“One never knows how loyalty is born.” – Mad Men
I was scrolling through Facebook before bed last night, which is something I rarely if ever do, and I came across a post announcing that a former employee of mine had passed away in December.
The last time I saw her, she was sitting on the green couch in my office in Los Angeles trying not to cry as we spoke about her impending move to a new city.
She was one of the last people to warm up to me when I was hired as the Director of a disastrous nonprofit, and quite honestly it wasn’t until her final months working with me that I thought she could even stand me.
The memory that is surfacing as I type this is of her knocking on the door of my office to tell me that she was uncomfortable conducting a suicide assessment on a client and asked if I could help. After an hour of working with the client and completing the assessment, I returned to the mountain of paperwork on my desk. I heard another knock on my office door. She had returned to tell me that she had never seen anyone handle a situation quite like that. She asked how I knew what to say and how was I so comfortable? Whatever wall that had stood between us since I was hired began to melt.
This person who resisted all of my efforts to scale the organization who regularly dismissed protocol that she deemed unnecessary, and who just generally walked the other way when she saw me coming her way started sharing deeply vulnerable feelings. She would walk into my office with a question about paperwork, and we would end up cradled in the green cushions on my couch discussing our mutual disinterest in dating, the fact that neither of us had children, the difference between men on the East Coast versus men on the West Coast, and online dating. We even eventually discovered that we had mutual acquaintances.
We talked a lot about taking chances.
She knew that I had lived all over the country. In passing conversation a year earlier, I mentioned that I initially moved to California years earlier with no plan, no job, no friends, just a strong pull that this was where I needed to be. We agreed that this was our one and only life, and we should do what made us happy.
As the cancer progressed, I changed her work schedule. In reality, I kept her on the schedule, paid her the same, and scaled back her workload. I made sure to coincidentally have a practitioner available to offer Reiki, hypnotherapy, massage, or reflexology during gaps in her schedule. Initially, I could feel her resistance to these offerings, and I understood it to the best of my ability. I would prefer to crawl across hot broken glass than to ask anyone for help. I couldn’t imagine what this felt like for her. One day she knocked on the door of my office as I was about to leave and told me she didn’t feel well. She wanted to know if I could facilitate her support group for the evening.
“Of course. Go home. Get some rest. I’ve got this.”
Those were all the words I could choke out while blinking back tears.
We spoke later on that week at her request. She was hyper-aware of how her productivity had dwindled and offered to work less so that I could save money on salaries. I told her that everyone she worked with was concerned about her comfort, health, and happiness and that she shouldn’t worry about money because we certainly weren’t. I sat there with her in silence as she cried in my office. This is not a story of how benevolent I am or how willing she was to receive. This is a story of being painfully human, tripping over ourselves in these flawed bodies, manhandling our delicate egos, and our ever-surprising ability to connect with someone we would never choose out of a catalog.
She died the same day that I boarded a plane for Hawaii. Deep in my own angst and frustration surrounding life changes at the time, I couldn’t even enjoy the direction that I was heading in. I was moving to paradise with the love of my life, we were healthy, happy, together, and about to embark on an adventure that most would give anything to be able to do. And yet I remember that at the time, I couldn’t enjoy it.
As I sit here in the dark, listening to my partner make those sounds only he makes while asleep, I can’t believe how small my thinking is at times, how distorted my perception is and how wild this life can be.
I’m grateful to have known her, work with her, and to have been challenged by her. I’m grateful for the heartbreak of reality and gentle reminders to be where our feet are.