Mark Sandrock: Pia's Secret

12/05/1995 17:00

I will never forget the day in July of 1988, when a petite, attractive woman stood at my door here in Noyes Lab and told me she had heard we were looking for a VAX programmer. She looked like no computer programmer I had ever met, but she turned out to be one of the best, and it wasn't long before we became close co-workers and the best of good friends. That was Pia.

To know Pia was to love her. This is no trite saying, but rather, in Pia's case it resonates with truth, just as she herself resonated with joy and love, day in and day out, towards all with whom she came into contact. Pia treated the shy and uncertain undergraduate student with the same caring attention as she did the demanding and tenured professor. That was Pia.

We learned so much from each other. I, the tall, stoic thinker of German ancestry, and Pia, the petite, vivacious native Italian. Our temperaments were quite contrasting, and so were our problem-solving techniques on the job. Pia would want to read the manuals systematically and to proceed step by careful step. I would be impatient and would want to try to figure out the solution ourselves. Sometimes Pia's way was better, sometimes mine was. Although we were so different, we always respected each other, and learned from our differences. That too was Pia.

Eventually Pia and I got into the pleasant routine of walking down to the Espresso Royale at Oregon and Goodwin at mid-morning to have a cappucino. She always asked for her cappucino with "extra foam" or "extra milk". Then she would pour heaping teaspoons of sugar into it. When I wanted to make Pia laugh, I would pretend to be shocked at how much sugar she used. To make Pia happy was to be happy. She had that magical effect on people.

Some days we would talk about work-related issues over our cappucinos. We would joke that it was our "high-level meeting", but sometimes it was. Other times we would talk about our families, our friends, our ups and downs. Or we might talk about what we believed in, our outlooks on life. Whatever it felt right to talk about that day.

Regardless of any problems at work, Pia would never get upset. She never was down. I knew that at times she would take comfort from my confident hardware expertise, but I wonder if she ever knew how much comfort I took from her unfailing sunny optimism, from her simple conviction that things will always turn out okay in the end. And they always did. That was Pia.

Through Pia, I became acquainted with her family, so dear to her: Enrico, her beloved husband, Claudio and Fabio, her handsome and talented sons, and Valentina, her charming daughter. I had met them only a few times really, but through Pia, I felt I had known and cared about them for a long time.

After having been privileged to work closely with Pia for some 6 years, the time came when she and her family left for one year due to Enrico's sabbatical from the university. That was a hard year. Although our two new employees, Laura and Darlene, did their best to learn about all that needed to be done, I probably got on their nerves with my bemoaning of Pia's absence. But they were and are troopers, and I am very grateful that they too had the chance to work with Pia when she finally returned this past August. We made a good team, the four of us. And although they had worked with Pia only for those few months, they too could not hold back their tears at times during those first awful days nor after the memorial service at St. Patrick's. To know Pia was to love her.

Speaking of the memorial service, I doubt that anyone who listened to Enrico that day will ever forget what they heard. The emotion in Enrico's voice was riveting and electrifying. Before the service Enrico asked me if I wished to say something about Pia, but I felt I could not. I don't know how Enrico did it, but I was glad I had not intruded that day. That day and that hour belonged to Enrico and to Pia, and I knew then, as I had never known before, what a great love the two of them had for each other. There could not have been a more fitting tribute to Pia than was Enrico's outpouring of love. That was Pia.

The simple loving act on the part of each person present, as we slowly filed past and laid our single red roses upon the casket, before the beautiful, flower-bedecked photograph of Pia, expressed exactly what we all felt, and still feel in our hearts for Pia. Sometimes words are too limited. Pia knew this.

On the morning of Tuesday, October 31, as I was standing in Laura and Darlene's office chatting with them, Pia came in and joined in the talk. At one point, Pia laughed at something Laura or Darlene had said, and just then something about Pia caught my notice. There seemed to be something different about her. She seemed happy in a way I had not seen before. It was as though she had been freed of some burden she had been carrying. I don't know if it was my imagination, but she struck me then as so innocent, so childlike and so happy, that it left a lasting impression. I can still see that image of Pia in my mind's eye. I shall carry it with me always.

Around noon we walked to Espresso Royale for a cappucino and a poppyseed muffin, as we had not gone earlier that day, nor at all the day before. I don't remember what it was we talked about that day, but I do know that we took pleasure in each other's company, in simply being good friends. That could never change.

About 5:15, despite several of the computer systems being down, we both left work, in a hurry to get home because of Halloween. Pia was planning to take Valentina trick-or-treating in the costume she had made for her. On her way out, Pia came and stood at my door, to see if I was ready to leave, but I needed another minute to finish typing something, so Pia went ahead and left without waiting for me.

But as I was going to my car in the lot behind Davenport Hall, I looked across the street and saw Pia walking there. Despite the semi-darkness that had already fallen I could still see it was Pia. That parting glimpse of Pia in the early evening darkness was the last time I would see her alive.

At 5:20 the next morning, I received a call from the University Police, telling me the news that still seems unbelievable. That Pia's body had been found in a building on campus. I didn't want to believe it. I couldn't believe it at first. My heart goes out today to Pia's family, and to her many friends. What a loss it was!

But here, let me tell you a secret that I call Pia's secret. It is this: that Pia is not dead; that Pia could not be dead. Her physical body, sadly, yes. But Pia herself, her lively, caring, giving, joyful, loving spirit: never. No way. Not a chance.

This is not wishful thinking, fantasy nor religious dogma. It's Pia. And it's all of us. It's spirit. It's what we are.

A deranged person could hurt Pia's physical body, but he couldn't touch her spirit. Pia is as alive now as she ever was. She herself is just as real, even though we cannot see her with our earthly eyes. This is the secret of Easter. And this is Pia's secret.

The next night, in my home, in my sorrow, Pia was for a few moments there. She told me her secret, that she still lives, and that she loves us all. And that this will never change.

I know now, that whenever those who love Pia and whom she loves are in need of her help, of her loving touch, she will be there to help them, to comfort them. And if they are open to it, they will feel Pia's nearness and they will hear her comforting words deep in their hearts. She will always be there when they need her. That was Pia, and that is Pia.

Dear Pia, may you find your way upward to the Light!

your friend, Mark.