When life throws the ultimate curveball

Wednesday, Feb. 17
Posted 8 a.m. EST

The tax deadline is roughly two months away, though procrastinators among us can put off the inevitable by filing for an extension.

Death is one of those things you really can't put off, and you never know when it will claim you.

Death robs those left behind of the opportunity to say goodbye to friends who leave suddenly and unexpectedly, as was the case a couple weeks ago when local surfer Steve Schafer, 38, bled to death from shark bite wounds while kiteboarding in the ocean near the South Florida community I call home. It was Martin County's first shark-bite fatality. I did not know Steve personally, but my husband had surfed alongside him on many occasions and was stricken by the loss.

Right around the same time, I lost my friend Sylvia Wood, who had battled breast cancer for many years. I thought she had triumphed against the disease, because she was diagnosed at least a dozen years before and had managed to stave off death for so long. I took for granted that we would dine together again sometime soon. But it was not to be.

I'd known Sylvia for more than 25 years. She was a fellow writer/editor, so our careers intersected several times in South Florida. Back in 1984, she worked as a freelance proofreader for a travel publication where I worked full time. She was quite rigid about her corrections and got into verbal fisticuffs with the editor there over misuse of certain words, though she was always very proper about it. I admired her for her respect of the language and the tenacious way she defended her corrections.

During the early '90s, we worked together at SKY, Delta's in-flight magazine. It was kind of an awkward situation since she was 20 years my senior and she reported to me. I was 30-something at the time. But she was good and dependable and only occasionally condescending.

Our careers intersected again a couple years later. She was unemployed and I was finishing up a short stint with a small travel-related publishing outfit that was headed up by a difficult boss (really, a certifiable lunatic). I told her I was vacating the job and that the position was open and warned her about "Charlie" (not his real name), who had actually yelled to us employees, "If only I had a gun, I'd shoot you all!"

I left after about three weeks of his tirades. Forewarned, Sylvia took the job. She lasted about two months, got a free cruise out of the deal, and left in a fury, telling Charlie on her way out the door to "Go @#$% off." Mind you, I had never heard Sylvia utter one cussword in all our dealings together. Not once. But Charlie was special and he elicited that type of reaction.

She worked through her retirement

We kept in touch over the years, a strong bond nurtured by a mutual love for fiction and a genuine concern for each other's well-being. She tipped me off to Elizabeth George, whose writing transcends the mystery genre. In turn, I tipped Sylvia off about an open position with a textbook publisher. The company had called me, but I was happily employed at Mutual Funds Magazine at the time. I told them about an excellent copy editor named Sylvia, and she ended up getting the job and worked there until pretty much her dying day.

During our last dinner together last fall, we were perusing the colossal menu at Cheesecake Factory, and she could find nothing appetizing. She'd been through chemo recently and had lost weight and was donning a wig. She finally settled on a grilled cheese sandwich, which tasted like cardboard, she said. The waiter withstood her complaints as if they were compliments, likely sensing her discomfort.

I asked her, "So Sylvia, when are you going to retire?" She was 73, after all. Her home was paid for. She could easily live on what she had. But she'd clung to her job anyway (and her employer clung to her), long after she really needed to work. She said she thought she might retire soon.

Evidently, she found fulfillment in her work and didn't feel the need to retire, though if she did she would not have spent it idly. She had several hobbies and lots of friends.

I wish we could get together again.

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