“My Voice” by Rich Ehrmann

Rich Ehrmann - 'Co-Survivor'

I’ve sat down four times to write this. The first three ending in a blank sheet of paper and nothing to write. Guess I had nothing to say, now I do. It’s strange how the floodgates can open up at times. There are five stages of grief: Denial, Anger, Bargaining,depression, acceptance. I’ve never gotten past the anger. The anger of diagnosis, the stigma of treatment, of watching a love one suffer and ultimately succumb to the disease.

That haunts me. Every Single Day.

I am not going to tell my mothers entire story, that is still available on her ‘Caringbridge’ page. As an abstract, she was first diagnosed with Stage 2 Breast Cancer in 1998 and Stage 3c Uterine Cancer in February 2007. A series of strokes left her weak enough that she could neither fight the disease nor communicate, as her aphasia was intense. It is difficult enough to treat a cancer patient, imagine one that would not communicate, except on her terms. What do I mean by that. she would see my wife or brother, and make kissing sounds, she’d give me a look of disgust or a hand wave. My father, god bless him, got the worst of it. My mother, despite the aphasia clearly could still pronounce one word and one word only and she used it every time she saw my father. “Fuckity, fuck, fuck, fucker.”

I’m hateful too. My employer at the time was not a hospitable place for a caregiver to work. I spoke with my immediate supervisor, on October 31, 2007 to let him know that I would be submitting paperwork for intermittent FMLA leave. I met all the pre-qualifications for taking the leave. I was told by my supervisor, Steve that the bank does not offer that option and even if they did, he would not allow that to happen, based upon my sales numbers from the 2nd and 3rd quarter. I said nothing, as I knew better. I submitted my paperwork to HR, imagine Steve’s surprise when he told that I was approved for intermittent leave to care for my mother. I would take at least one day a week,and visit her at UPENN Medical Center, St Lawrence rehab, Princeton Hospital, or the nursing home she was at. I would bring movies to play on my laptop–mostly action ones to keep her attention, we would go outside and sometimes I would just sit there and watch her sleep.

And then more problems arose, every quarter while on FMLA, I received a verbal warning for sales performance. The branch hit its goals, but I was not making my goals because of my FMLA leave. This only added more stress; I was even asked to bring work related material to the nursing home and talk to the nurses about opening accounts as that was a “great sales opportunity.” The s*#! hit the fan on on 07/31/2008 when I was again, placed on verbal warning for arriving at work late because of FMLA leave. I remember looking at my boss at the time and saying to her “you know you can’t do this.” She did not care. This was my fifth verbal warning and I had enough. I immediately called Human Resources, stated what happened and that my next phone call was to my attorney and to the Dept of Labor. The next day the verbal warning for attendance was rescinded.

At what point does it become too much? How do you deal with the emotional side of a dying parent and a workplace teetering on hostile. A tough balance to keep. I did it, it was not easy, but I survived it with the help my wife, my family and close friends. My mother passed on October 19, 2008. Two people from my job attended the funeral and wake, neither one working at my branch at the time. My old Branch Manager, Steve and the District Executive, Deb. A nice gesture on their part but I wondered where everyone else was. That was a turning point for me at work. I had 5 days of bereavement, the following Friday October 24, 2008 my material grandmother passed away – 4 days after my mother. I went to work the next Monday, only because I needed to have sales production — two weeks with zero accounts was a very big no-no. Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday were my bereavement days. I went back to work Friday and was told by the DM that I had to let the past be in the past and to concentrate on my job and really ramp up production. I remember saying to myself “Are you f*#%ing kidding me? I lost my mother and grandmother in the space of one week and you are worried about how many damn checking accounts I open?” That is when I stopped caring about what their expectations were and did I could every day. And I did that for a year. I lost my job in November and that’s okay. I wonder how many employees lose with this “production at all costs attitude?”

Those of you that know me, know that I love twitter (selfish plug — follow me livestrongnj). I came across a quote on twitter that Chris Brewer, staffer at the Lance Armstrong Foundation made,

“For me, cancer was the wake-up call I needed to be a better person and focus more on my family, community, and a cause larger than myself. As a result of my diagnosis it was the first time I could look at working on being significant and not just successful.”

I doubt he knows it, but that hit me pretty hard…..”significant and not just successful.” It motivated me, got me out of “park” and moving forward again, this time to be significant. I am hoping to enter a program that will allow me to obtain my BSN in one year, my MSN in the year after. I want to make a difference, I want to help people and I’ll be eternally gratefully to Chris for showing me that path.

I am honored to have Lance Armstrong climb Verbier in honor of my commitment to the LAF and in memory of my mother Louise Ehrmann.

Lance Armstrong Talking about the Tour de France Stage 15 and his dedication to Rich.