death in the museum



The message popped up in my Google chat. On an otherwise quiet Tuesday afternoon at the office, it appeared in the corner of my screen, “Hey, can you look up X’s parent’s information on your database?”

Why? Is everything okay?

“Can you come up here?”

I worked my way up the stairs to the Development Office, finding myself leaning over my colleague’s desk.

What’s going on?

“I think something happened to X.”

She picked up the phone and started making calls. My heart began to race, as I pieced together what was happening. My boss, X had been in and out of the office all last week, some sort of a stomach bug or exhaustion she couldn’t shake. Our interim director said he saw her faint in the hall on Friday, and suggested she go home, go to the doctor. He walked her down the hall and watched her get into a cab.

Her birthday was the previous Saturday, she had turned 42.

On Monday, she called in sick and we left a collection of birthday presents on her desk. A customized coffee mug, some office decor, and a note from us, her team. On Tuesday, when we didn’t hear from her, we didn’t think much of it.

Feeling something amiss and living alone, she picked up the phone. She called an ambulance for herself. The paramedics came. The order of events is unclear, but at some point they lost her. They tried to figure out who to call.

Around 1 or 2 pm, the museum received a call from the hospital. Starting with the letter A, the Art Institute of Chicago was one of the first numbers in her cell phone. 

By the time I saw the message on my desktop she was already gone.

Until that day, my relationship to death was limited. I had lost a grandparent the year prior, but my brushes with death extended to things like Jacques Louis David’s The Death of Marat, Felix Gonzalez-Torres’ “Untitled” (Portrait of Ross), and Dutch Baroque vanitas paintings. Death was an abstraction transcended through art. Staged depictions of Civil War battlefields referenced by Susan Sontag in On Photography, Michaelangelo’s soft supple body of Christ in his Pieta, discovering Ana Mendieta’s untimely death-by-window just as I was beginning to fall (like Ana) in love with her work.

Around that time in my life, I was reading obituaries religiously. My job at the museum as Development Research Coordinator was comprised of administrative work and too many “other duties apply” to count. Part of my day-to-day in the department was member database maintenance through a process we referred to, carelessly as “deceasing.” Everyday I read through the Tribune and the Sun Times’ obituaries, running the names of the decedents through our fundraising database. If I found a match, I then began the process to have them marked as deceased in our system, which would halt all future billings, mailings, and membership renewals. If the decedent had given or promised a gift, had a gallery named after them, or sat on any one of our committees or boards, I would contact the correct person at the museum to alert them to this person’s passing, should they want to send a condolence note, flowers, or attend the funeral when appropriate.

This process was my bread and butter. I would fill my Kandinsky mug with coffee each morning, and work my way down the paper, reading about the lives of complete strangers. A man who wore a red bow tie every day of adulthood. Women who made good wives and mothers. I learned what the word nee meant, and began to cut out and keep the obituaries that stood out to me. The ones written with color and fervor, the ones that had humor and wit.

One day I came across the obituary for a woman I went to middle school with. She was my age, just 23. Leukemia.

At the time of X’s passing, I had been working at the museum for three years. An intern, turned temp, turned full-time employee. I had worked in Museum Education and then Development, trying to find my footing in a large non-profit feeling the full effects of the recession. Sometimes, I would sit in X’s office and talk to her about my future, in the field and at the museum. We spoke at length about my love of art, my background in art history, my yearning to move to a different department. It was hard for me to be working so close to the curatorial team, but be on the other side of the glass.

She told me about how she ended up working in fundraising. Having lived in San Francisco, working for the Jazz Festival, and later on the team that supported the AIDS Memorial Quilt. I remember sitting in her office looking at a black and white photograph that hung above her computer, the large quilt spread across the National Mall, names barely visible from the aerial image. I didn’t know at the time how important it was that she worked on that project. By the time I learned about it in my graduate program years later, she was the memory that kept me digging for more information.

During those chats about my future and her past, we struck up a mentor / mentee relationship. We began to strategize a plan for me, a way for me to work my way up from an entry-level position disconnected from the art to a position that would set me up for success and happiness in the field. We talked about grad school. We talked about other jobs. X always reminded me that one day I would leave the museum, that no one stays in a position forever. She took it upon herself to train me, to teach me what she knew, so that I could function without her. She told me time and again that she wanted me to succeed, that she would always be a reference if I needed her to be. She built a work environment that was centered on trust and communication. When we hired an assistant director for the department, she insisted that I participate in the interview process.

She spoiled me for all future jobs and all future bosses. To this day, I have never felt so supported in a position, so understood, so heard, or so valued.

It was the Chief Financial Officer who broke the news to us. He pulled me and my two colleagues in the Research Department into a tiny conference room. He did not turn on the lights. We sat around a table, the room cast in a grey glow. In a matter-of-fact manner he told us that she was gone. He asked if we had questions. He dismissed us. I walked past her office, with the door closed and the lights off. I went to my desk to grab my things, they told me to go home. Someone on the team suggested we all go for a drink, it’s what she would have wanted. I ordered a dark beer because she liked dark beers. I ordered a martini. I ordered another. I do not remember anyone paying, or hailing a cab, or how I got home. I just remember arriving at my boyfriend’s house, and caving into his bed. I did not cry, I was too drunk and too shocked.

Vampire Weekend had released a new album that day. I had asked a record store to set a copy aside for me. When I received it days after she died, I listened to it on repeat wondering how I could love something so much that entered the world the same day she died. I can’t hear the song “Unbelievers” without wishing she could have heard it too.

We know the fire awaits unbelievers
All of the sinners the same
Girl you and I will die unbelievers bound to the tracks of the train

The museum sent two representatives to her funeral in Boston. I was not among those present, though I received texts from my colleagues who went. Images of the city in tiny jpeg format, a photograph of the flowers the museum had sent to her family. I do not know where she was laid to rest, but sometimes I picture it when I let my mind wander. It is green, and her headstone is small.

I learned what it means to lose someone when I lost her. What it means to clean out an office, to clean out an apartment after someone has recently died. I remember someone saying we should leave her office as it is, and thinking, what would happen to the birthday presents on her desk, the ones she would never open. I remember someone telling us her family was coming by the museum, and that we should bubble wrap the photograph of the AIDS Memorial Quilt. That photograph is etched in my memory. I remember helping her sister, her only sibling, sort through her books and clothing, marking items for charity. She told me to take anything I wanted. I took a pair of earrings I had purchased for her last Christmas, made from repurposed bottle caps with glitter and primary colors. I also took a book about odd roadside attractions.

In the days and weeks that followed my grief ebbed and flowed. My one-on-one meetings with her remained on my calendar. Her phone number was still in my cell phone. Her email address etched into the muscle memory of my fingertips, I would sometimes find myself CCing her on emails. Where we were once a department of four, with a leader and an advocate at our helm, we were now a quiet troupe of three. I could feel us begin to slip through the cracks. We divvied up what work of hers we could, those training sessions began to pay off as I stepped into her shoes, taking on some of the larger research requests. Without a director from our department sitting in on larger meetings, we began to lose sight of what was happening institutionally. Without a boss, there was no one to reflect on my progress at my year-end review. Without a mentor, there was no one guide me in my search for the next thing, no one to act as a reference for my job or graduate school applications. Without a close colleague and confidant, there was no one to tell that I was beginning to question my role at the museum or my fear that this might not be the place for me.

A few months after she passed, I went into the interim director’s office and asked for a raise. I have made the same amount since the day I started two years ago. After he death, I began to take on more work, her work. I am asking for this much more. He told me there was nothing he could do for me. Though my workload had increased, though the stress of the job had gone up, though I was still processing the death of a colleague, my value had plateaued.

I took the first job I was offered. Packing up my desk wasn’t so different from packing up her office.

In our one-on-one meetings, we would occasionally drift from work to talk about life. She would ask me about my current “G.I.D” (guy I’m dating, her phrase), we would talk about how we spent our weekends, and she would tell me about the vacation she took every summer to Isle au Haut, an island in coastal Maine.

The Isle au Haut branch of the Acadia National Park has a strict no advertising policy. The only way to find out about this place is by word of mouth and scant mentions in travel guides.

X used to come to the island every year with her girlfriends. In our meetings, she would often wax poetic about this place. In my notes, I would have tasks mixed in with mentions of a magical quiet place called "Isla Ho" with it's fifty year-round residents and lack of cars, Internet, or cell service. The only way to get there was by chartered ferry, and the main way to get around on the island was by golf cart or foot. Over the course of years and years traveling to Isle au Haut, X had befriended the locals, had come to love and know them.

She had a trip planned for a month after she died. I like to believe that her friends still went.

After X's passing, I made it a goal to find this place. To put myself squarely in the memories of her experiences and see it for myself. In the summer of 2017, I flew from Washington, DC to Boston, and drove from Boston to the small towns on the southern tip of Maine. I boarded a ferry from Stonington alone, with the crisp cool air whipping my face. I packed a bag with beer and water, chips and jerky, and cash for a lobster roll. I brought my pen, my journal, and my gym shoes. I walked a trail by myself and stopped to eat some jerky from the top of a rock on a hill, seeing the dark blue of the water breaking through the tops of pine trees. I walked as far as my nerve would take me, venturing into a wooded path that led me further and further from the coast, knowing every step I took led me further from the return ferry and closer to my memory of her. Wondering if she had walked these roads and paths, if she had eaten lobster, chips, and lemonade from the shack along the water, and sat at the same picnic table. I wrote a letter to a friend, and mailed it from the tiny post office - the one that looked like a children’s playhouse. I walked along a gravel path with a beer in my hand and my jacket tied around my waist, feeling the sun on my skin and the mosquitos biting into my sweat. I breathed deeply thinking about 2013 and the subsequent years that had led me far from my job at the museum, to another job that let me fall through the cracks, until I landed in a program the held me, and a job that led me to the same Mall where the AIDS quilt was placed.

I recently developed several rolls of film from years past. On one of the rolls, we were on a rare weekend outing. It was one of the only times we had hung out outside of work. We went to the border of Illinois and Wisconsin, the suburbs where the grass is green and the air is clean. It was a crisp fall afternoon. We ate fried apple donuts covered in cinnamon sugar, you wore your Boston Red Sox hat. Though you were in your 40’s you reminded me of someone I could have been friends with in college. We rode the children’s train and you swung on the ropes course between bales of hay. The photos are the only ones I have of you. So full of life, my boss my friend.

If I’m born again I know that the world will disagree
Want a little grace but who’s going to say a little grace for me?