t be the same.” I grew quiet. “When we bump into each other, it will be like catching up with an old friend.”

We stewed in silence for a moment that stretched into eternity. Eventually, Lew spoke.

“I will miss…” He stared stoically through the flapping wipers and deep into the traffic in front of us. “…everything about our days together.”

We rode the rest of the way back to the station with an invisible pane of ice between us.

As I predicted, his pervasive talent and wiley charm of the new boss landed him the prestigious berth he so coveted. My insides twisted and sank.

While his time in the general news mix dwindled down, I made copies of the award certificates on my shelf for pieces involving our mutual efforts and framed them. I took photos of my trophies for reports in which he played a part and created a floating frame montage.

On our last day as a duo, we pulled into the underground garage to dock the news truck. He shifted into park. He raised his eyebrows, but before he could speak, I pulled the parcel from my work bag. I put on my brave face and handed him his congratulatory gift. “For your new office.”

He eagerly unwrapped my present to reveal the mementos of our teamwork. With a sentimental sigh, he leaned over and gave me an appreciative peck on the cheek. “Thanks. That’s really kind of you.” His excitement about his new endeavors overshadowed any inkling of my heartache.

“Don’t forget me.”

“Never.”

I rolled my eyes to curb the tears. With a toss of my head, I nudged him toward his car door. “Go get ‘em, Lewey.”

Also, as I predicted, once he started his new position, our interaction was minimal. I only knew what he was up to through an occasional Facebook post. When we passed in the hall, I got a two-minute thumbnail sketch of his current life and times.

Several months later, company-wide buyouts knocked out another swath of photographers I enjoyed working with. Other shifts in business focus and mission accompanied, pushing me to strongly consider other career possibilities. Meanwhile, I continued to rotate through the remaining assortment of photogs. They performed adequately to get my pieces on the air, but none of them clicked like Lew.

Distant hubbub emanating from the antechamber snaps me from my flashback. I catch our colleagues, the motliest of news crews, waiting to pay their respects.

“You have more company. I’m going to go.” I give Lew a parting hug.

“Goodbye, Jake.” I blow a mask-muffled whisper into my golden boy’s ear as we embrace one last time, knowing I won’t be seeing him again. I’m done at the end of May, never to return to the station. It’s not the time or place to lay that on him. I justify my secret further by telling myself he won’t notice the difference anyway, since we don’t actually work together anymore.

“Thanks for coming.” He whispers back, oblivious to my farewell.

I feel that old, familiar pain.

Before I leave, I acknowledge the casket at the back of the room once more. I behold his dad’s peaceful face, and take a long, final look at Jake’s, one in being with the father. A spirit of comfort descends upon me.

I open the door into the light from light and greet the boundless, blank, blue sky.

Maria Simbra is a memoirist on page and on stage, chronicling her careers in neurology and television news, and her unconventional path to motherhood. Words in Door Is A Jar and Page & Spine.  Also, words at Bricolage’s WordPlay and numerous Moth StorySlams. With all that she’s loved and lost, she reminds herself to smile because it happened.

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