My wife just retired. She worked for 39 years in a center for adults with disabilities, the last 17 as the boss. It’s not a sure thing she’ll let me publish this, because she hates being the center of attention, but I’m going to give it my best shot.
Thirty-nine years is a long time, and I often think about some of her stops along the road.
Before we were married, she came to visit me in school. I was attending the University of Minnesota and was taking a class that for some reason involved putting on a party at a large group home for people with significant disabilities. Keep in mind, this was almost half a century ago, and the setting was a little grim. For some reason Robin came along to the event. After it was over, we were cleaning up and I looked across the room. One of the residents was a man who had some sort of seizure disorder. He’d won a door prize and wanted to give it to his mother, along with a note to explain. He was a big guy, just barely verbal, and moved about with a certain amount of uncontrolled flailing. It wasn’t his fault, but he was a little scary. I was smitten, watching my petite, pretty girlfriend sitting next to this guy, pen and paper in hand, looking carefully up into his eyes so as to get exactly what he wanted to say written down.
After our kids came along, she started working at what was then called a Day Activity Center. It wasn’t what she’d been educated for, but the hours were the same as the school, so that worked. She was direct care staff, on the first rung of the ladder. She liked it, and was good at it. To advance, she needed a different education and so for a few years she drove 135 miles, one way, twice a week. That meant leaving work about 4:00 p.m. and getting home around midnight. It was a brutal effort, but when a job one step up the ladder opened up, she was ready, and a few years later when the top slot was available, she was the clear choice.
Over the years she’d almost always have something to talk about when she got home from work. Sometimes she shared her fury at the blizzard of pointless paperwork dumped on her desk from different agencies, sometimes there would be frustration at people issues, but the best days were when her eyes would light up because she’d managed to push through a disability and find the real person inside, someone she could relate to and work with. She loved that part of her job and she was better at it than most people could imagine.
One of my clearest memories is the time I saw her save someone’s life. A person she’d worked with for many years was in the hospital and the word that came down was that things weren’t looking good. We were headed to town to attend a Christmas party and she asked if we could swing by the hospital first. We went in the room and there was an employee of a group home sitting there, an untouched dinner tray and a small sad lump under the blankets.
I can’t imagine how terrifying it would be, to be sick and in pain, trapped in a non-verbal exterior, taken away from all that was familiar and put in a hospital full of baffling people and procedures. The consumer had just checked out. Hadn’t eaten for days and the prognosis was very grim. Robin started to talk to him and at the sound of her voice a head poked out from under the covers. She smiled, teased, chatted, and slowly, spoonful by spoonful, he ate his whole supper. I sat in the corner, smitten all over again. To be lonely and confused and afraid and then to have a loved and trusted voice cut through the darkness and despair and lure you back into the light…wow. There are many jobs where part of the job description is saving lives, but I’ve never before or since seen someone save a life just by being a good person.
We were late for the party, but a few days later her consumer triumphantly left the hospital.
So, she retired. It was time – her patience with state agencies was finally exhausted and the burgeoning paperwork had ground her down. Plus, she has other things she wants to do.
I imagine there are going to be days where she’ll miss her job.
But I’m confident the job is really going to miss her.
Copyright 2020 Brent Olson