February 18, 2013

badge photo

I recently had a new photograph taken for my company badge. Mine has always had a blue background to distinguish me from the permanent employees, who wear red badges, though I’ve been with this company long enough to need my photo updated.

This isn’t a screed about worker exploitation. I’m compensated fairly, even generously, and I have a latitude in the wheres and the whens of my work that I’ve come to cherish as someone with young children and writerly pursuits. I’ve also weathered the recession remarkably well, bringing in a steady income during a time when plenty of folks with company health insurance and 401K matching contributions have found themselves abruptly out of work.

I’ve been lucky, and my old badge tells the story. The picture, taken on my very first day, is not flattering. It looks like I’ve been cryingbecause I have been. I may have pleaded allergies, or more likely, people were too polite to ask.

I’d left a “permanent” job for this contract position, which promised only a year and the possibility of renewal. I’d been willing to give up a lot for a shorter commute and what I hoped would be less stress. I was even captivated by the phrase “possibility of renewal” and its unintentionally spiritual overtones.

But shortly after I’d given my notice, the blots that had shown up on my husband’s routine chest X-ray also appeared in all the follow-up MRIs, and then he tested negative for the things it could be that were not terrifying and deadly.

And here I’d quit my job, which would have kept me in contact with physicians and researchers (I wrote for a medical center’s creative services department) and provided the medical benefits to cover any of the cutting-edge treatments they might recommend. And the family leave time. And the life insurance.

I’d let go of all that because I was tired of driving on the interstate.

What a strange, sad conversation to have with my soon-to-be former employer: So hey, if it turns out my husband has lung cancer, do you think I could have my job back? We were in that weird no-man’s land in a large organizationmy exit paperwork had already been processed, so even if they would take me back (and if they wouldn’t, no one was cruel enough to say so), it wasn’t entirely clear if I could unquit at that point. Maybe I would have to start anew, with no credit for time already served. Maybe I would have to reapply and vie for the position with qualified people who didn’t have a looming family health crisis and who hadn’t previously resigned.

Exploratory surgery was scheduled on the same day my new job was to begin. (Stuff like that, they call you and tell you when it is.) We didn’t want to delay the surgery, and though it seemed a little crazy not to change my start date, I felt that I shouldn’t begin things as a special case, already asking for favors. If my husband were sick, we would need all kinds of leeway soon enough.

He had to check in for pre-op at some predawn hour, like 5:30, which was fine since there was so little sleep to be had the night before. We were wide-eyed awake, coiled together, but largely silent, almost too scared to talk. There was nothing to say. We didn’t know anything. My piercing regret that we hadn’t had a second child didn’t bear sharing at that moment.

My aunt, a nurse who worked at the hospital and was acquainted with the surgeon, met us so she could be there when my husband was brought to the recovery room; I would not be there. We said goodbye before they wheeled him to the OR, and I drove to my new company, suddenly, queasily aware of what a foolish decision I’d made. How normal did I suppose I could act today? What did I think I’d be capable of doing?

My phone buzzed just as I breached the gates of campus. We hadn’t thought there’d be news of any kindjust a biopsy and some tests and then another appointment to get the verdict, an appointment I would request time off for. But the doctor scoped his chest and recognized what he found there almost at once: sarcoid tumors, little clumps of inflammatory cells, not cancer. Not cancer.

I sat in the parking lot outside my new building and sobbed in relief. Then I went in and reported to work. One of the first things they had me do was have my badge picture taken.

Nearly six years later, I turn it over. Let it go.