We’d never been close. It’s hard when you meet your father at 11, except he’s not your father, he’s just your mom’s husband. And he’s the fifth father-figure in those 11 short years. And a few years go by and you long for a “normal family.” But, you don’t understand that no one has a normal family, each just has their own form of dysfunction. Some have learned to cope, others never will. Finally, at 14 he adopted me. I took the name Bliss, and realized that a shared name does little to bridge a relationship gap.
I knew he loved me in the ways that he could. And I survived my childhood. I got a call from my brother who lives in Olympia, Washington, not far from my parents.
Hey, Dad’s in Denver.
I thought he was too sick to travel?
Yeah, well apparently he was. He’s in a hospital there. They aren’t sure when he’ll be able to travel. . .if ever.
How’s mom doing?
About like you’d expect.
One of us needs to go.
Yeah, I know.
I’m close. Salt Lake’s only a few hundred miles. You’d have to fly. I’ll go.
Now to convince my mother. My relationship had been strained with my dad, but always pretty good with mom.
Hey Mom. I’m coming to Denver.
Oh, you don’t need to do that. We’ll probably only be here another couple of days.
Well, that will work out well since I have to be back at work on Tuesday. I’ll see you on Saturday.
You really don’t . . . okay.
And off I went. Driving my Suburban through the Rockies. I stopped for the night in a rest stop. I just climbed in the back and pulled a blanket over me.
My dad hated to depend on anyone for anything other than my mother. I could see it was tearing him up to be so dependent on others. We danced a dance that we’d practiced since before I was a teenager. When he stumbled back, I stepped up. When he stepped forward on his own, I stepped back, always close enough for support, but back enough to allow him to do as much for himself as he could. When I was a kid, he provided the support. Now it was my turn to return the favor.
I was struck by how weak and old and tired he looked. He’d had a hard life.
His condition stabilized enough for him to get on a plane on Sunday. We had a nice leasurely lunch. Not realizing until about five minutes before it was too late that mom had never set her watch to local time, and she’d packed dad’s watch away. He thought that was hilarious. After all that, they nearly missed the plane. I watched the airport personal maneuver the wheelchair they’d secured for him to the door of the jetway. Without a backward glance he took my mother’s arm and made his way down to the plane.
It was the last time I ever saw him.
He went straight from the plane to a hospital room. For two weeks the doctors battled to stabilize his vital signs. They finally told my mother there was nothing else they could do.
Rodney, do you want to come and say goodbye?
How long does he have?
The doctors don’t know. They’ve got him on a morphine drip for the pain. Could be a day could be a week. Not more than a couple weeks.
I said my goodbyes, Mom. I’ll be there . . .for . . .after.
My brother was there at the end. Dad had been unresponsive. The doctors expected him to pass peacefully in his sleep. Unexpectedly he opened his eyes and asked for a glass of water. My brother helped him with it and cautioned him to be careful not to spill or he’d ruin his looks. Dad looked up at him.
Yeah, I am a handsome devil.
And with that he closed his eyes and went back to sleep. He never woke up again.
My team had suffered through tragedy and near tragedy the entire year. A team member nearly died in a fall from a ladder. Another injured himself falling from a hayloft. Another’s 3 year old son was diagnosed with leukemia. Another had his son fall and break his arm, and also lost his brother to brain cancer, and yet another lost his step father.
I had tried to do everything I could as the manager to provide comfort and accommodations for my team members as they struggled with personal issues. And now, it was their turn. I drove the 1000 miles home for the funeral. I delivered his life sketch. I did a lot of writing. It’s how writers work through our grief and our issues.
I appreciate those of you, the readers who’ve stayed with me through this week as I talked about some of the challenges that my team went through. It’s been about five years since all this happened. We’ve all moved on. Mark still doesn’t climb more than a single step up a ladder. Jared bought a hay hook and uses that when throwing hay out of the loft. Ammon’s son’s leukemia responded to treatment and is in remission. And my mother remarried.
I’ve had occasion to talk to my former coworkers about that year. Team unity is an elusive but vital characteristic to successful teams. You want your team to care about each other on a personal level. You want them to be willing to invest in each other’s success. That year of challenges pulled the team together in a way that no amount of R.O.P.E.S courses, or seminars, or “team building” exercises ever could. Not that there isn’t a place for those activities. There absolutely is. But, when a team has literally suffered together, born one another’s sorrows, they either disband, because the stress is too much, or they become bound together stronger. Our team had been through hell together. We came out stronger for it.
This is the fifth in a five part series on the most snake bit team I’ve ever been a member of. I’m proud to call each of these men my friend, even years later.
Rodney M Bliss is an author, columnist and IT Consultant. He lives in Pleasant Grove, UT with his lovely wife and thirteen children.
It wasn’t supposed to be like this. This was not the type of team activities a manager plans for.
We all stood as the casket was wheeled in. Ed was walking with his family. He raised a hand in acknowledgement as they made their way to the front of the chapel.
Reserved seats. But, not ones that anyone would covet today.
We were here to support Ed and his family in honoring the life of his brother Quaid, who had died suddenly from brain cancer. Death at any time is hard. And each culture finds their own way to deal with it. We were all members of the same faith, and funerals in our faith were a celebration of life. One of the tenets of our faith being the idea that families can be bound together in death as well as life.
Had Ed and his brother been men advanced in years, looking back on a lifetime of memories, the funeral would have been a celebration of that life, a chance to remember the good times and wish him on his way. But, that wasn’t the case. Quaid was a young man, not even 40. He left behind a young bride and three small children. His father spoke of the pain of burying a child. Parents shouldn’t have to bury their children. If life were fair it would always be the other way around.
Yesterday, I said I didn’t know what to say to Ammon when his 3 year old son was diagnosed with leukemia. Even more so, I was at a loss for what to say to Ed. We know we need to say something and yet whatever we say will never really be enough.
“I know how you feel”?
No, I really don’t. I’ve never buried a brother. I’ve never gathered with my family to discuss how the family will step up to provide my nephews with a father figure, and make sure my sister-in-law is cared for.
“It’s God’s will,” or “It will all work out for the best?”
Those just sound like minimizing at a time like this.
So, you give him a hug, if you’re a hugger. You let him know that while you can’t take away any of his sorrow, that you are willing to bear it with him, as much as you can. And then you go on with life. Maybe you hug your own family closer. Maybe you call your brother whom you haven’t talked to in awhile just to let him know that you’re thinking about him and you look forward to seeing him at Christmas.
With the death of Quaid, the jokes stopped. I no longer got teased about the Messaging team needing hazard pay. Or jokes about who was going to be hit with a catastrophe next. As a team, we didn’t mention it much. We all were aware of what had happened over the past several months; Mark falling on his driveway and nearly dying. Jacob falling out of his hayloft and shattering his ankle, Ammon’s son with leukemia. Ed’s son with the broken arm and the harrowing dash through the snow.
It was almost expected then, when Allen announced that his step father had passed away suddenly. He was going to take some time to go and help his mother in Colorado.
I wasn’t particularly close to him, so I’m not sure it really counts as part of The Curse.
His attempt at levity did little to lighten the mood.
Of our seven team members, five had been hit with varying levels of personal tragedy that year. Joel and I were the only two left untouched. But, even that distinction was about to change.
This is the fourth in a five part series about the most snake bit team I’ve ever worked with. Monday I told how one team member Could Have Died. . .Putting Up Christmas Lights. Tuesday was the story of another team member who fell out of a hayloft, And The Horses Just Laughed At Him. Yesterday was the story of team members children being hurt as we decided It Was Never Funny. . .But Now It Was Serious. Tomorrow, I’ll relay the final segment of our hell-year. But, I’ll also be explaining how the experiences drew us closer and strengthened our families and our friendships.
Rodney M Bliss is an author, columnist and IT Consultant. He lives in Pleasant Grove, UT with his lovely wife and thirteen children.
During the “Year of our Discontent” we grew much closer as a team.
With two team members out with serious injuries within just a few months of each other, our team had a bit of a reputation. It was generally delivered with a smile, but there was a bit of truth in the jabs I started to hear from the other managers.
The Messaging team should get hazard pay.
If the military gives Purple Hearts, do you hand out silicon chips?
However, things took a more serious turn that year. First was Ed’s family. We had six people on the team, seven counting me. Mark and Jacob had serious falls that required extensive surgery. The rest of us started walking a little more carefully. Ed owned a cabin up one of the canyons that dot the Wasatch Mountains in and around Salt Lake City. In the summer, it’s a nice car drive, but in the winter, the roads quickly become clogged with snow.
The last 10 miles is done by snowmobile. Like many cabin owners, he stored his sleds in a garage at the end of the plowed road. The family would drive to the garage, park and lock the cars and then take the snowmobiles from there. The cabin had power and water. There was a bedroom on the main floor and a loft for the kids.
Ed let us know those weekends when he was headed to his cabin since it meant he would be completely out of communication range. The only way to get a cell signal was to climb a small mountain behind the cabin and get a line of sight to a cell tower miles away.
During a long winter weekend, Ed and his family headed up to the cabin as they often did. As the kids were headed for bed the first night, his young son slipped on the top rung of the ladder and fell to the floor below. It was obvious his arm was broken. This was serious enough at any time, but given their location, it took on an added level of concern. They immobilized the arm and bundled him up and put him on a snowmobile with Ed driving. Every jar of the trail, every rut the skids caught on sent stabbing pains through his arm and he’d cry out.
As Ed related the story to us, we could each imagine how we’d feel trying to hold one of our kids on the snowmobile with one hand, steering with the other and knowing that the pain would continue for an hour or more. We each went home and hugged our kids extra tight after hearing that story.
As terrible as the falls that team members and their family experienced were, they didn’t compare to Ammon’s ordeal. Ammon was the fourth messaging engineer on our team. We had four engineers focused on messaging and two focused on SharePoint. Ammon didn’t have a cabin. He didn’t have a hayloft, and he didn’t climb a ladder to put up Christmas lights.
As you may know our three year old son has Downs Syndrome. Yesterday we took him in for some tests and the doctors informed us that he has leukemia. We think we've caught it early and this type of leukemia has a history of responding well to treatment. Unfortunately the treatments are painful and our son doesn't really understand why he has to have them. Prayers are appreciated.
Wow. At this point, I had run out of management experience to apply. I really didn’t know how to respond. Well, from a management standpoint, I guess I did. I talked to HR and we got the paperwork started in case Ammon had to take advantage of time away under the Family and Medical Leave Act. But, from a personal standpoint, I had no idea how to approach Ammon. Sympathy? Of course, but then what? Act like it will all be okay? How do you comfort someone who’s son might have just been handed a death sentence? Fortunately, Ammon sensed our desire to offer comfort but also respect his space. His family created a web page to track donations and his son’s progress. We are technologists. When in doubt build something on the computer.
The other thing that happened at this point was I started to really look at my management style. Four out of six team members had serious incidents all within a few months. Clearly, I wasn’t questioning my involvement in the actual incidents, but was I striking the right work/life balance for the team? Should I plan some fun event to pull the team together? Or should I plan less so that they could spend more time with their families. We still had a job to do. If it came to that, how much should I let the work suffer to accommodate team members’ personal challenges? Did we need to rework our project schedule?
It was one of the few times, I’ve ever really felt a crisis of confidence in my ability to know what was best for my team.
And then tragedy struck again. This time, it hit Ed’s family again. And it made a broken arm pale in comparison.
This is the third in a five part series about the most snake-bit team I’ve ever managed. Monday I talked about a team members who nearly died putting up Christmas lights. Yesterday, I related the story of another member who fell out of a barn and shattered his ankle. Tomorrow I’ll talk about the protocol for attending a funeral as a team. And Friday, I’ll relate how I wasn’t spared by this hell-year. But, I’ll also explain what we learned as a team and why we will be lifelong friends.
Rodney M Bliss is an author, columnist and IT Consultant. He lives in Pleasant Grove, UT with his lovely wife and thirteen children.
Jacob worked with me on the messaging team at a large non profit corporation. While he is a computer guru now, he grew up with horses. Not just a pony in the back pasture, but working horses. And it wasn’t until we had been friends for years that I was at his mother’s house and noticed an entire wall full of trophies.
Jacob, what are those?
Ah. . .just some trophies for horsemanship.
Wow. Who won those?
It was that experience and background around horses that made his accident so unexpected.
Jacob fell out of a hayloft.
That doesn’t sound too bad. Hay is soft, and it was only about eight feet off the ground. You could jump that distance. Jacob didn’t jump and like Mark’s experience putting up Christmas lights, it turned out to be very serious.
Jacob was getting hay for the horses. A task he had performed daily for decades. In fact, the horses were housed at his mother’s house. The same house he grew up in and the same barn he’d been working in since he was a kid. But, today was different. In telling me the story, he said he never did figure out exactly what caused the difference. He was throwing hay bales from the loft down to the floor of the barn.
If you’re not familiar with livestock, you might have a misconception about hay and straw. What we, non-rancher types call hay is often really straw. The yellow somewhat prickly strands that we sit on during hay rides or spread around the nativity scene at Christmas is what’s left over after you harvest wheat.
A straw bale – not edible (Photo Credit No Dig Vegetable Garden)
Animals don’t eat it. In fact, it’s most often used to soak up animal waste.
Hay, on the other hand is typically green and has a strong aroma. It’s actually alfalfa. Animals love it.
You generally have to feed it to them when it’s been dried. Fresh alfalfa will kill a cow or a horse.
Alfalfa needs to be dried before it’s baled (Photo Credit: aneclecticmind.com)
Jacob was throwing hay bales out of the loft. A hay bale can weigh anywhere from 80 to 120 lbs. It’s held together with wire or more often plastic twine. You grab the two strings of twine, pick it up, throw it or what have you. You have to remember to get your fingers out of the twine or risk following the hay bale wherever you are tossing it. Jacob’s fingers got caught for just a half second longer than they should have.
I knew I was going over, so I tried to turn and grab the edge of the floor on my way down. I managed to get hold of it, but that then whipped my body back under the floor and broke my grip. I might have been okay, if I’d just fallen at that point. I would have landed flat on my back. But, I put my foot down to try to brace myself.
His ankle was shattered in multiple places. Worse, he was a long way from the house and he was starting to go into shock.
I kind of moaned with the pain and the horses turned to look at me. I swear they were laughing.
Jacob ended up with an order of bed rest, a couple of surgeries to insert pins and screws, and missing a lot of work. The worst part was that he still had a stable of horses to take care of. I think that’s what bothered him the most. His young teenage daughters were enlisted as stable hands.
As the team manager, I did everything I could think of. I made sure that Jacob didn’t worry about his tasks at work. I made sure that he had whatever help he needed at home. Fortunately, Jacob and Mark didn’t both get injured at the same time. We had a team of six, and now in the span of a just a few months, a third of our team had been put out of commission by what we assumed was simply a couple of freakish accidents.
It wasn’t until the kids started getting hurt that we started to question our “We’re not superstitious” beliefs.
This is the second in a five part series about the most snake bit team I’ve ever worked with. Yesterday we heard about a team member who nearly died putting up Christmas lights. Tomorrow we’ll talk about what happens when it’s the kids who are hurt. Thursday and Friday we’ll discuss team members who lost family members. All of these injuries and accidents took place within a single calendar year.
He could have died.
We were afraid for awhile that he still might.
And it was all because of Christmas lights.
Mark was one of the messaging engineers on my team. We all worked for a large non-profit. It was right around Thanksgiving time. I don’t remember how we found out that Mark was in the hospital. But, it certainly wasn’t him that called us. He had better things to worry about.
He had been installing Christmas lights like he did every year. Probably like you do every year. Like I do every year. Mark was putting them up above his garage. He had a ladder leaned against the wall. And while he didn’t actually have someone to steady it, he was only a few feet above the ground.
As he reached to attach the lights to the gutters, the base of the ladder slipped away from the wall. You would think that there is something you can do to save yourself in this situation. You’re less than 10 feet above the ground. I’ve jumped ten feet. The problem is that it happens incredibly fast. One second you’re reaching to attach the line to that gutter clip and the next second you’re eating the cement.
And you might think a fall of less than a dozen feet isn’t too serious. It can be. Mark was completely out of commission. He couldn’t move. He couldn’t crawl, he certainly couldn’t walk. Fortunately, his neighbor was out also hanging his lights. He saw the whole thing. He informed Mark’s wife, piled Mark into his car and rushed him to the hospital. Where the doctors informed that he’d broken both wrists and his left leg. These were severe fractures and breaks that required surgery. Had the neighbor not noticed his tumble, it’s likely that he would have expired from his injuries on his driveway.
Naturally, we were greatly concerned. It was a small, but extremely close knit team. Mark went to one of our great local hospitals and the rest of the team stepped in to pick up the slack. I went to see him in the hospital when he was all doped up on drugs. It’s weird because he recognized me, but later didn’t remember the conversation. He was greatly concerned about the team and the projects he was on. I assured him that all he needed to do was get better. We’d take care of everything.
You are probably wondering, why I’ve included this story in a blog about business and leadership.
It’s because Mark was only the first. We had six engineers on the team. Seven members counting me. Over the course of a single year, everyone of us was struck by tragedy of some sort. At first it was funny, and I took some teasing from other managers. But, eventually, it got past the funny stage.
I had to figure out how to keep a team running through injury and tragedy.
I’m not sure how well I succeeded because we didn’t have to try to hire anyone to our team that year. But, the rest of the division started to avoid us. It’s not that anyone was seriously superstitious. But, no one wanted our bad luck to rub off on them.
With Mark, he eventually recovered enough to go home. Weeks later he finally could return to work. He rode one of those “kneeling” scooters.
(Photo Credit: Mobility Equipment Training)
It was months before he was really back to normal.
Although we’ve both moved on to other companies, we had lunch the other day. It’s Christmas light season again and I asked him what his plan was.
Same as always, I hire it done.
This is the first in a five part series about the most snake bit team I’ve ever worked with. Tomorrow we’ll hear about another team member who fell from a height. Wednesday, we’ll talk about what happens when it’s the kids who are hurt. Thursday and Friday we’ll discuss team members who lost family members. All of these injuries and accidents took place within a single calendar year.
The problem with self publishing (which is what Blogging is) is the lack of an editor. Editors do things like double check spelling and often approve or even suggest topics.
The benefit of self publishing (which is what Blogging is) is the ability to occasionally post something completely out of character.
As we head toward the end of the year, I’m very grateful to all of you who have taken a few minutes out of your day each morning to read my digital scribbles. I am amazed and humbled that so many have found value or entertainment in what I write. It’s probably no surprise that the “theme” of my blog has been about business and personal development. I’ve wandered back and forth occasionally, but mostly I think I’ve stuck pretty well to that theme. In blogging, it’s important to have a theme. People crave some consistency. Today’s post has nothing to do with personal development or business. I’m not even going to try to tie this to a business theme. I’m not sure I could if I wanted to.
Nelson Mandela died yesterday.
The world will no doubt provide proper and fitting memorials for him. Today I want to talk about what Nelson Mandela meant to me, a middle aged white guy living in the Mountain West of America, literally half a world away. (9,900 miles)
Nelson Mandela was a prisoner at the time I started to get interested in politics and world events. He was sent to prison before I was born, July of 1964 and I would arrive in December of that year. While I was learning to walk and tie my shoes, he was serving hard time, much of it in isolation. While I learned to drive and discovered dating, he practiced long distance running. When I was getting married in 1987, he was living a long distance marriage. By the time he was released in 1990, I was an adult. I had a wife, a family a career. He walked out of prison 27 years after walking in.
What must that have been like?
He missed my entire life. Not that I mattered to him, but to lose 27 years like that.
When Mandela walked out of prison and saw the crowds, he raised his fist and they roared. Again, what must that have been like? Many men spend their whole lives striving for that kind of power. What would this man who had been wronged for a generation do with it?
We would hope that in that situation a person would forgive and work for reconciliation. We would hope that he would call for calm and peace. That he would strive to use political power rather than mob power to bring about change. Most of all, we would hope that he would not retaliate against the racism that imprisoned him.
The amazing thing was that he did all of that. He managed to work with the South African president, with whom he shared the Nobel Peace prize.
Could you do that? I think I’m a pretty kind person, I don’t know if I could do that.
George Washington had the opportunity to become king of America. In fact, some people pushed him in that direction. He, of course declined and that one decision set America on a course of over 200 years of peaceful transitions of power. Mandela of course, won election as president of South Africa. And yet, he worked to make ALL people equal. That one decision to pursue peace and peacefully transfer power at the end of his five year term has had as significant an impact on South Africa as Washington had on the United States. History will tell if his decision has as lasting an impact as Washington’s. Interestingly, neither man had any children. Their countries became their children.
My neighbors are South African. I have 7 black children, although none from South Africa. While a world away, I’ve had occasion to think on South Africa and the ugly style of racism that was Apartheid. Racism isn’t dead and sadly will probably always be with us. However, it is inspiring that we have people like Nelson Mandela to show us that even the worst racism and abuse does not have to turn us into monsters. Even the most egregious offenses to not have to be met with violence and anger. We can rise above our circumstances and embrace the brotherhood of man.
As a white parent of black children, I strive to make sure my children are comfortable with who they are and are proud of their ethnicity. One way to do that is to find inspiring examples for them, of black people who were great people. Not just great black people, but great people period. Nelson Mandela certainly fits that category.
Rest in peace, Nelson Mandela. The world is truly a better place for you having been in it and we are better for having seen your example.
I admit it. I did a little too much. Okay, a lot too much. It snowed here in Utah this week. About eight to 12 inches depending on your location. It didn’t seem like that long of a sidewalk. Of course, each shovelful of snow was really heavy, but hey, I used my knees!
Didn’t help. After getting home I sat down with my iPad in the living room.
Honey can you come into the dining room for a minute?
Sure. . .Augh!
My left hamstring stiffened up. At least I think it was the hamstring. All I knew is that it hurt. . .a lot. My right leg was fine. I looked like Quasimodo limping across the living room dragging my left foot behind me, moaning in pain. Fortunately some hot rice packs and it was eventually good as knew. It got me thinking about a topic I’ve wanted to write about for a while.
Pain: both the physical and the professional kind.
Who likes pain? Who gets up in the morning and says, “I want to hurt today?” Anyone? You, in the back is that a hand? No? Just stretching?
We don’t like pain. We spend our lives trying to avoid pain. Many of our labor saving devices are designed to spare us pain. Is this a healthy attitude?
I don’t think it is. Think of a runner. I don’t run now, but there was a time when I ran often. It’s painful. It hurts – during, and after. So, why run? Why sign up for that pain?
I think it’s because we understand the pain is just a symptom of the process of getting stronger. So, may people voluntarily sign up for daily pain. Same goes for anyone who goes to the gym.
But, that’s for physical activities. How well does it translate to business? I think it translates really well. If you are not making mistakes, you are not trying hard enough. Working for a large non-profit, I got shuffled into a position that I would have never applied for. I was the project manager for our monthly datacenter maintenance. It was very painful for many months, as I tried to learn the technologies. And that pain was a sign of growth. We need the pain. We should learn to embrace it. If you can embrace your pain at work like a runner embraces the pain of running 26 miles, you will own the pain, not the other way around.
So the next time something is hard. The next time you think, “I’m not sure I can take anymore of this pain”, remind yourself of the runners or other athletes, and realize that the pain is an indication of a growth opportunity. Learn to embrace the pain and you will find yourself growing in new and exciting ways.