But you’re handling everything.

August 9, 2019.  This is a post that I wrote on Wattpad back in 2014.  At the time I was jumping from this blog to Medium to Wattpad.  On Wattpad, I started to write about important chapters in my adult life, before and after Laura.  Another writing project that remains half finished.  In any case, this chapter pulls together different pieces I’ve written about October 21, 2009, one of the most critical days in my life.  The post speaks for itself.  Those who have been following this blog will recognize the themes that continue to this day.

One interesting footnote to this chapter in my life.  The person who was sabotaging me at work back in 2009 recently suffered the loss of a position as municipal administrator in the context of widely publicized allegations questioning that person’s integrity and competence.  By the time I retired as township manager I had become even more estranged from this person.  Many of my friends from the time we worked together regarded this person’s downfall as well-deserved karma.  Despite my feelings along those lines, I did reach out and offered my moral support. Not out of any high moral motives, but because I knew from my own experience as a municipal manager that I had escaped similar treatment by the skin of my teeth.  We did reach a guarded reconciliation.

Here is the 2014 post about October 21, 2009.

I have posted before about the events of October 21, 2009, but these posts were scattered between two websites and took key events out of the context of the day and the day somewhat out of the context of the trajectory of Laura’s illness. Previously I even posted a story on Wattpad with the same title that I’m using for this piece. I’ve incorporated that post into this one because I became so involved in relating my own personal battles at work that I never got to the punch line, Laura’s statement: “But you’re handling everything.”

The MRI for which we were waiting in the last post, La Folia, showed that Laura’s tumor continued to grow after a year of multiple courses of treatment. At the clinic visit where we learned this news, the surgeon and the radiologist gave Laura the first two of what she called their “kiss-offs.” The oncologist wanted to give Avastin one more shot (bad pun intended). Laura started coming to Philadelphia every two weeks for an infusion. Luckily Anne Mei had started taking the school bus every day so we did not have an issue of getting her to school first.

The traffic on I-95 into Philadelphia is always bad, but as the weeks rolled by in September and October 2009 it seemed to get worse and worse. Because we were late for the first two infusions, I left half an hour early on October 21st. We were still half an hour late. (For her last scheduled infusion on November 4, I allowed two and half hours for what should be an hour trip. Because there was a transit strike that morning, we barely made it on time.)

Laura was now down to less than 100 pounds so we were delighted to learn that she had put on 1.5 pounds in the two weeks since her last infusion. Cakes, pies, cookies, and quiches supplied by friends and co-workers had helped.

After the infusion we crossed 10th Street to the Starbucks at the corner of Chestnut Street, where we met Laura’s law school classmate and friend, Jared Garelick, who had taken the train up from Washington, D.C., to see Laura. We then walked the four or five blocks over to the Reading Terminal Market at 12th and Filbert for lunch.

As the name implies the Market occupies an old, downtown railway terminal. The southeast quadrant of the Market is filled with fruit and vegetable stands. On the main aisles transecting the Market there are butchers, bakers, seafood shops, cheese stores, ethnic food shops. Towards the northeast quadrant there are stalls with costume jewelry, ethnic clothes, and other trinkets. Interspersed among these and along the west and north sides of the market are places to buy prepared food to eat. A section in the middle of the Market, running to the west end, has tables to take your food to eat. Finding a seat is not for the faint of heart at lunchtime, which was when we arrived.

Laura, Jared and I entered by the door at the southwest corner, off 12th Street. Before we really had a chance to talk about where to get our food, Laura made a beeline to the Amish chicken place at the north end of the Market. Jared and I followed along. As long as I’d known her, Laura had never been a big eater so I was surprised when she ordered the barbecued half chicken plate, complete with fries and slaw. I forget what Jared and I ordered and ate because I was so fixated on getting Laura and her meal safely through the crowds to a table. I remember the three of us crowding around one of the small, two-person tables next to one of the metal pillars that had been painted with 50 coats of dull brownish paint. Laura immediately unwrapped her chicken and dug in with both hands. She always liked the dark meat best so she started with the thighs and drumsticks, but she went on to finish the breast and every other morsel of meat, along with the skin, the fries and the slaw. Jared and I did our best to keep up with her. By the time she finished, there were only bones and grease on the paper plate. Laura didn’t gobble the food down like a starving person. She just thoroughly enjoyed every single bite. Watching her eat gave me as much pleasure as she was getting from the food.

We knew without being told that this was probably the last Avastin infusion. The oncologist’s Hail Mary pass was not working. As we pulled onto the interstate heading out of the city, I told Laura that I would go on family leave and then retire. I didn’t say it then, but throughout this whole ordeal, I had felt guilty about all the time Laura had spent at home alone while I was at work. She asked what I would do with myself if I retired. I said that I would write, something I had wanted to do for years. In her inimitable way with words, even in her weakened state and advanced aphasia, Laura asked, “Why do you want to waste your time? What are you going to do, read and scribble?” As one doctor told us at the beginning, “Anger brings back those words.”

Particularly since we received the news that the stereotactic radio surgery (SRS) had not worked, Laura had been fretting about what was going to happen to Anne Mei and me. She felt that I needed to hang on to my position as township manager, just as I was becoming more and more alienated from that job. But there was more to it than that. That’s the way she saw me. She said that it would be better if I did consulting, or got an academic job, if I changed jobs at all.

At this point, Laura mostly wanted everything to stay the same—with me working and Anne Mei in private school. I tried to explain that family leave was not some noble, altruistic gesture. I tried to explain that family leave would actually protect me from some of the nastiness I was experiencing at work. I could not get through. She knew that she was not going back to her job. She feared that any move on my part would jeopardize my job. She kept repeating, “We have conflicts.”

Reading and scribbling were, of course, precisely what cancer in the left temporal lobe of her brain had taken from Laura. Reading and scribbling may have been my salvation, but their absence was Laura’s cross.

Laura was not speaking hypothetically about my reading and scribbling. For years Laura had been going to bed an hour or two before I did. While she read in bed and then went to sleep, I would sit in a recliner in the living room with our dog Toto on my lap, reading and making notes on what I read. The scribbling part had begun after my mother died, about eight years before Laura’s diagnosis. For reasons I still do not understand, I started Emmanuel Levinas’ Totality and Infinity for the fourth or fifth time during my mother’s final illness. I actually finished it shortly after she died. Not only did I not understand Levinas very well, I realized how limited my philosophical education had been. So instead of my usual fare of pulp fiction, I started plowing my way through the classics of Western philosophy and taking notes. During this period I also did yoga and then started taiji, leading to reading and scribbling Daoist and Buddhist philosophy. During Laura’s illness my reading changed to Buddhist scriptures.

Laura took a nap when we got home. As we were getting our jackets on later to take a walk around the neighborhood, I received an email on my Treo. (Blackberries were still considered status symbols, but I didn’t have one. They and iPhones were thought too expensive for our municipal budget at that time.) The email said that a meeting had been scheduled for me for the next day to talk with the crossing guards, who were angry that they were going to have to start paying part of the premiums for health insurance.

We had had this flap before because of the way the township ordinance on their compensation was written. Most of the school crossing-guards were housewives or retired. A core group had been doing this work for decades and had reached the top of the pay scale years before. They stayed at the job mostly for the free health insurance they received, a carry-over from the inexpensive plan that the township had back in the 90s. The employees loved the service provided by this plan, and the township liked its low-cost. As might be expected and, unfortunately for me, just before I started as township manager, the plan went bankrupt. The original ordinance providing health insurance for the part-time crossing guards, a rarity even in New Jersey, had stipulated that they would only have to contribute towards premiums if those premiums exceeded a certain amount, based on the premiums of the low-cost plan. Within a year or two the premiums of the new plans exceeded this cap, causing the first outcry from the senior crossing-guards. The ordinance was re-written to set a higher cap and to restrict coverage only to the most senior guards, who actually constituted the majority of the guards at that time. Even the more conservative, business-oriented members of township council acquiesced because it was very difficult to recruit people to such a low-paying job. If we did not have enough guards, police officers earning an hourly rate many, many times that of the crossing guards would have to do the work. Besides, the guards were very popular with the parents and children and hence with voters.

About a month before I received this email about meeting with the crossing-guards, the personnel director told me that health insurance premiums had started to exceed the revised trigger for crossing-guard contributions at least a year before. No mention, of course, that it was this person’s job to manage such terms and conditions of employment. Only, Mr. Manager, you have a problem. We’ve been breaking the law. The crossing-guards have not been making the payments required by the ordinance. Do you want to charge them retroactively for what they owe the township?
Since the question was posed in that fashion, I made what I thought was the humane decision, which was just to inform the guards that they would have to start making contributions going forward. Retroactive payments could have amounted to more than some guards made in a year.

I should have smelled a rat when within a matter of hours I was presented with a letter to the guards for me to sign. Usually these kinds of personnel notices were promulgated by the personnel director. When the guards came to the personnel director after receiving the letter, they were told that it was my decision to suddenly start enforcing the ordinance.

Very quickly the guards contacted township council members and candidates for township council to protest my decision. One of the council candidates who was running on an anti-tax platform had one of the more vociferous crossing-guards in his ward. Even he called me to ask how to get her off his back. The protest received more publicity when some of the guards came to a televised township council meeting to argue that the contributions for those receiving family coverage would exceed their total earnings for the year. Ignoring the fact that they were receiving generous health benefits at a fraction of the total cost, they were very effective in spinning the line that they would have to pay the township to work for the township. Of course, no elected official could be so blunt as to point out the fallacy of their argument, especially just before an election. I didn’t either because I had learned the hard way not to deflate the arguments of members of the public at council meetings. In the first place putting people down just added to the underlying resentment of talking to Mr. Know-it-all in a suit sitting up above on a dais. It always came across as the strong beating up on the weak. And it put the politicians in the uncomfortable position of letting their employee embarrass their constituents in front of them.

While I anticipated that this uproar would get settled along the lines of the last one, I made no move to retract the letter, and none of the council members or candidates made any public moves to resolve the issue. I did meet with some of the crossing-guard leaders to review the issues and promised to see what could be done before they actually had to start making any contributions.

The crossing-guard leaders, however, had been at this game for many years. They knew that their greatest leverage was just before a municipal election. While I was out taking Laura to her Avastin infusion, they went to the personnel director to push for a decision. Rather than explaining to the crossing-guards why she had thought this matter needed immediate attention, much less why she originally recommended that they be charged for the contributions they owed for the previous year, the personnel director told them to come back the next day, a Friday, to meet with me.

Then she had my secretary send me the email that I received just as Laura and I were heading out for a walk. All the time we were walking I was fuming about how I had been set up. In addition to the implications of the whole uproar, I knew that the council meeting on the following Tuesday would be the last council meeting before the election. Even before council meetings started to be televised live, the last session just before an election always was an occasion for partisan posturing and for various interest groups to put the council on the spot to act immediately or lose votes. I knew as soon as I read the email that however my meeting with crossing-guards went on Friday, it would become a drama to be played out on camera on Tuesday.

I was also displeased that I had to be the one to understand the problem this Friday meeting created for me. Or, even more displeasing, perhaps the person who set up the meeting knew very well how dangerous it was for me. I was also kicking myself for being so distracted that I made such a controversial decision in haste only weeks before an election. That was not like someone who had survived 15 years as a municipal administrator. Despite my initial mistake I knew that, distracted as I was, I would never have given an angry group such an opportunity to manufacture ammunition on the eve of an event where township council and I would be most vulnerable.

All these thoughts raced through my head as Laura and I made the circuit through our neighborhood. As we reached the last leg, I told her in general terms what I’d been thinking about and tried to explain to her why this was a good example of my reasons for wanting to be with her on family leave. I felt that I was doing both jobs poorly, managing the township and taking care of her.

This morning Laura’s response was “We have conflicts.” This afternoon it was “But you’re handling everything.” I certainly didn’t think that I was, but Laura desperately needed to believe that. She needed to hear that from me, even when I felt like an incompetent dupe.

When we finished our walk, I called my secretary and asked her to postpone the meeting with the crossing guards because I needed more time to study the issues, sending the signal that decision was not fixed in stone. Then I made supper for Laura, Anne Mei, and me.