Special work assignments usually offer special experiences. Like the time I cooked and test-marketed new hamburger sandwiches — mushroom Swiss and pizza barbecue — as part of a promotion for a fast-food chain, or when I ran catering triage behind the scenes of a professional golf tournament. These out-of-the-office jobs opened my eyes to real assembly-line production and the unglamorous side of glamorous events.
One recent special assignment was no less special: Unlike previous experiences, however, this assignment wasn’t part of my career development or advancement. This assignment was part of life development.

My stroke-impaired mother had fallen and broken her kneecap. I flew from my home in Chicago to her home in Dayton, Ohio, to see her immediately after her surgery. Mom lived on the special-needs floor of an assisted -living facility with 25 or more active, agitated and addled residents, all needing assistance, seemingly all at the same time. I believed that Mom would require more assistance than her fair share, and in order to assess her needs my younger brother and I filled in as her personal health aides for a day.

9:00 a.m. I got here at 7:30 a.m., and I’m now promising to never complain about my real job again. Ever try to move someone in a leg cast from bed to chair? Comfortably? I soon had a long way to go in gaining my mother’s confidence after I fell on top of her during that transfer. The logistics of dressing someone who’s wheelchair-bound proved difficult, too. Why didn’t I think of changing her from pajamas to pants when she was still in bed?

Then there was the facility’s breakfast routine, which was anything but. Staff moved people to seats. Residents moved seats. I wheeled Mom to her appointed spot and tried to keep roaming residents from bumping into her slightly extended leg. I helped Mom eat, cut Eileen’s bacon and filled juice glasses for Walter, Pete and Naomi. Naomi repeatedly told us that she was going home right after breakfast, which is why she had her jewelry packed in her handbag.
11 a.m. Lunch tests my integrity. For some reason that I can’t remember, Mom is on a soft-food diet. I couldn’t pretend that her plate of pureed cheeseburger and fries looked or might even taste good. Mom taught me never to lie, so I had to agree with her decision to reject the plate. She also taught me not to be greedy — but that day she also indicated, with a limp smile and vigorous head nod, that she agreed with my plans to bend the rules by snaring an extra butterscotch pudding dessert.

Then the noon bell chimed and lunch was over. Over at noon. The afternoon loomed, with nothing to do but what I could invent. I haven’t had down time on the job in years. In the past, Mom and I could while away many an hour in a bookstore or a mall department store. But today, what would we do? What could we do?

I quickly brainstormed. The ice cream social? That was three hours away. Go back to her room and look at family photos. Again? We did that between breakfast and lunch. Plus, it upset her when she didn’t remember people, and upset me when we had to play the dead-or-alive game or when I just pretended that everyone was still alive.

There really wasn’t any place to take a walk; besides, Mom’s cast, coupled with my inadequate wheelchair-steering abilities, had already proven a dangerous combination when we rolled a little too close to another resident’s slipper-clad feet.

Just as I was ready to convince Mom that she needed a nap, realizing that she probably had tried the same tactic with me when I was a kid, Naomi invited us to her “house” for some music. Thank goodness, I thought. An invitation to a social activity. Holding Mom’s leg at a 90-degree angle to her body, I followed Naomi out of the dining area and parallel parked the wheelchair into a prime spot by the television in the activity lounge. Other residents filled the couch and chairs. Holding onto the pillow supporting her leg, Mom said, “This is fun.” Wiping sweat off my upper lip and noticing it was only quarter past noon, I wondered why time wasn’t flying.

Naomi loaded a well-loved Lawrence Welk videotape into the VCR, and we were transported to a musical tribute to Cole Porter. Mom, whom I’ve never known to sing or dance, started to hum and tap her cast-bound toes in the air. Naomi knew all the lyrics and conducted her resident-audience like a choir, all the time clutching her purse to her chest.

I sang along during the second viewing of the tape, that is, when I wasn’t helping Sam find his room, stopping Steve from setting off the alarm or dancing with Agnes. During the third viewing I settled into a great conversation with Frank about his days in the RAF. Frank said I was scrumptious and Mom promptly told him to go away.

After the ice cream social, a round of bingo, the creamed dinner and another sing-along, my younger brother relieved me. It was almost 8 p.m. Mom asked, “When will you be back to work tomorrow?”

“I have to work in another city tomorrow,” I explained.
“You can work here,” she assured me. “They’ll let you.”
“Mom, I don’t work here, I visit here. This was just a special day.”

She wasn’t fooled, and neither was I. What I did was work. And it was work of a special kind for the most grateful client.

Writer, commentator and humorist Julie Danis is a Chicago-based strategic marketing professional and a consumer insights lecturer at Northwestern University. She’s worked for Frito-Lay, Inc. and held senior-level strategist positions at J. Walter Thompson/Chicago and Draft/Foote, Cone & Belding advertising agencies. An editor and contributor to The Works magazine, Danis wrote a column called “It’s a Living,” featured in the Sunday Chicago Tribune, and has contributed workplace commentary to public radio’s Marketplace. She speaks to various groups on the subject “How to Make Work Work for You.” For part one of the story, click here.

Join the conversation

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

  • Wendy Bainbridge November 23, 2014 at 9:10 pm

    great story