“Life is what happens when you’re making other plans” doesn’t really begin to cover it. I didn’t really have any other plans for this summer. I didn’t really have any plans at all.
For the last year and a half, I’ve been working as an event coordinator for a non-profit. It has been stressful and immensely challenging, but in a very good way. It was the first job that I felt was really pushing me to grow as a professional, and it was doing something that I had never really set out to do. As it turns out, my slightly obsessive-compulsive organizational habits, my sometimes ridiculous attention to detail, and my ability to “keep calm and carry on” in the face of relentless chaos are all strengths in the world of planning and running events.
By the start of this summer, I had one cycle of events under my belt and the agency was shaking it up by remaking the summer fundraiser. In a lot of ways, it was going to be a lot easier to plan and execute. It wasn’t going to be on a private property where we needed to bring in everything from generators and porta-potties to kitchen equipment and circus-sized tents. It was going to be at a country club with kitchens and waiters and on-site trash disposal! It was still going to be a lot of work. There was a lot of pressure for the event to be really, really, really awesome to impress our guests and our board and to get the bitter taste of the old event out of their mouths. (That’s a different story, which isn’t really relevant. Had I been blogging all along, I would have already told it.)
Rewind to just before Thanksgiving last year. My grandmother was in the hospital with what turned out to be lymphoma. The surgery was successful, but given her age, they opted not to pursue chemo or radiation. Instead, they made her as comfortable as possible with pain meds and sent her on her way.
By the time I was getting ready to fly East for a visit in June, she and my grandfather were living with my aunt and uncle because she was at the point of needing a lot of constant care and watching. Oh, and did I mention that she was also developing Alzheimer’s? I had seen her last September before the onset of the major cancer issues, though she was already getting to be fairly forgetful.
When I saw her in June, she was little more than skin and bones. Even her mind, it seemed, had mostly withered away. However, she recognized me as soon as she put her glasses on, and that’s something that I will always treasure. She complained of being tired because she’d been up most of the previous night writing the constitution. Not copying it out, but actually writing it. That’s not easy work when you’re pushing 90. We chatted a bit, had some pizza and she went to bed pretty early.
I had a long conversation over wine with my aunt about how she was coping with everything. While we chatted, I finished knitting a scarf that my grandmother had started for the family dog. The needles were probably two feet long and metal. Easier for my grandmother with her limited dexterity, but a challenge for me, used to much shorter bamboo needles that offer finer control and less slip-sliding around of the yarn. I finished it up, taught my aunt how to cast off, and showed her how to sew together the seem. It seemed fitting that I helped to finish my grandmother’s knitting project. She didn’t teach me to knit, but she taught me lots of other domestic things, including how to cook.
We had breakfast the next morning and I hugged Gram goodbye.
A few weeks later, she passed away.
It was a little before 10 pm when my aunt called me the day before Bastille Day–almost 1 am on the East Coast. I knew why she was calling. We chatted briefly before she hung up and started to call the rest of the family.
After hanging up, I felt quite numb. I wanted to cry but I couldn’t. My partner held me tight and I told him about how wonderful my grandmother was and how much I would miss her. But we also talked about what a wonderful and long life she had lived.
It was several days before the funeral arrangements were made. Because she had chosen to be cremated, there wasn’t a big rush to get her into the ground. One of my uncles had been quite sick and it was decided to hold off on the funeral until he was well enough to travel.
This is where the other thread of our story comes in. The funeral was scheduled for the same Saturday as the event that I’d been planning. Needless to say, there was no way that I could be at both. To me the choice was clear: I would stay as late as I could before the event and then fly out to be at the funeral. I had hoped to maybe stay an additional day or two, but my boss asked me to be back in the office Monday morning to help with the post-event clean up and processing. I agreed and we began to plan for the event coordinator not to be at the event.
I did my best to prepare my boss and the rest of my team to run the event without me. I created guides, checklists, and timelines. I went over them exhaustively with my boss, edited and added and subtracted. Early on in this process, my boss said to me, “I have to be honest. I have no idea what you do at events. I know you do a lot of hard work–I just don’t know what it is.” In response, I said, “Well, I basically walk in circles.” Her face was a combination of surprise and concern so I clarified: “I walk circuits through the event, making sure set up is going well, making sure registration is running smoothly, making sure none of our vendors or volunteers have any questions. And dealing with issues as they come up.” For the most part, once an event begins, so much of it is out of your hands and as long as the prep work has been good and thorough, nothing major will go wrong. I always think back to my high school drama teacher who would always remind us that even if you’re performing Shakespeare and you forget a line, most people in the audience won’t know the difference.
We had three weeks before the event to make sure that everything was taken care of. It all seemed completely doable. During this time, I did my best–whether intentional or not–to delay my mourning process. I was somewhere between the shift from denial to anger and the clutch was sticky. I was working a lot of extra hours, evenings and weekends, trying to dump everything from my brain about running an event and put it on paper and train someone who had never done my job to do my job in addition to, you know, planning the event and making sure that everything was in place before I left.
By the end of the third week, I was toast. Completely burnt out. On my last day in the office, I had told my boss that I could stay until about 9 pm if absolutely necessary before I had to go to the airport, though I didn’t really think that I’d have to be there that long. I broke down crying in my boss’s office at one point that day. I felt like things were falling apart in my hands. I kept handing off responsibilities to finish things up to other people because I couldn’t keep them together.
At 8 pm, I told my boss that I was leaving. She asked if the work was done and I told her that I’d done everything that I could do and that I couldn’t do any more. “Stick a fork in me. I’m done. Toast,” I told her. I gave her a final checklist of supplies that would need to be taken to the venue for Saturday and two documents that she needed to proof-read and print. I told her that I would be available via phone for any last minute questions on Friday and that the funeral was Saturday so I wouldn’t be available. I wished her and the rest of the team good luck, told her to have fun, and that I would see her on Monday.
As soon as I pulled out of the parking lot, the tears that had been building for three weeks began to flow. I howled with pain. I probably shouldn’t have been driving but somehow I made it home, took a shower, cried some more, ate some food, and drove to the airport.
My partner had been away that week visiting his family back East and was flying in the same night I was flying out. He was supposed to land minutes before I took off, but when I got to the airport, it turned out that his flight was coming in early. We got to see each other briefly and he walked me to my gate just as boarding was finishing.
The weekend of the funeral was a blur. I saw lots of family that I hadn’t seen in ages. My uncle who’d been sick looked like shit. I found out that he’d also been diagnosed with lymphoma and given 12 months to live. We all agreed that was probably very optimistic. At one point, I told my aunt that I was having a very difficult time not thinking about work that I was worried that my job was on the line this weekend without me at the event. She thought that was silly, that even if there were some hiccups, it was clear that I’d done my best given the circumstances. Besides, it was the first year that we were doing this event–there were bound to be some hiccups.
My flight home was delayed several hours and I spent most of that time in the airport setting up my event software for post-event data entry–something that I hadn’t gotten around to prior to leaving. It was close to 2 am when I got home, mentally, emotionally, and physically exhausted.
I was in the office the next morning at 9. It was clear that my boss was unhappy. She had glowing praise for the rest of the team and all of the additional hard work they had put in because of my absence. They absolutely deserved this praise. I work with some really awesome people who never shy away from doing what needs to be done, and it sounded like they’d put in a LOT of extra effort. From the sound of it, their effort had paid off and the event had gone off very well and that our guests and our board were thrilled with the way things turned out. We’d even already had people ask about when they could purchase tickets for next year.
When my boss and I met one-on-one to talk about the post-event processing and data entry, her approach was different. She told me that she couldn’t talk to me about the event because she was too upset about all of the things that had gone wrong and all of the details that I’d missed. I was very confused by the incongruity of this. I was still so exhausted that I just went along with it and didn’t ask too many questions. I went back to my desk, kept my head down, and started working through what needed to get done.
After a week of avoiding me, my boss set up a meeting so that we could debrief the event. I had gathered bits and pieces of what had gone wrong at the event but it still sounded as if everything had gone relatively smoothly. I’d missed some details to be sure, but it still sounded as if everything worked out okay. I certainly wasn’t expecting to be given a formal disciplinary notice and being told that my job was now on the line if I didn’t make immediately improvements. During this meeting, my boss told me that she’d wanted to fire me but that HR had talked her out of it.
I was completely taken aback. All of the issues that she cited in the disciplinary notice were completely valid issues. The majority of which, however, were issues that would have happened whether or not I had been there. And, had I been there, I would have taken care of them prior to my boss finding out about them. Because that’s my job. I do my best to plan out every detail. And then when things don’t quite comes together, I figure out how to make it work. If the venue hasn’t set out the right number of tables, I get more. If I realize that there’s not going to be enough lighting in a certain area after dark, I call and order more lighting. I make clear to the fireworks company that I’m their only contact on the day of the event and not to listen to anyone else so that they don’t threaten not to have the fireworks show because of misinformation.
But, of course, I wasn’t at the event to do my job. I was at my grandmother’s funeral. My grandmother who was always kind, gentle, and understanding. Who always gave wonderful hugs. Who taught me, and so many other kids, how to make a kite. Who made the best damn coffee cake in the world (when I make it, my friends call it crack cake). Who gave me my first cookbook as a high school graduation gift and told me, “If you can read, you can cook.” Who always let us have ice cream for dessert because even if you’re full, the ice cream melts and fills in all the cracks between the rest of the food. Who was always laughing, always curious, always still exploring. If I had it to do over again, I would still choose to fly to the East Coast to say goodbye to this wonderful woman.
During this meeting, my boss asked me if I still wanted this job and why. I told her I did but now I don’t remember why. Now, though I’m certain that I don’t want this job anymore. There’s the possibility that I’ll be able to take a layoff as they are restructuring my position to be full time (currently, it’s 80% full time), and in a lot of ways, it has felt like I’m being pressured into taking the layoff. That is if my boss doesn’t out right fire me.
I’m not sure what’s going to happen because it’s been almost three weeks since I’ve been to work. After being told that my job was on the line and feeling like everything I was doing was under a microscope and that my boss was looking for a reason to fire me, I started to experience severe anxiety and to have panic attacks. I’ve been seeing a therapist for about six months now and after meeting with him while all this was going on, he suggested that I request mental health leave for 30 days. It was a bit like getting blood from a stone, but I had the support of a medical professional and they couldn’t really deny it.
I went on a wonderful week-long trip with my partner, part of which was spent camping. After returning, I got acupuncture for the first time and was prescribed a Chinese herbal formula to help cleanse my system and re-ground my spirit. The trip and the acupuncture and the herbs are working. I’m feeling much better than I was before taking leave. I’ve made a point of focusing on me during this time (getting back to writing on a regular basis is part of that). Needless to say, I’ve also been looking for a new job. It’s a tough market out there, but I’ll find something.
Looking back with some perspective, it seems clear that my life is ready for some kind of major shift. I’m just at the end of my Saturn Return and it seems that Saturn has returned with a bang. Saturn’s orbit around the sun takes a little over 29 years. Astrologically, the moment when Saturn returns to the same point in its orbit as it was when you were born is said to mark a major life transition. In this case, it marks the full transition into adulthood and is often seen as a moment of decision and crisis. Crisis because it’s not uncommon for people to realize that the path that they have been traveling is not the one they are meant to follow.
The past few years have certainly been ones of transition for me. I’m still not really sure about my path forward, but I’m trying my best to listen to what the universe is trying to tell me. I’m looking ahead. I know that this, too, shall pass. It’s been a difficult summer for me, but fall is starting to creep in. It’s been cool and overcast the past couple of days after a couple of weeks of hot, sunny weather. This cool weather is one of the reasons that I love Portland and I can endure the heat knowing that cooler temperatures are always just around the corner.
Saturn also happens to be the god of the Harvest. As we enter this fall, I wonder what harvest is waiting for me from my first 29 years. Will there be fruit worth replanting or do I need to till the soil completely anew? I think it’s going to be a mixture of the two. I just need to work to separate the chaff from the wheat and the sweet fruit from the sour.