In 1983, I was managing a shoe store in San Bruno. On the last weekend in October, I was in Santa Rosa visiting my family and staying in my old room at my parents' house. On Halloween night, I went to bed with a stomach ache. I thought I'd eaten something I shouldn't have, but it got so painful in the night that my mom drove me to the hospital emergency room. Before I really knew what was happening, I was admitted, anesthetized, and under the knife for an appendectomy.
I was in the hospital for several days, and then I came home to stay with my folks while I recuperated. I was in pain whenever I tried to move, so I didn't try to move. It wasn't the pain itself that kept me immobile, but the fear that I was doing further damage. I thought I could feel the tissue tearing, and that scared me. I was in contact with my store, and my employees assured me that everything was going well and I should concentrate on feeling better.
After a couple of weeks, my boss came knocking at the door. He'd never done this before, and I knew I was in trouble. He tried to be gentle about it, but he was firm. I had to get back to work, he said, because the people who worked for me looked to me for guidance. They weren't a very disciplined bunch in the best of circumstances, and without me they had no one to rein them in when they started following their natural inclination to regard our customers as an inconvenience, and putting away stock as a nuisance. Even if I couldn't do the work physically, he said, I had to be there.
I was stunned. I'd never been talked to that way in my adult life. It's the kind of lesson you expect to get when you're a child, the kind you listen to but don't really absorb. If you're really young, it doesn't have any meaning, because responsibility is a concept that you don't grasp until you realize that other people are affected by your actions, and that that matters. If you're a teenager, you nod and roll your eyes, because no one knows more than you do.
Well, that's how I was, anyway. At the same time that I was most insecure and unhappy, I was certain that I knew the way of the world, a world I hadn't even entered yet. But if you were not the center of your own universe when you were young, good for you.
My boss got through to me with his speech, and not just because he was paying my salary. It shocked me into adulthood, making me aware that other people depended on me, and that my actions had an impact. I wrapped up my convalescence and hobbled back to work. I wasn't ready to do much, but I observed the way my employees reacted to my return, and saw that my obligations went beyond my own small corner of the world.
They had lapsed into a kind of controlled anarchy in my absence. Even though (or perhaps because) I injected some discipline into their society, they were glad to have me back. We got back on track almost immediately. Penny remembered to control her natural tendency to be rude to people. Toni remembered to show up on time. Jess remembered not to wander off into the mall whenever he saw one of his friends. Ben remembered that keeping the stock in order was the key to finding what the customer wanted.
And I remembered that I have to suck it up and do what needs to be done, however rotten I feel. That's exactly how I feel today, looking at the week ahead. It would be so easy for me to do what I've done this weekend, and pamper myself until I'm fully recovered. But I have duties that no one else can do, and when you're a grownup, you don't wait for someone else to take up the slack. You do your job, and then you do a little more. I'm conscious of my physical limitations, more now than ever, but I'm also aware of what I can do, even if I have to push myself to do it.