Henry Shillet: Losing my job but gaining perspectiveI was laid off on March 26, 2009.
I am an executive recruiter, but with the economy the way it has been, companies have been less willing to part with placement fees, and my position was deemed to be surplus to requirements.
I’m writing this essay to explain why I’m calm (some would say, “complacent”) and not at all upset at what the British euphemistically term “having been made redundant.” These events transpired in the hours immediately before and after my layoff. This is not some apocryphal allegory that I culled from a blog; neither is it some inspirational story that I plucked out of an email. This happened to me, not a friend or an acquaintance. I’m confident that, if you are not moved or impressed by what happened, you’ll nevertheless be able to share it with someone who will find the story extremely “useful.” I have intentionally avoided using the word “inspirational.”
On Wednesday, March 25, I was getting ready for bed. It had been a stressful few days as my colleagues and I knew that the unemployment axe was about to drop. We had been told that layoff notices would be issued by the end of that week. Before calling it a day, I checked my email, and noticed a Facebook message from a woman named Alison who lived in Sacramento. I had no idea who she was. The message was short and to the point:
“Did you live in New York and work for CBS when you were young(er)?”
Although some small part of me was concerned that any reply I issued would be followed by calls of “Daddy, I’ve finally found you!”, I nevertheless wrote back that I used to live in New York, and work at CBS. I then asked this woman to elaborate. She wrote back:
“Today I was at my mom’s house, going through some boxes of old correspondence, etc. and found a couple of letters from a Henry Shillet addressed to my sister, Janet.”
She went on to say that, “The letters followed a trip my sister had taken to New York when she was around 15 (roughly 1976 or so)”, and “I hope that you remember my beautiful sister, though I’m not going to get my hopes up because it was so long ago and probably a very brief encounter. You’ll be happy to know that your letters were full of optimism as you seemed to be on the verge of a burgeoning career at CBS (or the local CBS station) and were also considering a move out West.”
Those letters were written in 1978, when I was 22. Those who know me can confirm that (after a few detours) I did end up in California, and that (after even more detours) I was able to land a job on the assignment desk at the CBS News bureau in London. Incredibly, not only did I remember Alison’s sister Janet, I had never forgotten her. Even more amazing, I had kept a photo that I had taken of her and her great-aunt the only time I had ever met her, at a Cosmos soccer game at Giants Stadium in the summer of 1978.
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I don’t keep photo albums. I store my photos in a box. And when the box becomes too small to accommodate the photos, do I then start an album? No. I look for a bigger box. And whenever I have transferred my photos into bigger boxes over the last 30 years, I have always made it a point to place the photo of Janet on top of the pile. Why? I honestly don’t know, aside from the fact that it was such a pretty photo from a very exciting time in my life.
Anyway, I wrote back to Alison on Facebook to say that I would be happy to email the photo to her if she would provide an email address. It was now 1 a.m. on Thursday, March 26 so I finally went to bed.
About eight hours later, I was informed that I had been laid off. Within an hour, I received the following Facebook message from Alison in Sacramento:
“I’m so happy to hear that you remember Janet! She must’ve made an impression, not surprising since this was her effect on almost everyone who met her. In fact, Janet’s high school boyfriend told me at her funeral that he never got over her — and they hadn’t even seen each other in more than a decade!” It turns out that Alison’s sister Janet had died in a motorcycle accident in 1994. Not surprisingly, Alison provided an email address to which I could send the photo of her sister.
Later that day, I wrote to inform Alison that I had been laid off. I added the following:
“Your email has really struck a chord in me, and I have not stopped talking about you and Janet all day despite my layoff. She was a breath of fresh air (which 15-year old girl shouldn’t be?), and it is an absolute tragedy that she was struck down in the prime of her life. Maybe the events of the last two days had to happen so that I would accept my layoff with the sense of perspective lent by the story of your beautiful sister. I think I owe her…and YOU!” I attached the photo that you see in this essay.
Folks, my point is this: At the very point that I could have been forgiven for indulging in some self-pity at having lost my job, a woman I had known for less than 24 hours was writing to thank me for having provided her a tiny memory of her sister who was cut down in the prime of her life, at age 31. My job will be replaced in a matter of months; Alison will never be able to replace Janet. What right did I have to feel sorry for myself? Absolutely none!
I have shared this story because, especially in these days, either you or someone you love may be going through a layoff or the breakup of some other type of relationship. Please put it into perspective. If you have your health, if you have your loved ones, most obstacles can be overcome. At the start of this essay, I intentionally avoided using the word “inspirational” when setting the stage for my story. In no way can the death of a 31-year old be described as “inspirational.” However, I hope you agree that the story you’ve just read could be “useful” in helping us to gain the right perspective about our situations.
What are the odds that, 15 years after the death of her sister, a woman would discover letters written to that sister 30 years ago? Furthermore, what are the odds that the woman would immediately turn to Facebook in an attempt to track down the individual who wrote those letters? Even furthermore, what are the odds that she would track down the individual, that he would remember a girl he last contacted 30 years ago, and that he would still have a picture of her?! I refuse to believe that these events happened for no reason. Consequently, I decided to share the story of my ‘reunion’ with Janet, a ‘reunion’ that brought with it a renewed sense of perspective.
Stay happy, stay healthy, stay safe, stay employed!
Postscript: In the interim, I have spoken with Alison by phone. During our first conversation, we agreed that her beautiful sister’s death would not be in vain. She gave me permission to share this story. Alison, I hope I have done justice to your sister’s wonderful life and her untimely death. You and I are now lifetime friends! I dedicate this essay to Janet.