I have now been back to work for the “first” time (full disclosure: I had a few failed attempts) in two years. The first few days were a strange, disorienting experience. I felt like a burglar sneaking into the building, fully expecting my pass to set off alarms when I went through security. I had a nagging worry my office wasn’t going to be there. I stopped by a colleague’s office – a dear friend – before going to my own office to try and delay facing what I feared: I had no office or job and somehow no one told me before today. My friend (who is much more senior, delightfully direct, and would obviously have known and told me if I had no job to come back to) had her back turned to me when I knocked on her open door and said “give me a minute” a couple of times before turning to face me, while I stood there with a growing knot in my stomach. And then she turned around and saw me and yelled my name and ran over and gave me a big hug. One hurdle down – it didn’t appear they were going to throw me out of the building.
Now for hurdle number two. Together, we walked over to my office – I really did have myself convinced at this point my office had been moved. And let me say, this is not a crazy belief to hold after being away from your job for two years. How many firms would hold a person’s office for them for that long, especially when it is unclear if and when the person is coming back? I really loved my office too. It was in a great location, in a quiet corner with floor to ceiling windows on two sides. Many times, I thought about my office when I was sick. All the light coming in, the view out my window. I know it may seem strange to think about this kind of thing, but that office was my home away from home. I could imagine people asking why someone else didn’t get this office, especially as our firm had been growing rapidly and running out of space. I could imagine my stuff being boxed up, my painting and photograph being taken off the wall and packed up and moved to a darker, more temporary office. Again, I recognize this may sound like a weird thing to be thinking about when you are in the middle of a health crisis, but this thought did cross my mind many times. I suppose the act of imagining someone taking the pictures off the wall in my office represented my fear that I was never going to get this huge piece of my identity back. This fear was almost tangible as we made our way through the corridor. And then I walked in and saw everything was the same as the day I left. My pictures were hanging on the wall. My coffee cup was still sitting on my desk. Even the tube of Chapstick that I kept between my computer monitors was still waiting for me to pick up as I used to do as I read through my email first thing every morning. It was all there, every last physical detail of my life in that office, exactly where I left it. And then it all of a sudden felt like the last two years were just a bad dream, that I was just coming back to my office after the weekend.
I went back and forth between these feelings for most of the week – I either was in the building illegally and waiting to get caught or the last two years simply didn’t happen – as I slowly started to get everything working again and get reconnected with people at work. So many people stopped by my office those first few days. Like me, they were also in shock I was back. Some people ran over and hugged me. A few people blinked back tears. I did too. I can’t quite put into words how it all felt. All I can tell you is that it was one of the strangest and happiest weeks of my life.
I had to figure out a way to try and ease back into work while I figured out how much work I could physically handle. I am so much better than I was even a month ago, but I still tire pretty easily. At the end of a few hours in the office, I realize that the muscles I use to stand or sit for extended periods of time feel sore and exhausted. My abs were literally sore from sitting upright. That gives you some idea of how much time I had been spending in bed. And although I tried to wait to come back until I was relatively stable, it had really only been six weeks since surgery #3 and I still had some outstanding problems. Was my body going to be able to handle the regular stressors of work? The work our firm does tends to involve some erratic hours and a fair amount of stress. The unpredictability of the job was one of the things that (in moderation) made the job fun and exciting. But how would my piece of junk body feel about it now? The plan was going to be to try to find the right balance of “exciting and erratic” and “calm and predictable” hours. I was also going to start with part-time hours and slowly ramp up to full-time (which around here is typically 50+ hours a week) gradually.
The other big problem I had to deal with after my first week was the fact that I literally had nothing to wear. When I left work the first time two years ago, I was a size 2 and had a closet full of clothes. The first set of tumors caused me to gain 70 pounds. The second set of tumors made it extremely hard to breathe and I was barely able to get around. It was impossible to lose the weight, due to ongoing hormonal problems and the fact that I could not exercise at all. I have been able to lose over 20 pounds between July and now, but obviously still have a long way to go. Buying new clothes while I was at this “transition” weight was something I avoided doing unless absolutely necessary because it wasn’t very fun, frankly, and I didn’t want to waste money on clothes that I didn’t plan to fit into for very long (if you are thinking “it’s been two years already, just buy some clothes and don’t worry about your appearance” you can shove it up your ass. It’s a lot harder than you think. Go gain 70 pounds and then just get over it. Please let me know how that works out for you). So when I went into my closet and realized I own one pair of pants that were work appropriate and fit, I knew I was going to have to do something about this whether I liked it or not.
Luckily for me, I have a secret weapon – an incredibly stylish and talented sister-in-law. We went through my closet and tossed or stored everything that didn’t fit. She then helped me to order a few things that will be the work wardrobe to get me through what will hopefully be losing the next 50 pounds or so (if all goes according to plan). The gods are clearly smiling on me as ponchos are very much in style this year – and they come in one size! Many of them are dressy enough for work. With a stretchy pant and some nice shoes, I hope to continue to shrink underneath the poncho of the day. I now have a work uniform that can get me through this transition period. I couldn’t be happier.
The weekend after my first week of work, I attended a brunch at the home of my friend, the one who walked with me to my office for the first time. The brunch was to celebrate my marriage to M back in April. Two of my other colleagues were also invited to the brunch, along with their spouses and children. All three of these colleagues are in the most senior positions in our firm and are, in one capacity or another, my bosses. We have been trying to coordinate this brunch since April, but between their bruising schedules and the fact that I have been very sick and unreliable, it has taken awhile to find a date that worked for everyone. This weekend turned out to be the perfect time to celebrate.
The morning of the brunch, M and I were running around doing some errands. As I was driving alone in the car, listening to the radio, enjoying the fall foliage and looking forward to seeing everyone at this brunch, I was struck by a wave of gratitude out of the blue and started sobbing. I was feeling better. Not perfect, and I didn’t know how long it was going to last, but at this present moment I felt better. A lot better. I had started dating a wonderful man just as I was getting sick and he stuck with me through all this and married me during the worst of it. I worked at a firm that not only didn’t boot me out when I got sick and had to take a long leave of absence, they made me feel like a long-lost relative when I came back. I had bosses – the people I was going to have brunch with in a few hours – that were smart, funny, kind people who not only facilitated this process at work, they KEPT COMING TO SEE ME THE ENTIRE TIME I WAS SICK. Every single month, the entire time I was ill, I saw at least one of them at my home. I can’t tell you how many bouquets of flowers, gift baskets, and plants my firm sent me after surgeries, hospital stays and setbacks. I appreciate the flowers and goodies very much. But I can’t even begin to tell you what the regular visits did for me. Anyone who has been sick for a long time can tell you how truly extraordinary this is. That they didn’t give up on me and just disappear helped me keep hope alive when things weren’t looking or feeling very hopeful. Later this morning, I was going to celebrate all of these wonderful things and wonderful people.
I used to think the phrase “stop and smell the roses” was just a stupid cliche. Forget smelling the roses. I am going to hurl myself into the rose bush every single day for the next while. This period of time feels so magical after the past few years. I plan to embrace every second.