Jedah Mayberry was just about to start a sales presentation when he found out a co-worker and team member had died. What do you think you would have done next?
I experienced something the other day that gave me new perspective on the criticism President Bush took for his delayed response upon being notified, surrounded by a classroom full of elementary school students, of the 9/11 attacks.
I am a writer though I keep a foot firmly planted in my day job. The job gives rise on occasion to travel to our office on the West Coast. I was in the Bay Area the other day, working alongside one of my San Jose counterparts to configure a customer demo to accompany a discussion taking place in an adjoining conference room, when my coworker asks, “Who is So-and-So?” I’m thinking to myself, So-and-So works on my team in Austin. Why would he ask that?
My shoulders tensed as he proceeded to read the email sent company wide, sitting open on his computer screen: “Sad news… So-and-So has died unexpectedly.”
I stepped out and called my boss back home to confirm. Sure enough, someone on my team was found dead in his condo after another team member, concerned that no one had seen him, prompted the concierge at the downtown high rise where he lived to go up and check on him.
I walked back as the conference room full of customers began filing into the demo area. My West Coast counterpart and I proceeded to show our wares. We wrapped up our presentation and I jumped in my rental car and headed back to the airport. This is where I began to appreciate George W’s dilemma. I am not nor have I ever been tasked with leading the free world. The tragedy in my world undeniably took place on a much smaller scale than those stemming from the attacks perpetrated on 9/11.
So-and-So was a regular-Joe, a guy whose office sat a couple, three doors down from mine, a member of my team. Still, confronted with news that admittedly rocked me, I felt obliged to press on. Perhaps it’s the protector/provider instinct that compels us in a leadership position to hold a steady course. As men, we compartmentalize our emotions, pin them somewhere inside our subconscious to deal with in our own time. My thoughts shifted to the team back in Austin, the ones who sat alongside him too. I wondered how they were coping confronted by the same email, contemplated what I might say to comfort them, to encourage them to move on from their piece in our shared tragedy.
We might all take this time to count our blessings, to consider that it wasn’t a loved one, a family member who passed away. But, given how much time we spend at work, it’s inevitable that we form relationships with our coworkers. And as coworkers go, I consider us a pretty tight-knit crew. So-and-So in particular made strides to foster close associations within the team. He kept a candy dish and a tray of cookies on his desk to lure conversation. He made the morning coffee for the office, even the octane he didn’t necessarily drink. It was his way of connecting with the people around him without getting all blubbery about it.
He was an avid moviegoer, a huge Philadelphia Eagles fan. He reserved a portion of his Saturday afternoon to catch the latest release at one of those full-service draft cinema houses. We commiserated midway through the season as his Eagles shared time in the basement with my Giants. When the lowly Eagles beat the lowly Giants earlier this year, I had to force him to admit that the victory was nothing to boast about. When the Eagles returned the favor a few weeks later, I had to admit the same to him. It was a small defeat for us both. The Eagles have since found their stride. They aren’t a lock, but they stand a good chance at making the playoffs. I recall that only a couple of years back the Giants limped into the post-season only to go on a tear culminating in a Super Bowl victory. With any luck, the Eagles can do the same this season. So-and-So would be delighted.
I keep expecting to see him sitting at his desk, one of his snarky comments percolating in his head. (He sent away for and proudly sported a South Butt jacket as a way of poking fun at the outdoor gear and apparel company. To what end? None of us is certain though we accepted it as part of his character.) It’s like somebody broke in and stole something: a hardcover copy of my favorite book, skipped town after borrowing a set of my best power tools, made off with my new game console, a tangle of wires left dangling from the middle of my entertainment center to remind me what’s missing. It’s a hollow feeling, even when mourning the loss of a coworker.
I leave you with a photo So-and-So took from the balcony of his penthouse apartment. He’d invite people from the office every July 4th to watch the fireworks display with him, again his way of reaching out, of feeling less disconnected in the world. Rest in peace, old friend. I’ll keep an eye on the Eagles for you.
Sun-rise, Moon-set overlooking Lady Bird Lake, Downtown Austin, TX
Photo of George Bush / AP