This is a true story.
Walking along the ocean on a summer day, I nearly walked into a woman who worked where I work but in a different department. I hadn’t seen her for a while and recollected that I should be feeling a little guilty as she was leading a committee that I was supposed to be an important member but I had yet to attend a meeting.
Our greeting was a little strained, awkward I’d say. I thought she was mad because I’d blown off her meetings despite numerous reminders.
I did what I always do when I’m at fault: “Hiiiiii!!! It’s great to see you! Wow!!!! It’s been a while!!” with a really big, forced smile.
It wasn’t well received. She barely looked at me, sighed a lot and said she was doing all right.
Eeesh, I was notorious for blowing off meetings! Why was she acting like it was all personal? I didn’t really know her well but we’d always been superficially friendly. An uncomfortable silence began to uncomfortably lengthen as she scanned the horizon.
I started to feel pretty guilty. Here was a woman who took the time to organize a monthly meeting, send out at least 50 reminders and block off my “meeting maker” on my work calendar (a feat I had yet to figure out) and I’d blown her off a minimum of three times (maybe more, I will also admit I deleted her e-mails without reading them).
I had no recourse, my behavior was rude, an apology was called for. “Look,” I began sheepishly, “I’m sorry—” and that’s as far as I got when she cut me off.
“It’s been hard, really hard (sigh), I know it was wrong (sigh), we were wrong! And we got caught! (sigh). I get all that (sigh), I really do.”
—really, really sorry…” I ended lamely.
Well… this had become rather awkward!
She grabbed my hand with both of hers and looked at me. Oh no! There were tears in her eyes! My gut was telling me this wasn’t about her stupid committee. My smile went from really big and fake to really sympathetic and fake. I was casting about for memories of our superficial conversations and was coming up blank! There was nothing I knew of this woman that gave me the slightest clue of what she was talking about!
My only recourse was to nod sympathetically. Wrong! It encouraged her to keep talking!
“I’m over the shock of it…and the depression…my mother was really worried…but I’m okay now… (she gave my hand an extra squeeze as my head bobbed up and down faster–maybe if I nodded faster she’d wrap up quickly!)
“Sometimes you need to do something really stupid to learn what’s important, right?” (another heartfelt hand squeeze)
I decided to start shaking my head instead of nodding. A “No” signal might indicate I wanted to end this conversation. Wrong again!
“Sometimes the hardest lessons are the ones you never want to learn.”
Good grief! Had she just put down a self-help booklet?
“Luckily I’ve been reading some really helpful books and I have some friends who were able to help me get my old job back…(I kept up the frantic shaking of my head–I must have looked like I was watching a manic ping-pong match)…so now I have the reverse commute,” she said with a sad smile.
“Well, I’m glad things are a little better now,” I extracted my hand and patted her shoulder, by the way, I was still shaking my head.
“I’ve been thinking of you and I know you’ll do great!” was my lame sign-off and it became even lamer when I saluted her and marched away, no actually I ran away in flip-flops.
What else could I do??? It was way too late to say, “I have no idea what you’re talking about!”
Clearly she was decimated by a terrible thing she had done at work and thankfully she was moving on. I didn’t want to distress her further by
1. making her fully relive the tale or
2. let her know she’d just revealed something she may not have wanted others to know.
Back at work I found the one person who I knew would know what happened. I relayed my story and confessed I had no idea the poor woman had been fired and wasn’t sure if it was known what happened throughout the workplace. I got the details which were funny–hilarious actually if you weren’t the one involved in the situation.
Let me guess, you’re thinking some sordid affair, a tawdry romance that either got caught by a co-worker or captured on camera, right? That was my number one.
How about stealing from the workplace? She worked in a department where she could possibly liberate property and goods that she might sell on e-bay or by word-of-mouth. That was my second thought. I was tapped out after those two ideas.
Well, how about a conference phone call gone horribly wrong? She and her buddy co-worker on a conference call with their district manager. The women at my place of business assumed their district manager hung up when said the meeting was over so they began making fun of just about every aspect of his character and physical being without hanging up on their end!!!! Unfortunately (and obviously) he hadn’t rung off and got an earful of exactly what these two young ladies thought of his abilities, mental prowess and physical attributes. It was not flattering. They were terminated immediately.
I am so glad I didn’t know this sad tale when I saw her. I laughed for about 20 minutes upon hearing the details and it’s entertained me for years when I think of it. I would have been hopelessly, heartlessly laughing at her as she sighed and brimmed over with tears. I would have sent her back to the dark, dark place from which she had so recently emerged with my lack of empathy. She had suffered and learned her lesson, she didn’t need my cruel sense of humor. All was on it’s way to ending well for her.
It’s a great story and quite a cautionary tale as well.