Chapter Twenty-One: The Work World
“Are you ready for your first day on the job?” My Dad boomed with a jolly grin plastered on his face.
I looked up at him with milk dribbling down my chin as my spoonful of cheerios hung in a precarious balance. I wiped my mouth and smiled shakily with wavering confidence. “You betcha!”
The truth was I had stayed up almost all night tossing and turning about how my first day on the job was going to turn out. I bought a new bundle of work clothes of black slacks and crisp, neutral-toned blouses over the weekend. I prepared my outfit and polished black bag with all that I needed the night before. I read and re-read about the nursing home, my job title, and the job tasks. Yes, I was prepared as could be physically, but I was a scared mess of knots on the inside.
“You’ll be fine,” my Stepmom assured encouragingly, “Just remember that it takes time to adjust to change. Most importantly, there is absolutely no need for you to say anything to anyone about your health stuff.”
“Yeah, I remember you guys telling me that. I don’t understand what the big deal is. My health is a big part of who I am, so why should I hide who I am?” I mumbled.
“Your health is your own business. No one else’s. Keep quiet, observe, learn, and do,” my Stepmom chanted like a calm Buddhist.
My Dad added, “You’ll find out about the real world, Mary. People judge. The world judges. They will see you differently if they know about your health and you don't want to be treated as different, do you? Keep your personal and professional lives completely separate. Yes, your health is just a part of who you are, but not who you are.”
I nodded robotically. I could not muster to eat any more cheerios because my nerves were tightening in my tummy. As I got up, gathered all my meticulously planned work items, and headed outside to my car, I had a feeling of déjà vu of my first day of school after my first kidney transplant and then my second kidney transplant, and finally college where I was about to embark on something brand new, exciting, scary, exhilarating, and nerve wracking all in one. Unlike the first day school episodes, though, my Dad was not standing there at the building to give me one more hug and wave to me with his infamous proud Papa grin. A strange feeling began to tickle at me and then spread over me when I arrived at the nursing home. I killed the ignition and the nursing home that overlooked the beautiful and glimmering Hudson River loomed over me. That tinkling feeling became even stronger, and I could only guess that this feeling was something called growing up or being a grown up. Gosh, if this was what growing up felt like then I just wanted to be a toddler again playing with my toys. I took a couple deep breaths and walked to the nursing home with my supposedly winsome smile and attitude that landed me this first job to begin with.
The first few hours were a complete daze to me with big smiles, lots of paperwork, and perky introductions. My two supervisors who were motherly and middle-aged or older gave me the grand tour of the nursing home. The nursing home had a cozy and home-filled feeling with antique and old-fashioned furniture and a mixture of fake and real flowers at almost every corner. There were glass windows all around, bragging of the breathtaking Hudson River view. Whenever my nerves tightened, I took a glimpse at that view and almost immediately calmed down. The nursing home consisted of four floors that required an activity leader to bring together and encourage the residents of their floor to such activities as Arts & Crafts, Bingo, Exercises, Reading Time, and more. I was most interested and excited about meeting the elderly residents that I was in charge of. The couple co-workers that I only briefly and quickly met were also middle-aged and looked dubiously at my small stature and supposed baby face. One of my soon-to-be co-workers asked me bluntly: “How old are you? You looked really, really young!”
One of my supervisors shot her this “look,” and I played it off with a joke. It quickly became clear to me that humor was a great diffuser to tense situations, as well as a defense mechanism to the real world and hard people who were quick to bring you down. When it was lunch time, I was ready to eat my own bagged lunch, when my co-workers said to me, “Oh, there’s no need to bring your lunch. We always get free food from the cafeteria. Come join us!”
I was grateful for the welcome wagon attitude, but started to feel awkward and went uncomfortably mute when all my co-workers and supervisors began to talk about their children or their shoes and nail polish colors. I just smiled and nodded like an idiot, but inside, I was starting to fall at the seams of feeling that same old feeling that I just never belonged anywhere and especially not around most girls who were fashionistas or mothers who hovered over their children like prized trophies.
As they talked, all I really wanted to go do was to sit in one of the cozy armchairs to gaze at the Hudson River or maybe even start to talk to some of the elderly residents.
Unlike most people that swooned, coddled, and found children endlessly adorable, I did not have an inkling of children love in me. Instead, I welcomed the elderly with their salt-and-pepper colored hair, wisdom that shined in their eyes, and life stories and experiences that I yearned to listen to and learn from. I waited as patiently as I could until my time came to learn what floor I was in charge of. One of my supervisors informed that me that I was the Activity Leader of the rehabilitation floor, which meant that most elderly individuals were there for a short period of time. It was difficult and nearly impossible to form long-term and meaningful relationships. There were a few elderly residents who had lived there for years due to the lack of space on the other floors. With the select few residents who were there for the long-term, I was to create group activities that included arts & crafts, group exercises, discussions, and music time.
In the first few weeks, I struggled with these elderly individuals and coordinating group activities because most of them perceived me as more of their granddaughter rather than any leader whatsoever. I was lucky if I managed to gather 1-3 people to come together to form and participate in any group activity. No matter how enthusiastic I was with Bingo, board games, and knitting books and supplies, my enthusiasm faded and was replaced with repulsion at the fact that these people were transformed into and treated as toddlers in the near ending years of their lives. Worst of all, I was encouraging that transformation.
There were many nights, I returned home with tears in my eyes and aggravation laced in my voice when I complained to my parents, “I can’t get them involved with these activities! I can’t be like a cheerleader like this for the rest of my life when I don’t even believe that what these people need is cheerleading! What these people need are for us to listen to them rather than them listening to us! When is it going to get better? What am I doing wrong? What the hell am I doing with my life?”
I continued to study and read up on the different activities and I even practiced them at home. I was caught at a crossroads of trying my hardest to do my job to the point of bringing the work and all the emotional baggage with me at home to wondering what was the point of trying when I did not even believe in my job and what I was doing with these elderly people. My parents sharply said to me, “You have to stop trying so hard! You have to stop caring so much! Don’t take it so seriously! It is a job! These elderly people and the people you don’t work with don’t care about you as much as you care about them!”
I sighed and pointed out, “Dad, you once said to me that the point of a job is to make a positive difference to society and that my gift is to help people. Am I really helping people when I don’t even believe in what I’m doing? How do I treat a job as just a job?”
My Dad paused. I could tell he was struggling to give me an answer because my Dad was the king of bringing his work home with him. Even after a long day at work, my Dad returned home to his basement man cave/work lair where he was either glued to the computer screen or television. I was starting to see that I was my Father’s daughter with caring and giving too much into work and people. My Dad finally stammered to me, “Just-just don’t be like me whatever you do. Don’t care so much about your job like I do. You will find sometimes that caring too much only hurts you, and you can’t afford to do that because you have to take care of yourself and your health. Remember to keep your eyes on the prize to keep trying and doing your best, but not go overboard, and that your introductory or probation period will be over in only a couple more months and you’ll have your health insurance.”
Yes, my health. Yes, my health insurance. My Dad was right, as always. I had to focus on the job and just doing my best without overdoing it, but no matter how much I tried, I could not do it. I was pulled in by my emotions time and time again when I went to work and reunited with my elderly residents. After the first month or so went by, I had formed a strong and practically unbreakable bond with some of them.
There was **Betty with her strands of silken gray hair in a tight ponytail braid and a New York Times newspaper gripped in one gnarled hand and a cane in the other hand. Whenever I saw her, she repeated to me as though she was saying it for the first time: “Mary, did you know that I had this really fancy apartment in the upper east side of New York City? One time I saw Eleanor Roosevelt roaming the streets of New York City. Oh, she was so lovely. I don’t care what people said about her that she was an ugly duckling. That FDR was one smart man for all he did and especially marrying a brains like Miss Eleanor. Remember that no one can take away your knowledge and brain. Read, read, read. Learn, learn, learn. And, most of all, live it up.” She giggled, gave me her creased newspaper to hold, and then found my hand and squeezed it tight as I helped her walk to her room.
There was **Jane with her tufts of white hair, clear blue eyes, and strong Irish accent that echoed in my ears of her childhood of growing up in Ireland. She was in a wheelchair and wheeled with her feet rather than her hands on the wheels because she did not want to mess up her painted nails. She loved painting her nails with pale pink or glittering silver. We often sat in her room as I painted her nails and she said to me in her melodic accent, “Mary is such a beautiful name. I think it is a popular Irish Catholic name. Are you Catholic? I know you aren’t Irish. Are you Chinese? Japanese? Korean? “
I chuckled. “Chinese.”
“Oh, that’s nice. Chinese are very smart. They were the first to make noodles and then Marco Polo went there and pasta came to Italy.”
I laughed. “You are right about that.”
When I finished painting her nails, she showed them off to me and then looked deep into my eyes with her piercing blue eyes and said, “Thank you for all you do. Just remember don’t get old. Stay young. Forever. Okay?”
“I wish I could,” I said.
“Oh, you are a pretty Chinese doll.” She put her cool wrinkled hands on my cheeks and then bent her face into mine until our foreheads touched.
There was **Judy with her fiery red hair, wrinkles, snappy and sharp attitude, and her dire wish to see her sons again and make amends for the unsupportive and soured mother that she once was. She practically roared at all of us on a daily basis: “My sons are coming for me! They love me! Don’t you forget that!”
We all nodded and then left her alone in her wheelchair for hours in the main lobby where she could see who was arriving at the nursing home. By the end of the day, no one visited her. She was stoic and icy cold whenever one of us wordlessly went to pick her up and then wheel her back to her room. I felt so bad for her and made a vow whenever I saw her that I would take care of and be there for my parents and especially my Dad—no matter what happened.
On one particular day, Judy was vulnerably silent as she stared out at the river view. As usual, everyone left her alone in fear of her short-temper and sharp words of steel. I had just had a failed attempt at trying to have my entire floor knit a project and so I needed to go for a walk and get some fresh air. I tentatively approached her and asked, “Are you okay, Judy?”
Her upper lip curled into a snarl. “Just fine. Who said otherwise?”
I just sat next to her in complete silence. Maybe five minutes passed by and she said coldly: “Shouldn’t you be with your group? Shouldn’t you be doing your job? You are an activity leader after all, although you look like you are 10-years-old.”
I didn’t say anything. I flashbacked to my failed experience and heard one of the residents shrill voice in my head: “Why do you even bother trying to get us involved in a group like with this stupid knitting when you don’t know anything about getting old or even knitting?” I shook my head, trying to erase the memory from my mind and let the mantra of “DO NOT CARE” repeat in my head. Without a doubt, the quality I hated the most about myself was that I cared too much because it only hurt me in the end and no one else.
“You know, I was a bad mother,” Judy confessed slowly. I wasn’t sure if she was talking to herself or to me because she was staring outside the window with this unreadable expression in her eyes.
“Time just keeps on going and going. Then, before you know it, you are old and in some home where you are treated like a little kid with bingo chips and construction paper. Nothing good to getting older. There isn’t anyone to visit you or care because people just do not forgive and forget even after all this time goes by,” Judy said bitterly, her eyes transformed into sharp slits and they began to fill up with tears. I wanted to say something comforting, but something told me just to leave her alone and to stay silent.
After what felt like an eternity but was probably only a couple minutes, Judy snapped at me, “Well, don’t just sit there like a piece of shit. Wheel me over to the smoke room. I need a cigarette.”
I obediently grasped her wheelchair and rolled her to the glass-encased room that was filled with billows of cigarette smoke. Judy and a few other residents went in there to fill their mouth and then their lungs full of nicotine. Watching Judy and the others in there and then the contrast of one of my co-workers doing group exercises or Simon Says with another group of elderly people turned a switch on in my mind that I knew that this job was not for me in the long-term. I was not a cheerleader that could continue on with this charade and façade of childproof activities with the elderly. I was someone that saw and felt the aches and pains that these elderly people went through. I was someone that wanted to fight for them and with them. I could not do what I did not believe in, no matter how much my parents words echoed in my ears about separating professional and personal. I sighed. Now, only time would tell how much longer I could last at this job.
As I became closer and closer to each resident and heard their complaints, thoughts, stories, and feelings, the distance with my co-workers and especially my supervisors widened. One of my supervisors said to me, “Mary, you are really good with all your residents. They love you a lot. But, it seems you are only good on a one-on-one basis, and your job is as a group or activity leader. Try to work on not getting too close to each person individually and getting them involved as a group.”
I took this constructive criticism to heart and continued to try to bring together my residents as a group Activity Leader. But, the more I tried, the worst it was. I continued to fail and fall into the comfort zone and routine of meeting with each resident individually to do an activity. I truly valued my moments with each person to the point that it finally reached a breaking point that I did not care that I was a failure at my job of “Activity Leader” as well as the black sheep within the crew of age 40+ co-workers with the exception of one co-worker who was only a couple years older than me, but she fit in more than fine with her high heels, nail polish color, and plucked eyebrows. Lunch times were the worst when all my co-workers gathered to talk about their children and soap operas, while I awkwardly smiled in silence and wallowed internally in self-pity that I did not seem to click or connect well at all with them. I soon learned that a job was not solely based on caring for the clients or consumers, but also and mainly about working well with co-workers and especially the supervisors. When I told my parents about this, they said to me: “Remember work world #1 rule of thumb that it is always about who you work with and for rather than the job itself. You have to find a way to play politics and beat the pressure.”
“But, I feel like I’m in high school all over again with the popular people versus me. What do I talk about? I can barely listen to them talk about shopping and soap operas, much less talk about those things.”
“Talk about your family or friends because then people learn a little bit about you, but not everything about you. Talk about the weather. Talk about food,” My Dad suggested.
“The weather? Are you kidding me?” I asked.
My Stepmom said, “Why do you need to talk? Just keep quiet, listen, and do your job.”
“But, if I don’t talk, then people think I’m weird and anti-social.”
“Who cares what people think?” My Dad and Stepmom said in unison.
I shook my head. They didn’t get it. I didn’t even get it myself. All I knew was that the level of discomfort was increasing at lightning speed around my co-workers and supervisors. Something was not right. Everything was wrong.
The frustration of not fitting in eventually got to me. I eventually stopped following my co-workers with eating the cafeteria food and joining them for lunch. I started to bring my own brown-bagged lunch and read a book by one of the dining tables closest to the view of the river. I thought I would feel lonesome doing this, but I wasn’t. I happily fell into this lunch routine, while making a point to cheerfully chat with my co-workers and supervisors in the morning when I arrived at work. I was starting to achieve a sort of balance. During my solo lunch times, I discovered a small group of guys from Poland who were on a work Visa to do construction at the nursing home. There were about two to three young men who were around my age and I quickly forged a tentative friendship with them where they tried to teach me how to say a couple words in Polish and I taught them a couple words in Chinese. I looked forward to spending time with them. They appeared rough and tough on the outside with grungy work clothes because of their manual labor work, but I had lots of fun with the language and cultural exchanges with them. When I was in the company of people who seemed foreign or different, I felt the same and normal. My co-workers looked at me strangely when they noticed that I chatted with them. The co-worker who was the closest in age to me asked: “Do you like one of the guys? Is that why you hang out with them?”
I gave her a funny facial expression and said: “I’m not interested in any of them. They are just fun to talk to.”
She shook her head at me, as though I was the most pathetic and strangest creature to walk the face of this planet. When I began to feel that tickle of panic that I had done something wrong by just spending time with these guys, I heard my parents in my head saying: “Who cares what people think?”
Almost towards the end of my probation period, I was getting accustomed to my own work routine when my supervisor reminded me that I had to receive a mandatory vaccine just like everyone else had already. I had completely forgotten about it and didn’t think too much about the vaccine. My supervisor joked with me, “Now, you aren’t scared of shots, are you?”
I laughed. If she only knew that I was all too familiar with needles.
I went to the nurse’s station. The nurse manager, **Bradley, brought me into one of the rooms filled with cotton balls and brightly colored health charts. I sat down comfortably, and then signed off on the form that I was authorizing to receive the vaccination.
“Not afraid of needles, are you?” Bradley teased while he prepared the vaccine and rubbed an alcohol pad on my upper left arm.
I smiled and shook my head. He uncapped the vaccine and in went the needle. I winced just a little. Bradley said, “Okay, all done. Off you go.” I was about to get up when an abrupt dizziness hit me like a ton of bricks. I nearly keeled over and intuitively grasped on to the chair to catch myself.
“Whoa, whoa….are you okay?” Bradley asked, taking my other hand that I had naturally pressed against my head from the dizziness.
My head felt like it was spinning on its own. I sat down, took a deep breath, and thrusted my head in my hands to try to stop the dizziness. “I just feel a little woozy….”
Bradley said he was going to get me some juice, but the cloudiness that had invaded my head was slowly dissipating. I got up and shook my head to clear the foggy feeling. Everything was clear and back to normal again. I was back in the little office where I had the vaccine. Bradley was there with me with concern and worry engraved on his face. He asked: “Are you sure you are okay?”
The next thing I knew what was happening, a tumble of words cascaded out of my mouth without me thinking: “Well, you know, maybe the vaccine didn’t really agree with me because of my meds that I’m on for my kidney transplants and all that…”
I stopped in mid-sentence. Shit. Loud silence filled the room. Bradley immediately asked with alarm in his eyes: “Wait, you had kidney transplants?”
I thought, “Oh, shit, how am I going to play this one off?” My chest began to constrict and the nerves that I was all too familiar with when I didn’t know what to do or say appeared and clamped in my stomach. All I could hear in my head were my parents telling me that I should absolutely and under no conditions tell anyone at my job about my chronic kidney failure and two kidney transplants. My Dad's voice rang in my head: "Mary, people judge...the world judges...you don't want the world seeing you and then purposefully treating you different, do you?" I wanted to scream at myself right then and bang my head against the wall at my stupidity, but I forced myself to take a deep breath, smile nonchalantly, and say casually: “Oh, yeah.”
He gave me this look that I was about to break into a million pieces in front of him. He was fearful. He was scared. I was hoping that this would be the end of the conversation with Bradley, but he kept on grilling me with such a force of questions that it was slowly becoming clear to me that there was a concern now more for himself than for me and whatever dizzy spell had just occurred as well as my complex medical history. He asked me such questions as: “How many kidney transplants did you have?,” “When did you have them?,” “Why did you need kidney transplants?” The bombarding list of questions continued on and I was short-answered, while still trying to keep cool and calm. I finally asked him at the end of his unending questions: “Why are you so curious?”
He played the same game as me with a half-smile, cool demeanor, and shrugged: “Oh, just curious.”
I said with a smile, but as firmly as I could muster, “That’s cool. Just so we know that it is between you and me about my health.”
He chuckled uncomfortably and then said: “Oh, yeah, yeah, absolutely!”
“Cool. Don’t worry about me. I’m not like glass that is going to break. I just had some health stuff, but everything is good now.”
He laughed nervously and boisterously, and continued to chirp like a bird: “Oh, yeah, yeah, absolutely!”
I didn’t understand why he was acting so weird about my health. Then, that night, I was still internally bashing myself at how much of an idiot I was that I did not even check with my nephrologist if I could take whatever vaccine was swimming around in my body AND that I had slipped and revealed my health history. I didn’t even tell my parents that I accidentally told Bradley about my kidney transplants because I was so wrapped up in my shame and stupidity or sharing such a personal side to myself. Then, another voice came into my head that I should not make a big deal about this. Bradley wasn’t going to tell anyone. Who was he going to tell and what did he have to gain by telling people about my health? And, so what if he did go ahead and tell others? What’s the worst thing that could happen? Wouldn’t all my co-workers and supervisors see me as a brave, strong survivor for all I had been through and yet I managed to live and lead my life as normal as can be with getting through school and now a full-time job thanks to my precious kidney transplants? All my health experiences had not prevented or stopped me from working my damn hardest on the job. I was a good and hard worker and that was all that mattered on the job. I had never once brought my personal health experiences to work, and I was never going to do that in the future at this job or any other job at this matter. I muttered to myself as I tossed and turned in bed, “Let it go, Mary. Everything’s okay.”
The next day, the same daily work routine ensued. No one said anything about my kidney transplants and the dizzy spell I had. And, the day after that was the same routine. I tried to read into my co-workers and supervisors possibly treating me any different since the incident with Bradley, but, as far as I could tell, they treated me the same with their continued connection as I was the outsider looking in. By the end of the week, I breathed a sigh of relief that Bradley had kept it to himself about what happened. But, then, all hell broke loose when I was summoned into my supervisor’s office in regards to how I had done on the job these last three months as the introductory or probation period. I went into her office with a bright and confident smile that I was now finally going to have my health insurance and my steady full-time job was about to be solidified with my supervisor’s stamp of approval. My shoulders slumped with sadness and the smile disappeared once I saw my supervisor’s dismal expression on her face. I knew before she had to tell me that I was fired.
My supervisor stuttered through surface explanations that there were going to be cutbacks in the Activity Department and it saddened her to let me go, especially when it was clear how much the residents valued all my hard work and how much I cared for each of them. I barely heard her explanations. All I believed was that I was being fired because I had failed as a group Activity Leader, yet succeeded as a supposed individual counselor to each elderly resident that I forged a bond with. The blame game started up in my mind that I had lost my chance at a steady, full-time job with health insurance and that I had taken this job far too seriously and personally. I had cared too much and caring too much bit me in the ass. Then, I was hammered with angry thoughts that maybe I had lost this job because they knew about my health history and so they were finally letting me go because I was a formality or someone that would just rack up their billing department to take care of me with full-time health insurance coverage.
After the news that I was let go, I could not even bear to see the residents that I had cared for: Judy, Betty, Jane, and many, many more. I could not bear to say farewell to the guys from Poland that I had befriended. It ached and hurt me too much to say good-bye to the people I had cared so much for, because caring only seemed to hurt me in the end. And, so, I walked out of the nursing home with the Hudson River lapping behind me and without a second glance behind me.
As I drove back home, I thought about this work world. I thought about how this work world did not allow feelings or emotions. All that mattered was getting the job done. All that mattered was being some kind of robot, and that caring too much was the biggest mistake that you could make in this work world. I returned home to my parents who were beaming with joy that I finally had my full-time job and health insurance, but they saw easily and instantly from my face that I did not have good news.
“What’s wrong? What happened?” My Dad asked worriedly.
I had been holding back the tears ever since I lost my job. I finally burst out crying and practically wailed, “I was fired!”
I babbled on about my horrible mistake of telling Bradley about my health and about the dizziness I experienced, and how I had massively failed by letting my emotions get in the way of doing my job. I could tell that my parents were devastated with my job dismissal, but they were immensely and immediately supportive with feeding me sympathetic truths and philosophies of how young I was and that this job was not meant to be. Though they kept hushed with blaming me for the loss of my first job from my big stupid mouth and though I was not able to prove that I was dismissed because my personal health problems were seen as formalities, I learned a hard and harsh lesson that the work world was a reality that was unprotected, unpleasant, and unsafe compared to the college campus. This world stated clearly that fast thinking in unpredictable situations, good talk with various people, and hard work and competence were the winners over completed school assignments. I suddenly felt as though my three and a half years at university were a complete waste of my time. Most of all, the work world held up to what my parents told me: Nothing compared to life experience and working gave all the life experiences the school did not give.
“There is always tomorrow,” Dad stated clearly and with bravado, “You’ll find a better job that fits you, and where you don’t have to be an ongoing and forced cheerleader. Remember that life does not always go according to plan. We try the best we can.”
My Stepmom’s encouraging smile matched my Dad’s enthusiastic and upbeat behavior. I looked glumly back and forth between them, said I was tired, and dragged myself upstairs to my bedroom. In my head, I kept hearing my Dad’s words like a broken record: “Life does not always go according to plan.”
Yes, I thought bitterly as I sank in my bed with my wet face stuffed into my pillow, life does not always go according to plan. I knew that ever since I was born and diagnosed with chronic kidney failure. Yes, I wanted to say to life, tell me something that I was clueless about. Tell me that real world and real life is easy like when I was in the safe vicinities of school where teachers told me what to do and where I could whip out a textbook or google an answer. Tell me that I can overcome all this real life normal work stuff just as supposedly easy it was for me to overcome one health experience after another since childhood. No job. No health insurance. All my cares, concerns, energy, and efforts these past three months to this job and nothing to show for it and no benefits to reap. My kidneys and health hanging in a questionable balance if I could make everything last before I obtained another job and dire health insurance. Yes, I was a loser in this work world and reality gig, and missed my winning years when I was in school or even when I was in the hospital and seen as some pint-sized hero. I missed being a kid so bad that I hurt all over. Yes, life does not go according to plan. Yes, Life, please tell me: Now What?
**denotes fake name to protect privacy of individual