My Best Worst Day

I was sure that whatever was making my vision a little blurry would be rinsed away in the shower, and I could get on with my day. I had just gotten out of bed. I had to get breakfast, get dressed, and my wife and I had to get our six and three year old daughters off to school so we could each get to work. It was January 23, 2002.

I got into work, and it felt like I was looking through a piece of gray saran wrap. It wasn’t so much that my vision was blurry…it was dull. Whatever I thought would be rinsed away earlier was still there. I had my optometrist take a look. “Larry,” he said, “I want to send you to see someone else. There’s blood in your eye.”

I was in touch with my wife and my boss along the way to let them know what was going on. They were each appropriately concerned, and wanted me to keep in touch.

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The ophthalmologist pointed bright lights in my eye. Dye was injected into my veins. Snapshots were taken of my eyeball. “I need to do some more tests,” he said, “and I will call you at home tonight, but I think you had a stroke, a retinal vein occlusion.” I was 35 years old.

It was now about 3:00 in the afternoon, and I was close enough to work that I stopped in to check my voice mail (yes, we still did that in 2002). My boss was happy to see me, and was very sorry to hear I may have had a stroke.

I went to my office, and the director of Human Resources stopped in to see me. “Larry, I heard there was something wrong with your eye. Are you OK?” I explained everything that happened that day, and that I was sure I would be just fine.

But then she didn’t leave. She just stood in the doorway of my office.

“Is there something else I can do for you?” I asked.

“I’m here to let you go” she said.

Only four months after the horrific events of 9/11, our company was struggling as were so many other companies. Some of my friends had lost their job earlier that week. After working at the company for nine years, it was now my turn.

I have told this story dozens of times, and always the first response is “…and they still let you go? Even though they knew you had a stroke?!?”

Yes, they still let me go, and good for them for doing so. I was not bed-ridden, and they had to trim their staff rolls to remain a viable business. They gave me severance, out-placement support, and health insurance for several months. They did the right thing, for the right reasons, in the right way. And what a gift that was.

I could not be very concerned about my job loss, because I was so concerned about my vision. On the other other hand, I could not be very concerned about my vision because I was so concerned about finding my next job. My concerns cancelled each out quite nicely, thank you very much.

I was out of work for 13 months. As difficult as that time was, and as much as I did not want to be out of work, I came out ahead in almost every way.

  1. I got to spend more time with my daughters. I was able to be present, available and involved in ways that are so much more challenging when work took me away from home for 9 hours a day.
  2. Much to my surprise, I found that I enjoyed networking. I was good at it. I was fearless. I called people I did not know, and they actually met with me. I learned a lot about other people, and about myself. It was as a direct result of my networking efforts then that I am in the career I am in now, over 15 years later.
  3. I was more prudent in the way I spent money, and my wife was a vigilant bookkeeper. I did not need gas for a commute, I did not need to buy lunches with co-workers at the office. And while I did not enjoy collecting unemployment checks, somehow we got by, and we found ourselves still financially healthy by the time I went back to work.
  4. My wife and I have always been there for each other, but perhaps never more so than during my time out of work. She was there to support me, there to believe in me, there to encourage me. Her love and support felt nothing short of unconditional.

15 years later, I am in a career that I love, my family life is strong and happy, and I wear eyeglasses. I continue to try to grow and improve as a father, husband and professional every day, and I know I would not be where I am now in work or at home had it not been for the events of that very best of worst days.

The Day We Met Mavis

mavis_staples_1200In 2007, Mavis Staples released the album We’ll Never Turn Back, an amazing collection of civil rights anthems, updated to reflect the current struggles and concerns of African Americans in a post 9/11 America.

I first discovered Mavis Staples as a member of The Staple Singers, a soul group that found fame in the 1960’s with songs like “Respect Yourself,” “I’ll Take You There” and “Will the Circle Be Unbroken.” Mavis was the lead singer of this group that featured her father Pops on vocals and guitar, and her sister and brother singing backup. I will never forget the first time I saw them sing. They were featured in the Martin Scorsese documentary “The Last Waltz” about the last concert of The Band in 1976. A key segment of the movie features The Staple Singers singing with The Band on “The Weight,” a beautiful elegy about a drifter’s ongoing search for redemption and independence. Those careful watchers of the film notice that at the very end, after singing this classic rock song as if she was in church, Mavis can be heard quietly whispering “Beautiful!” as the scene fades to black.

Mavis Staples marched with Dr. Martin Luther King. She had a love affair with Bob Dylan, and turned down his marriage proposal. She has performed around the world, and is in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

We’ll Never Turn Back is a remarkable album, one that I found myself playing over and over again around our house in 2007. My wife Lynn and I both immediately fell in love with the album. My daughters, then only 12 and 9, suffered through repeated listening’s, and having to hear me tell them stories of The Last Waltz, and how Mavis was an important voice of peace and love during the 1960’s.

It was during this time that we returning from a family trip. Waiting for our bags at the airport baggage claim, Lynn overheard someone say “Please wait here Ms. Staples. We’ll get your bags.” Lynn told me what she heard, and before she had a chance to plead with me not to bother a celebrity who is just trying to get home, I walked over to this gentle, graceful looking 68 year old African American woman standing all by herself.

“Excuse me,” I said. “I am so sorry to bother you, but are you Mavis Staples?” She looked at me with a smile on her face and said “Yes.”

I smiled back and shook her hand. I told her how much I loved her music. I told her how much I enjoyed her new album, and how I first discovered her in the movie “The Last Waltz,” something I am sure she has heard thousands of times. She could not have been sweeter. She was warm, generous, and caring.

My daughters  looked across the baggage claim area and saw me taking to an elderly woman who they did not know. Naturally, they were curious, and they walked over to stand by me.

I noticed them standing next to me. I looked at my girls, and I looked at my wife. I looked at Mavis.

“Girls,” I said. “I would like to introduce you to Mavis Staples.”

They each smiled a big bright smile, looked at each other, looked at me, and looked at Mavis. Mavis gave them each a hug, asked them their names, and said how beautiful and sweet they both were.

I suggested to the girls we say goodbye, and let Ms. Staples get home.

This is not a remarkable story, but I like to think about that moment I got to introduce my girls to this civil rights leader and musical legend, and I hope it is something they remember, and something they treasure in fond recollection with their children and grand children. I hope they continue to listen to her music.

“Take a load off Annie
Take a load for free
Take a load off Annie
And you put the load right on me
(You put the load right on me)”