I lost two friends this month. Gary died of brain cancer at age 53. Carmen (not her real name) is still alive, but our friendship of twelve years kicked the bucket. I mourn for both. But the grief processes look quite different.

At first Gary Albert made me pull my hair out. He was always calling the guy I was dating (Aaron) every time a server went down or a line of code had a glitch at Gary’s company ActivTrax. Aaron was called 24/7 as a catchall IT gopher who wrote all the company’s software, ran the servers, and dealt with the Verizon guy when the wifi went down. But I soon learned his biggest job was talking Gary out of utterly impractical ideas. Gary was a dreamer, a perfectionist, and he did not accept defeat easily. But Aaron had worked for Gary for most of his 20s and 30s and a father-son bond forged. I understood that if I wanted Aaron, Gary came with the package.    

Six years later, just as Aaron and I were tying the knot, I finally got to know Gary as a person. Every Tuesday became “Take Your Girlfriend To Work Day” when Aaron took me to his office so I could escape the dungeon basement where I had been temporarily relocated while my work building was renovated. ActivTrax became my home away from home and Tuesday became my favorite day of the week. Gary was a cyclone of energy in the kitchen break room, where I was blown away by his candor about challenges he was facing. I came from a family where men deny, deny, deny, never admitting to fault because it would make them look weak. I was immediately impressed by a self-reflective man who could own his flaws and past mistakes and was actively self-improving. More often than not, when Aaron and I climbed into the Jeep after a long day at ActivTrax, I turned to him and said, “I like Gary.”

Gary quickly became family, particularly after the birth of our son. Gary and Maddie babysat Bjorn every Tuesday night so Aaron and I could keep doing our weekly group run. When my father died, Gary filled in by taking me to sporting events that bored Aaron. Gary was horrified when I showed up to a Caps game not wearing an overpriced team jersey and spent the breaks enlisting every salesperson to find a Kuznetsov one in my size, over my protests. When Aaron and I ran grueling endurance races, Gary happily assumed the role of Number One Fan and occasionally Sponsor. I did not realize I had voids in my life until Gary filled them.    

Gary would have liked to have died a richer man, but instead he died a better man, in some ways a hero. Few men ever set on a path to redemption. It’s easier to bury heads in the sand, denigrate therapy, and task others to accept “who they are”. But Gary was the ultimate hustler. He put the same vim into fixing himself as he did into fixing everything else in his life – his company, his house, his relationships, and virtually every business system he ever encountered.

Gary was a lot. God bless Maddie. God bless Michelle, Louie, and Aaron. I was lucky I never had to work for Gary or satisfy his crazy demands. I was just an interloper who got to enjoy his crass humor and trade unfiltered barbs. There were no walls with Gary; he waved me in to use his office massage chair, even when he was on business calls. I wish Gary were still around. But I feel comfort knowing that such species of men exist. I’ll spend the rest of my life searching for people like Gary. They won’t be easy to find.  

* * *

By chance I encountered my friend Carmen on the same day that Gary died. My head was still spinning and I cannot remember a thing I said her. But I recall that I was friendly, which was progress. Carmen and I had not spoken in six months, even though we lived ten minutes apart and had few other contacts during the pandemic. We had spent over a decade as “work wives”, leading side-by-side research programs and sharing postdocs and office space. We became good friends over years of traveling together to teach scientists around the world how to study infectious disease data. We were known for notoriously fast, disjointed conversations where we finished each other’s sentences because we intuitively guessed what the other was thinking, but left out so many words that no one else could follow the thread.

We had complementary skills at work, but also complementary personalities. She was the consummate diplomat in pink lipstick and heels and I was the blunt realist in track pants who blurted without filter. She could only do good cop, so I did bad cop. She was cautious and demure, but allowed me to drag her on thrilling adventures by foot, bike, ski, and boat. She rolled with it, even the time she got stranded on a rock surrounded by whitewater rapids and had to be rescued. I also enlisted her in my weekly pilates class, which we did together for years along with my mom. Over time we built a research group that was distinctly female dominated. I joked that it was a “safe house” for female computational biologists. Of everything I did at work, the achievement I am probably most proud of is that we built a research environment that was genuinely fun. Many women remained lifelong friends after they left. We all liked each other enough to vacation together in Puerto Rico and Bali.

But even the best relationships sometimes get seriously tested. The unraveling of my friendship with Carmen began shortly after I had a baby and became the only scientist in the group acquainted with morning sickness and breast pumps. For some reason when I returned to the office after my son’s arrival my boss had my number. He began to yell at me for no reason and threaten to end my employment. To say Carmen is not a fan of conflict is to say the ocean is not dry. Carmen had worked there longer than anyone and knew the ropes. She even served a year as interim director before the new boss arrived. Everyone looked to her for guidance, so every time she looked the other way my boss felt emboldened. Eventually he knew he could get away with anything. Which he did, falsifying information about my HR record so he could use it to justify terminating the employment of a new mother in the middle of a pandemic. I was so disgusted I stopped being able to eat, my weighting dropping to dangerously anorexic levels. But what was even more painful how he used Carmen to deliver the falsified news to me. I trusted her, making the situation even more disorienting. No matter what, she believed him, even when he changed his story a couple times. When I gathered a group of longtime female colleagues to dissect what had happened and what my next move was, we accepted that my friendship relationship with Carmen was effectively over. I did not expect Carmen to join a bar fight, but I did expect her to accurately report who fired the gun.

A few weeks after our chance encounter I reached out to Carmen to see if she had gained any new perspective. These were not little white lies: they decimated my career, put my family on the ropes, and threatened to tarnish my reputation at work. But I was willing to put effort into repairing our friendship if she could own up to past mistakes. When she got angry that I even brought the matter up, I knew there was no chance of repair.

I have never had a falling out with a female friend, so this was new territory for me. In some ways Gary and Carmen were foils. For all of Gary’s flaws, being hot-tempered and micro-demanding, you knew he always had your back. Carmen was the opposite, the loveliest, most friction-free person to work with, but who clams up at the first whiff of anything unsavory. I still encourage everyone to be Carmen’s friend and colleague. She is a lovely, brilliant person who makes everyone around her smarter. A part of me knows that she recognizes deep down that our boss did something foul but denial can be more comfortable.

Recently I have noticed that my memories of bombastic Gary stand out in technicolor, as if he were still living and I could phone him anytime, while my Carmen memories are already muted and fuzzy, as if she had already faded like an old photograph. We logged so many hours together but she was always demure and withholding, and in many ways I never really knew who she was. I was the “Gary” in our friendship, spouting every unfiltered thought about my personal life. But Carmen kept her personal life under wraps. When she and her partner split I had no inkling they were even on the rocks. Sometimes I asked my husband if I was deluding myself thinking we were actually friends. I had never even been inside her home.

I will always have a soft spot for gentle Carmen and her role in a life-changing decade that launched me from a late-20s partier into a 40-year old mom with a magnificent family and an established research career. I am forever grateful for the “honeymoon” decade I spent working with her, adventuring across Asia, Africa, South America, and Australia. She was a sage advisor and a brilliant scientist who always asked the most incisive questions. I absorbed much from cohabiting her sphere. I will always miss having her around to bounce ideas off, as well as her full-throated laugh, head back, trying not to snarf her cosmopolitan. For more than a decade she was the world’s best work wife and science is not as fun without her.

* * *

It has been especially hard for my family to lose two work pillars in the middle of a destabilizing pandemic. But life marches on. My attention these days is wrapped up in my radiant son Bjorn, who in a few years he will be old enough to be his momma’s date at Caps games. In Gary’s honor we will chat up every salesperson, stadium worker, and fan sitting in our row. Maybe Bjorn will finally get that Kuznetsov jersey.

 

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