If you’ve ever lost a loved one, unless you’re a die-hard atheist, agnostic or nihilist, you’ve probably found yourself contemplating the notion of communing or reuniting with them in a spiritual realm beyond the everyday reality we live in. Either by consciously conjuring the idea or having it pop into your head uninvited, you may encounter the phenomenon of magical thinking that I experienced shortly after my father died. After his suicide in 1972, when I was only 20, as I was going through his personal effects I distinctly recall experiencing the sense that we’d be together again someday.
This baffled me because I was not religious and had never been indoctrinated with beliefs about an afterlife. If I had to pinpoint a source of any latent superstition or susceptibility to supernatural ideas, it would have to be my orthodox Jewish grandmother. Her sabbath rituals on Friday evenings, especially her incantations in Hebrew and rhythmic hand gestures over candles, spooked me. Her vivid dreams of visits with deceased relatives from the old country were the subject of family lore.
What You See Is What You Get
But as I moved from childhood through adolescence to adulthood and advanced into my 30s, I became more grounded in a sense of reality founded on incontrovertible, observable facts. This was largely thanks to a pair of wise old mentors, both with distinguished careers in science. One was a graduate school journalism professor, Hillier Krieghbaum, known as “the father of science reporting” for the seminal textbook he’d written on the subject. The other was a legendary medicinal chemist, Dr. Leo Sternbach, whose invention of Valium had put the pharmaceutical company I worked for on the map.
Neither of my mentors had time for religion, and both considered the notion of an afterlife nonsense. When I told the professor, already well into his 80s by the time I completed my master’s and started looking for a job, about the question hiring managers seemed programmed to ask, “Where do you see yourself in five years?” he smirked and said, “I know where I’ll be: making food for worms.”
And that’s pretty much the way I saw things. Until Mona.
How We Met
The serious-looking young woman with short, spiked brown hair seemed out of place on the company-chartered bus carrying New Yorkers from the Port Authority Terminal to the firm’s then-U.S. headquarters, a sprawling, 125-acre campus, 12 miles west of the Lincoln Tunnel, that straddled the bedroom communities of Nutley and Clifton. Although there were a few women in the mix, the typical passenger was a man, early-30s to mid-40s, wearing a white shirt and dark tie, probably some sort of medical researcher or biostatistician. Then there was me, the newbie in his sharp designer suit, peering over to my right, trying to suss out this other newbie with her indefinable mystique, gazing out the window overlooking the Meadowlands, as if she could see the outlines of her future on the horizon.
On this Friday afternoon in the summer of 1982, just as I’d timed my exit from the bus to coincide with hers so I’d be right behind her as we stepped down into the terminal, my wish was granted: The mystery woman turned and spoke to me, asking, “Are you taking the subway uptown?”
“No, I’m going downtown,” I said. But just as the words left my lips, a huge concrete column separated us and a torrent of restless weekend commuters carried us in separate directions. Introductions would have to wait till Monday.
When it finally arrived and we once again saw each other, I immediately apologized for the abrupt end to our initial conversation and introduced myself. “I’m Mona,” she responded, in an accent I couldn’t place. We sat together on the bus, continuing our conversation, and starting to build a friendship that would evolve into a deep bond. I learned that she had a Ph.D. in the biological sciences. She worked in the company’s Quality Control Department, performing sophisticated analyses on complicated machines to ensure the purity of the firm’s drugs. She wanted to transition to research when an opportunity arose, and she was a woman of many interests.
Before long, I learned them all: books, movies, art, music. I learned of her childhood, growing up on the tempestuous streets of Beirut, Lebanon. Once when our bus back to New York was delayed for an hour and blocked from entering the tunnel to return, the driver informed us that the Port Authority had received a bomb threat. “What a strange concept,” Mona said. “Where I come from, terrorists explode the bomb and kill people first, and then call to claim credit for it afterwards.”
From Lebanon, she’d moved to France for her post-graduate studies, cultivating the cosmopolitan air of the industrious international professional woman who impressed her professors and bosses, and ultimately me. And the alluring accent I couldn’t quite put my finger on combined the Lebanese lilt of her birth with the French inflection of her university years.
The Magic of Mona’s Charm
That was a big part of Mona’s charm for me – her accent, her voice and her unique annunciation and cadences. She’d often say “thee” for “the,” or “aye” (rhyming with hay) for “a.” And the pauses, where she seemed to dive deep into her mind for the right words to complete her thoughts.
We grew to be conjoined twins on those bus rides from the city to the suburbs and back. Soon we graduated to lunches and more and more frequent coffee breaks.
When she bought a piano and resumed taking lessons, which she’d started as a child and continued to an advanced stage, I did the same, and we measured our respective progress. Hers was significant. Mine charted a slogging, mechanical path that culminated in a halting version of “Send in the Clowns.”
She turned me on to the Russian composer Alexander Scriabin, encouraging me read about his life and music, which were dominated by a strong mystical current. She grew impatient and angry with me when I didn’t work hard enough to understand and appreciate the French New Wave films she chose for us to see, like Jules et Jim. She read some of my essays and exhorted me to write seriously.