Saturday, August 27, 2011

Sick Days

During the time that my dad was on chemo and therefore immunocompromised, I became acutely aware (read: completely paranoid) about being exposed to germs.  I’ve always been a little bit of a germaphobe, and, armed with the knowledge that it was entirely possible that something to which I was exposed could result in (1) my not being able to be around him once I realized I was getting sick, or – worse – (2) my accidentally contaminating him if I went to see him and didn’t realize I was getting sick, I was on perpetual high guard about germs and illness at that time.

All of that got me started thinking about sick day policies at work and at school.  Every school that I know of has an award for Perfect Attendance.  Many offer rewards for not missing school ranging from getting to choose one’s teachers for the next school year, getting to go to a party, getting vouchers for free stuff like ice cream and pizza (that seems at least a little counter-intuitive, doesn’t it?), and – the one I don’t understand at all because it’s something that would never have motivated me as a kid – getting to wear a hat to school.  At my kids’ school, students can earn the privilege of getting exempt from the final exam in any class if they end up with an yearly average of at least a 90 and have come to school sick amassed less than three absences ALL YEAR. 

Isn’t it a proven fact that a quicker recovery is much more probable if a person who is sick gets extra rest and takes in extra fluids, both of which are impossible if that person is on-the-job as a student or an employee?  If that sick person does come to work or school, it is a sure thing that he or she is not performing up to his or her full potential.  Oh, and, if that sick person has something that is contagious like a cold, isn’t it a certainty that he or she is spreading those germs all around, which could potentially result in a greater loss of productivity when others in the office or school catch the illness??

One of my kids did a science fair project once to determine which public place was the most germ-infested.  Samples from ten different locations around our town were put into petri dishes.  The one that grew the most grossness was the sample from the front door of City Hall.  I’ll leave that discussion for another time.  Second place went to the front door of the school building.  Yep, people are getting sick at school as often as they coming to school sick.

I don’t think that colleges care if kids have Perfect Attendance Awards listed on their high school resumes, and I doubt prospective employers do, either.  If I were in charge of hiring someone for a job, I would NOT hire someone who had a record of never missing work.  From my perspective, Perfect Attendance implies a person has almost undoubtably come to school or work sick and carelessly spread their germs around at some point.  I’m not advocating playing hooky or skipping school or being a slacker when there’s no legitimate reason; I just think it’s better to take a sick day when one is, well, sick!
Some of the funding for schools is based on the average number of students who are present at school each day, a figure that they call the Average Daily Attendance.  So school administrators are highly motivated to do their best to highly motivate their students to show up every day.  I think schools are, in general, also focused on the fact that kids who miss a lot of school aren’t likely to be learning as much as they could be.  That said, though, I think it’s a bad idea to have a Perfect Attendance Award that is so enticing that the consequences of coming to school sick outweigh the benefits of staying home to recover.  School employees typically get one sick-day off per month; why do kids, in cases like my children’s school, only get a few day off per year, or – worse – none if they want whatever Perfect Attendance carrot that is being dangled in front of them??

And don’t get me started on the value of mental health days.  What about an employee who takes a day off to go on a field trip with their child or to attend an awards program at their child’s school?  I think that’s commendable, much more so than it would be if that person missed the chance to be present for such an event. (Wouldn’t it be ironic if the employee missed work to go to see their child get a Perfect Attendance Award at school?)

Something I’ve learned since my dad got sick is that time is a finite resource and making time to be present in the lives of your loved ones should trump everything else – money, recognition, and awards for Perfect Attendance.  When I think about missing out on taking care of a loved one in their time of need (including oneself) just to avoid not missing work, Perfect Attendance seems anything BUT perfect.  I missed work whenever I felt I needed to be there with my dad while he was sick, and sometimes even when I wasn’t really needed but I just wanted to be with him.  From my perspective, there is so much more of a risk from not missing work or school in cases like that, and, I’m sure, Regret from something like that is a tough pill to swallow.

After my dad went on ahead on the Wednesday after the Christmas Break, my kids missed the next two days of school.  If ever there was a good reason for them to take a sick day, that was it.  We were all heartsick and heartbroken, but we were together, and that was the only thing that helped any of us at all.   After the memorial service, we packed up and headed back home on that Sunday, feeling obligated to get back to school and work on that Monday.  I wasn’t sure any of us would be able to wake up that next morning and go about our lives like things were normal.  And, thankfully, we didn’t have to.  I like to think that Dad had some pull Upstairs because we ended up getting the next two days out of school for snow, and so we had two extra days to grieve as a family unit, still not nearly enough but, as Dad would say, “Better than nothing!”

In China, health officials use a thermometer that looks like a gun to take people’s temperatures to limit the spread of germs for things like the Swine Flu.  I’m only half-kidding when I say maybe we need something like that to check people for fevers when they are coming into the school building or employees in a large company as they get to work.

I’m honestly not sure what the solution is for keeping kids or employees from not missing school or work when they aren’t sick or keeping the ones who are sick from coming, but I do know what is currently being done is not a good idea.  The fact that we obviously can’t rely solely on human decency and honesty and internal motivation makes me sick.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Why Wouldn't I?

As far back as I can remember, I noticed my dad being friendly and nice to other people.  It was obvious that not only did he not judge people based on their income bracket, size, shape, education level, skin color, religion, or anything else, but he didn’t even consider it.  As evidence by his actions and his words, in his eyes, anyone and everyone was deserving of kindness.

He once had an employee whose name was Pat-a-Cake.  The first time that Dad needed to do the payroll after he’d hired the guy, he asked his new employee what his last name was.  Pat-a-Cake’s response was that he didn’t know; he couldn’t read or write and didn’t have any legal records to show his official name due to a house fire when he was a young child.  Dad came home from work that day talking about how he needed to figure out a way to pay the guy.  He ended up just writing the check to Cash, driving Pat-a-Cake to the bank, showing him how to endorse the check on the back with an “X,” and then driving him home on Friday afternoons each week. 

During the summer before I started fifth grade, my dad wanted to introduce me to competitive running.  He felt it would be better for me to be coached by someone other than himself.  The track program in our town was an AAU Program called the Alcorn Track Team and was headed by a man named Coach McCoy.  Dad signed me up for it, and I spent my summer hanging out at the track and getting to know the other kids on the team.

Me, trying to keep up with my teammate, Neesie
These kids were from low-or very-low income families; some of them showed up at the cinder track where we ran every day barefooted and wearing jean cut-off shorts because they didn’t have money to buy running shoes or running shorts.  Some of them ran to practice because they didn’t have transportation; Coach McCoy drove an old cargo van, and he gave rides to any kids on the team who asked him so they could make it to practice.

Our team went to several out-of-town track meets that summer; kids rode with Coach McCoy and the few parents who had cars, including mine, to get to the towns where the meets were held.  Dad paid for a lot of hotel rooms, and we all piled in, sleeping three or four to a bed and some in sleeping bags on the floor.  It was great fun.  I got faster and tougher as a runner under Coach McCoy’s direction, and, even more importantly, I gained some valuable perspective as a result of being on this team.

Late in the month of May before Dad got sick, he and I had registered to run a race together.  When we went to pick up our race packets the afternoon before the race, there was a long line of people ahead of us.  One woman very obviously cut in line several people in front of us, and I was itching to call her out on it.  I thought Dad was going to say something to her about it when we got up to the registration table and the woman was there, but he instead smiled at her and wished her luck in the race.
I watched the expression on her face go from a scowl to a grin in return, and, after she had walked off, I said to Dad, “I should try to be nicer to people.  It really takes more effort to be nasty to someone else than it does to be kind to them, doesn’t it?”

Dad, who - as usual - didn’t realize that he was the Teacher in an Important Life Lesson, looked at me like I was crazy and said, “Huh?  How does it take any effort at all to be nice to somebody?  It doesn’t cost me anything, and you never know – that person may be in the middle of the worst day of their lives – so I figure, why WOULDN’T I be nice to them?”

"Everybody's beautiful, in their own way" - I remember Dad singing this so often when I was growing up; in fact, until I was a teenager, I thought he'd made up the song.

Monday, August 22, 2011

One Telephone Pole At A Time

The year I turned 35, I decided to run my first marathon.  Dad thought it was a lofty goal for me to set for myself because he knew I didn’t have time to put in anywhere near the kind of high mileage that he used to when he was marathon training.

But he was supportive as always anyway, prodding me with weekly emails and phone calls to get out there and get the mileage in.  Prior to that time, the furthest distance I’d ever covered in one run was 9 miles.  I was nervous about breaking through to the double-digits of distance when it came time for the ten-miler in my training program, and so Dad said that if my husband, my kids, and I wanted to come and stay with he and my mom for the weekend, he would go the distance with me. 

On the morning of the run, my husband drove Dad and me ten miles away from my parents’ house and dropped us off on a country road.  Dad and I started off on the run talking about work and family and running and whatever other topics popped into our heads, and after awhile we lapsed into comfortable silence like we had done on so many runs together while I was growing up.  Every so often, Dad, ever the Pace-Master, offered me encouragement to “keep up the pace” or to try to go "half a step faster" as we went along.  One of Dad’s running mantras was “If you practice slow, you’ll race slow,” yet another of his pieces of Running Advice for the Road, as I began to call it in my mind. 

At one point on our run that day, he told me to keep running and he would catch back up to me in a few minutes, and then he ducked behind an old, abandoned barn to go to the bathroom.  Even with his pit stop, he closed in on me quickly, and we were soon running step for step again as we continued our dual effort on the road.  Over the last couple of miles, my body and my mind were wearing thin, and I told him I didn’t know if I could make it the rest of the way.  “Just concentrate on making it past one telephone pole at a time, and eventually you will get there,” he advised.  "It won't seem so bad if you just divide it up."  And so that's what I did until we made it back to my parents' house, and, with that, I had broken into the double-digits of distance.

These days, I pick up my phone to call or text Dad several times in the course of a week before Reality hits me.  Damn.  Again.  The tears that spring to my eyes are always followed by an emotion, like loneliness, despair, or fury at the injustice of it all.  I sometimes start to spiral into thinking about how much I miss him, what he would say to me at that moment in time, or even who I am as a person without him in my life now.

But, after so many times of this happening over the months since Dad went on ahead, I’ve figured out how to get through it, thanks to the strength, inspiration, support, perspective, and advice I was lucky enough to get from him over the years:  by just concentrating on making it past one telephone pole at a time, hoping it won't seem so bad if I just divide it up. 

Sunday, August 21, 2011

In Better Shape

“Leave this place in better shape than you found it.”

The Campers’ Credo is often repeated as a reminder to clean up before leaving the campsite and even, when possible, to do something that improves the condition of the area like moving a fallen tree from the path or throwing away trash left behind by a careless visitor.  

It’s a great idea for making things more pleasant and, in some cases, safer for future users, a tangible way of paying it forward.

My husband, my children, and I went on a trip this weekend and happened to drive past the exit on the interstate that lead to a place where my dad used to work many years ago.  At the Truck Stop at this exit is a diner-style restaurant where my dad ate lunch several times a week in the time that he worked in that neck of the woods.  I was away at college during that time, but at one point I was home for a visit and met my dad at that Truck Stop for lunch. 

About 90 seconds after Dad and I sat down at the table in the restaurant that day, the waitress brought over unsweetened ice tea and a salad with fat-free Italian dressing and set them in front of Dad.  Evidently, he ate there so often and always ordered the same thing every time, and so she could start getting his order ready as soon as she saw him walk through the door.  Dad introduced me to the waitress, and then he told me her story, including her kids’ ages and what her husband did for a living.  He asked her how the repairs to her kitchen were coming along and if her kids were adjusting well to the routine of the new school year, and she filled him in on those details.  The waitress took our orders – well, actually, just mine, since she already knew that Dad wanted a turkey sandwich on wheat bread, with mustard but no mayo or cheese – and went to put our order in.  The whole exchange took less than 3 minutes, but she seemed to walk away smiling a little more brightly.

That, in a nutshell, was who my dad was, a person who impacted everyone with whom he came into contact, through genuineness and kindness and who, as a result, left this place (and the people in it) in better shape than he found it.