What we leave behind

Once upon a time I worked a good little job in a bizarro non-profit. The characters in this story are beguiling. As with many plot lines, my employment with this organization turned out to be a story of good versus evil.

The slimy, no-good, bad guys were everything you’d associate with the kind of organization I was working for. From what I could tell, corruption started at the top and snaked its way through the handsomely paid thugs and through to the fearful, nepotistically appointed drones. It was a time fraught with alleged federal violations, federal investigations, and lawsuits brought against the organization by disenfranchised employees.

My stint with the organization ended swiftly. Not only did I not drink the Corruption Kool-Aid, but I also made the mistake of aligning myself with the good guys. It was Halloween day when I was told my department was being “downsized” and my services were no longer needed. The woman who delivered this news had been costumed as a witch earlier in the day, but had changed into proper professional wear to tell me I was shit-canned. I remember thinking, as I tightly smiled through the exchange, that she needn’t have bothered with the costume change.

I was offered a severance package. If I took my employer’s cash, I needed to sign a legal document agreeing to never again so much as whisper the organization’s name. I refused. Instead, I made a call to a federal agency. I handed over documents, calendars, and answered all the investigative questions I could. When I’m fighting for something I believe to be right, I can be a real pain in the ass to those on the wrong side of the law (or whatever).

Later, I testified in front of a U.S. Grand Jury regarding the organization’s president. I’m pretty sure the guy got away with everything. Even later, I would sit in courtrooms and listen to plaintiffs’ attorneys make their cases against the organization’s leader. Plaintiffs’ payouts were deserved and plentiful. The president, years later, was eventually flushed out of the organization. I’m told he’s retired. To this day, when the former president’s name is spoken in certain circles, it is spat from one’s mouth. Dirty words, if you will. Hes left behind a trail of lies and cheating and misdeeds not soon to be forgotten.

If I weren’t worried about being sued, I’d share the entire story in vivid detail. It’s a really juicy, soap-opera kind of story. It’s a case of You Can’t Make This Stuff Up.

My time with this employer and the ensuing fallout finally came to end a couple years after my dismissal. But, the story doesn’t stop there.

The good guys

The reason I started this story by telling you about the bad guys is because those scoundrels provide incisive contrast to the heroes who worked at this not-to-be-named organization.

The heroes are the people who showed up every morning and put in an honest day’s work, even when they knew they were being bad mouthed, lied to, thrown under the bus. While resentment and anger sometimes surfaced in the face of all the unfairness, those people still did the right thing. They fought for the people we were supposed to be serving through our work. And the good guys stuck together. They still stick together.

After I left the organization, my manager and I remained friends. We’ve spent a lot of time together over the years antiquing, sharing good food, and laughing. While she, too, was downsized by our employer about a year after I was, she’s returned. And she’s working under honest leadership. The good finally triumphed.

I’ve seen some of the other characters, the good characters, off and on throughout the years. There’s the euchre club that got going. I showed at a couple of those game nights. Even though I have a fervent dislike of card games, the people got me there. One of the really good guys died a couple years after my exit. And the good group gathered to mourn and see this funny, beloved man off to his next life.

A couple of the guys from work formed a band – one sang and played guitar, the other harmonica. My friend and former manager at Bizarro World, on a night shortly after I had filed for divorced, took me out to see the band perform. It was then that I reconnected with good guys Brad and Mike, and connected with the band’s lead guitarist – my future second husband, as it turns out.

An ending of sorts

Over the next couple years, as a groupie and girlfriend, I spent some time with my former colleagues. Whenever I walked into the bar, I was always warmly greeted. Brad, a big guy with an even bigger heart, would give me a big bear hug. He looked like Mr. Clean, minus the earring. Given his stature and look, he could have been scary. He was anything but. He cheered people on, spoke his truth, teased me whenever he got the chance, and played a mean harp. He seemed to genuinely enjoy his time on the planet and the people he surrounded himself with.

Later this week, I’ll be attending Brad’s funeral. A car accident. Pronounced dead at the scene. Two miles from home. He was about to turn 57.

I didn’t know Brad that well. He was among the ranks of those unfairly ejected from his job with the bizarro employer, and he left before I did. Once I started hanging out with the band, I got to know him better. It was easy to be drawn in by his benevolent soul.

My fiancé, Joe, spent all kinds of time with Brad playing music and having fun. Joe’s heartbroken about the loss of his friend. Sadder still, that the band members went separate ways over the last year or so. It seems like foolishly lost time. I’m sad for Joe, and I’m sad I didn’t know Brad better. I’m sad that in the last year or so, I didn’t see this teddy bear of a man more, didn’t go to venues to watch him groove to the music he was making.

What do we leave behind?

I was on the fringe of Brad’s life, though whenever I saw him he always made me feel as if I were a bright spot in his day. Because I didn’t know Brad in a big way, I can’t write about him in a big way. I can and will remember the nuances of the minutes we spent together, marvel at the friendship he showed me whenever we found ourselves in the same space, pay tribute to all that was between the lines – which is immeasurable and exceptional and for which I have no words.

I have an idea of some of what Brad has left behind to his wife and family, to his friends, to the high school students he went on to teach, to his community. His Facebook page is lit up with all that he left behind – words, videos, and pictures posted tell Brad’s story.

I know the good, important stuff Brad left behind for me, brief as our time together was. Even though my brain is fogged over with sadness and my heart bruised with loss, I am left to wonder, what am I leaving behind? Will it be as good and true as what Brad gave?

While I try to stay connected with all those I love, I slip sometimes. When I allow myself to be sucked into the bleakness of my work days, I wonder what the hell I’m doing. I know the work bullshit – past, present, future – is insignificant. No one is going to remember that I fought a valiant war to end Decorative Capitalization or that I wrote an excellent piece on pain management.

When I yell at my kiddo, or say something too sharply to my guy, what have I really done? When I pass on time spent with my family because I don’t feel I have the time to make the 3-hour round trip, what am I missing? What am I leaving behind? Will people say that I always thought I was too busy? Or will they say that I, too, made them feel as if they were the bright spot in my day? Will they say I was a great friend? A good partner and devoted mom?

It takes so little to leave an impression on those around you. To extend a hand to someone who needs it. It costs nothing but a little time to call a college friend you haven’t checked in with in months, but heard via Facebook that she’d had a scare with cancer. It takes 2 hours of TV time during the week to volunteer for kids who might otherwise go hungry at night. You can say “I love you” in the blink of an eye.

And, in a mere moment you can give someone a Brad-style bear hug – you can hug someone like you really mean it.

That’s the kind of stuff I want to leave behind.

Rest peacefully, Brad Foltz. It was a true honor. And, for those of you out there I haven’t hugged in a while – watch out.

What will you leave behind?