I didn’t want to be there.
This was his battle, not mine.
I didn’t work there. I was not their employee.
“I need you there,” he’d stated the night before and I knew why.
We both knew why.
You see, chemotherapy can do a number on a person’s memory and retention and when they’d called him in their office that day, he was sure he was being let go, but they didn’t do it. Instead, they’d asked him how he thought they could accommodate his limitations in his job and they’d discussed disability insurance and some other options, but once he left the office some of what they’d just said hadn’t been clear and he wasn’t exactly sure of their intentions. He wanted me there for support and to help clarify their explanations of extended benefits and insurance.
They scheduled a meeting for the next day, in which the social worker would be present, so he was certain they were finally terminating him, a possibility he’d been fearing for months.
Yes, months. Months while his blood pressure increased steadily under stress and he now needed to take medication. Months when his boss and the Human Resource director continually said things like, “We want to keep you on full-time,” and “This is to protect you,” when he knew darn well it was to protect them. Months when he had to endure indignities like being taken off of driving and lawn mowing. Months that he continued to work diligently, as he had been in the four years since his cancer treatment, and earned performance-based pay raises for. Months in which he was lied to about their intentions and even in the methods they were using to get what they wanted.
To get rid of him.
I don’t envy them their job. They must have to harden their hearts somewhat in order to be able to perform the unpleasant task of letting a good employee go.
But my husband wanted me to be with him when it happened, and I did not like that idea at all.
You see, under duress, I am not verbally adept. I am good at writing and will write ten letters before I make one phone call. I am getting better at public speaking and doing readings but faced with the kind of stress I expected in that office, I was afraid I would stutter, sputter, and generally make a fool of myself if I were to speak.
But I knew I needed to be there for my husband as a support system and thought I could just listen and take notes as they spoke.
During David’s cancer treatment I learned how important it was for him to have a support person in the room with him. Cancer is a devastating disease and the treatments can be harsh. When a doctor tells a patient they have cancer or informs them of the next painful or invasive test they will be performing, the patient might not catch the rest of what is being said after that because they are centered on that one single statement from the doctor. They miss things. That is why it is important they have someone else there to take notes or to listen to everything that is being discussed. I was that person for David during his treatment and it had an astounding effect on our marriage. I can honestly say that for the first time in our 27 years of marriage we became true partners. That partnership continues today.
So when he asked me to be there I knew I had to do it, but I was certain they would not allow it. If he brought me to the office the next day, it would start the meeting out in a confrontational tone and they would have every right to refuse to allow my presence. Instead, I told him to call the social worker that night and he did. He explained the after-effects of chemo and how he needed me to be there to take notes and to help him keep things straight.
How could they say no to that, this workplace that advertises themselves as a caring, good neighbor to all their residents and employees?
So I was there. We waited a good ten minutes because the others were delayed. In that time several of David’s co-workers passed him in the hall, joking good-naturedly with him. One, a tiny woman I could only describe as cute, asked me if I was there to apply for a job and mentioned she’d seen my name in the paper the day before pertaining to essays I had coming out in two books this month. “I’m not here for anything quite so pleasant,” I answered, and then I took a good look at her name tag. Her name was Sharon.
“Are you the Sharon that sent my husband a card every single week during his cancer treatment?” I asked, and she nodded in assent.
“Then let me give you a hug, because that meant so much to him,” I told her, and we hugged. Sharon had gone through chemotherapy before David. She knew what it was like. She, too, has some long-term effects from her treatment including nerve damage in her arm. I knew it was not coincidence that of all the more than 100 employees it would be her we would see before this meeting. I felt my confidence soar a little. Someone was looking out for us, someone who was reminding me of how many good people there are.
We were escorted into the office by David’s boss shortly after that, and waited another ten minutes alone. I’d forgotten to eat breakfast and I felt like I was going to be sick.
Then I held David’s hand and I prayed. I prayed that I would be the support he needed and that he would handle this alright. I thought of all the people we knew who had lost jobs and all those throughout the United States in this tough economy who were facing the same thing. I thought of my brother who recently had to take a cut in pay to keep his job and an acquaintance who’d lost his job the week before. David was certainly not alone in facing unemployment. And this was not unexpected, either, as it had been brewing for months. I prayed again before the three people who would be deciding David’s fate entered the office.
At first I was very quiet as they discussed various alternatives to accommodate David’s position. I briefly contemplated the fact that I might be wrong, that we might be wrong and they were going to keep him on. Then it slowly dawned on me as they began discussing why they couldn’t make those accommodations that they had no intention whatsoever of continuing his employment.
I started speaking and it was as if someone else was speaking; someone very articulate and calm, someone with a great deal of knowledge on how inefficiently they had handled this whole “witch hunt.” I remembered thinking to myself as I talked, Wow, who is that talking and how did she get so good at it? I questioned the human resource director about her recent spate of lies to my husband and she denied having lied, despite the fact that the dates on the fax she insisted she’d just gotten just last week showed she’d had it for a good two weeks while she repeatedly told my husband she hadn’t gotten it. I saw my husband’s back go straighter as I talked while the others in the room stumbled on their answers and lame excuses. I questioned all of them about taking my husband off of driving for a complaint that was eight months old before they addressed it. I was not angry. I didn’t lose my temper or call them names. I was pointing out inconsistencies in their stories and holding them accountable for how they had treated my husband, the husband I saw coming home from a hard day’s work, day after day, the husband who continued to do a job despite his fatigue and the difficulty of it. The husband who a year ago actually believed their greatest concern was for him, but who gradually saw the agenda behind their ill-conceived methods of testing him and chipping away at his job duties until there was nothing left and they could say, “Sorry, we didn’t want to do this, but there isn’t a job for you here anymore.”
Only they didn’t say they were sorry.
Or explain their deceit.
Instead they handed him a paper that terminated his employment and in the last paragraph thanked him for his years of service (almost 13) and kindly asked him not to set foot in the place for six months.
“I’m being banned from the home?” he asked incredulously.
“That’s just our policy,” the HR director said, and then to pacify him,”But after six months you are welcome here.”
And the woman with my husband, the woman I no longer recognized as myself, said “Good. Because David has a lot of friends here and people he cares about.”
And that was it. David’s boss was supposed to walk him out to the door but he straggled far behind and I actually felt sympathy for him. He had worked with David for almost 13 years and he knew David was a good man and a hard worker.
Throughout the rest of the day yesterday David would spontaneously stop and give me a hug, or grab my hand and thank me. I was almost embarrassed by his sweet displays of affection.
Wasn’t he supposed to be feeling miserable and beaten down? And what was he thanking me for?
He hadn’t slept well the night before so when he went upstairs to take a nap I asked our oldest son what it meant that David kept thanking me.
“Don’t you see, Mom? Don’t you know what you did for him?”
I didn’t. Not really.
“By calling them out on what they had done and how they had treated him you did something he could never do. He didn’t want to lose his job for insubordination and so he continued to treat them with respect , even when he knew they were lying to him. Because you were there at his side and with your words, he could leave with dignity. He hadn’t done anything wrong. You gave him the gift of a dignified exit.”
Termination of employment. Cancer survivors know that the termination of a job is not the worst thing that can happen in anyone’s life.
David survived cancer. Together, side by side, we will survive this.
And those words I spoke in that meeting?
I will always believe they were inspired by my prayers beforehand.