Cécile Druzba (center) with her family. 

The Geiger Counter

Remembering Cécile Druzba

I used to often stop and chat with an elegant woman named Cécile, who worked in an office a few steps from mine in the City of Middleton. I edited the local newspaper (which was essentially just an ongoing saga about how much the community’s leaders at the time loved concrete and development of literally any kind) and she worked at the nearby Chamber of Commerce.

She had red hair and freckles and narrow-framed glasses that sat like windows through which you could catch her eyes’ glint. She was, apparently, middle-aged, but she had the demeanor of someone in the jaunty days of youth, as if she was in on some kind of cosmic joke and recognized how funny the world was, just beneath all the griping and despair. She did not solve all the problems of the world, but you always walked away from a conversation with her a little lighter, a little better and a little less burdened by all that falls upon your shoulders.

She was quick-witted and her jokes were often barbed, but she always made me feel like I was in on every jest, even ones directed at me. She made everyone she spoke with feel like they were part of the joke, on the right side of it, and I can’t imagine a greater gift to give to the world than that.

I don’t think I ever asked, but her name, coupled with a dignified and independent bearing, made Cécile seem very much like my idea of a French woman in a good novel; fashionable and funny. Someone who looked right with a glass of wine and a shawl or some other wardrobe item I was not sophisticated enough to properly taxonify. She always walked directly up to people, never sidling or flanking you; never shifty, always looking into your eyes and facing you, giving you her full attention as she approached.

We saw each other several days a week for many years. I remember, one Saint Patrick’s Day, my wife and I went to her home to eat corned beef and cabbage. She had a husband named Matt, and children who had inherited not just her looks, but also her intangible qualities. I remember laying my hand on the head of their massive Bernese Mountain Dog as it leaned against my leg that spring day, amid the clinking of glasses and friendly chatter, admiring the warmth in their home.

Cécile often reminded me that we had something in common, having both lived on the East Coast, as if that made us members of some exclusive club, along with the millions and millions of other people for whom it was also true. She really, really loved her kids, and she gave me absolute hell because she felt the newspaper didn’t cover lacrosse enough, but for all her many (and I do mean many) comments about it, I always understood that she was criticizing a thing, not a person, and it never felt like her frustration was personal. I remember, before having a daughter of my own, seeing her and her daughter at a concert at the Middleton Performing Arts Center, and wondering silently how strange and otherworldly it would be to make a person and then watch it grow into something so very like you as it made its way through the world.

After many years, I moved on, settling in Mount Horeb, Wisconsin where I got to find out what it’s like to have a daughter. I’m still the executive editor for the Middleton Times-Tribune, but several years ago someone else took over as the publication’s news editor. Cécile, too, moved on, and their family headed back east, to Vermont, to help care for her grandmother, who had Alzheimer’s.

There, in 2019, Cécile was killed.

A young New Yorker named Ian Labounty got annihilated on drugs and fell asleep behind the wheel. The police report showed that he was going 20 miles over the speed limit, and he didn’t even try to brake before crossing the center line and hitting Cécile’s car. She, on the other hand, slammed on the brakes and tried to evade Labounty. According to one report, I assume from her brother, who was in the car with her, she only had time to utter a simple, “Oh, s____” before the violence of the crash.

Later, in court, Matt Druzba recounted how he had to tell his children that their mother, so vibrant until then, had died.

When I saw her obituary one day, I didn’t read it. I just closed my browser, stood up and walked away. People die all the time. Even ones I care about have the audacity to do it. Hell, I’ve published obituaries every week for the past 20 years as part of my job. But I just didn’t have what it took to read hers on that particular day.

I remember once, many years ago, receiving an obituary for an infant. In it, the parents wrote that the child - so swiftly carried away, so briefly in this world, like a hand run through salt water for just a moment - had changed their lives forever. I didn’t have a kid yet, and I remember thinking how odd their claim was. I couldn’t wrap my head around the idea that you could care so much about someone you had known for only a slight portion of your life. I didn’t yet understand that love and time do not run in tandem, and they are not inexorably linked. You can know someone for a sliver of your life, and they can change you, or you can spend eternity with someone and feel nothing. We will all die, and, as Hemingway pointed out, some of us get it over with sooner than others. In this fundamental mortality, the universe is entirely fair and equitable. The young are fated to die, as are the old. The good, the bad, the funny, the boring, the rich and the poor, will all, one day, simply cease to be. “The things that happen, happen. And then you are gone,” states Guillermo del Toro’s brilliant new movie, “Pinocchio.”

I don’t remember the name of the infant in the obituary. I think she would probably be about 10 now, had she not left so quickly. I’m sure her parents’ lives remain changed by her, though, and I’m sure they still carry her with them. While most children eventually grow too heavy and cumbersome to hoist onto your back, I assume that cherub will be sitting, silent and invisible, atop her parents’ shoulders for as long as they walk the Earth.

Cécile’s husband initially did something I had never heard of before. He asked the state to have Cécile’s killer go through extensive therapy and community service, rather than serving jail time. He asked that he visit schools to talk to students about what can happen when you choose to get behind the wheel so seriously impaired. Matt said it was what Cécile would have wanted. He wanted some good to come of it.

Labounty never apologized. Or, at least, he didn’t apologize for years, until after he was convicted. The judge ignored Matt’s request, and Labounty got a little jail time, but not the kind of community service he had asked for. Matt tried a different path to spread some good; he ran for U.S. Congress. He used their Bernese Mountain Dog, a new one, in much of his campaign, posting videos of the black, tan and white canine with information about his platform on social media.

Eventually, I did read about Cécile’s death.

Perhaps this is some sort of integral part of a cosmic joke I’m too dim to understand, and Cécile isn’t here to make me feel like I’m in on the jest. So many people come and go, and most quickly fade, but if I think of Cécile now, I can see her, not some vague, ghostly approximation of her, but her in her funny, friendly, vaguely French totality, in my head.

Matt contacted me around the time of Labounty’s sentencing. We exchanged a few messages, and I tried, and certainly failed, to construct a sentence or two that would bring him a moment of good cheer.

A few nights later, I dreamed I was at the Performing Arts Center in Middleton, when Cecile and her daughter came walking fashionably into the foyer.

“But, you’re dead…” I stammered when she walked directly up to me.

“I know,” she said. In her eye, I saw the unmistakable glint of someone who sees the world for what it really is. I saw the glimmer of someone who is in on the joke. I mentioned Hemingway earlier, and about him Gertrude Stein made the insightful observation that, while some people had “interesting” eyes, he had something much better. He had “interested” eyes. Perhaps that’s the thing that glows.

When we die, the first noticeable thing to happen is that this light in our eyes is extinguished. If you approach a person or animal and need to know with certainty that they are truly gone, all you need to do is hold an object near their eyes. If nothing happens, they have already been carried away. In his new book, “The Passenger,” Cormac McCarthy refers to the eyes of the dead as “devoid of speculation.”

The exchange at the Performing Arts Center was the entirety of the dream. There were no strange happenings or characters. No anachronisms. None of the weirdness that usually pervades the realm of dreams. Just a chance to get close enough to see the glint and wonder, when things are gone, where it is they go. 

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