One of my friends, and coworkers, passed away last month. It was completely out of the blue; he had been having some medical problems - serious, but not terminally serious - but was out of the hospital and planning on moving cross country with his wife at the end of the week. He actually met up with a bunch of us at a Cubs game just a couple of days beforehand - a little haggard but, by all accounts, in good spirits. Then overnight, at home, there was a complication and all of a sudden he was in the hospital in with “minimal brain activity” and in critical condition. When I came in to work the next day for the lunch shift the staff was walking around like zombies. The latest news was that the doctors were going to try a “hail-mary” surgery but the prognosis, obviously, wasn't very hopeful. But the world didn't stop just because our friend was all of a sudden probably about to die. The restaurant was still open, people were still coming in for lunch, the kitchen was still backed up, guests were still occasionally rude. And I still had to be friendly and give good service.
When word that he had passed made it around to me (and that's how it happened, the information wasn't announced so much as spread in whispers and asides from server to server) I was in the middle of getting an iced tea refill for table 106, had to go take an order for 107, check on the food (which was over twenty minutes) for table 108, and run a credit card at table 105. There simply wasn't time to process anything, much less grieve. Food still had to go out, orders still had to be taken, and iced teas still needed to be refilled.
The next 36 hours stood as a testament to the humanity and grace of our management and coworkers that, quite frankly, I would never have expected. Because of religious reasons Patrick's family was holding the funeral service just two days after his death - on a Saturday no less - making it nearly impossible for any of us to attend. Our GM and managers immediately started working with the floor plan: adjusting in-times, getting reliefs to come in early, running a couple of servers or food runners short, whatever they could do to free up those of us who were close to Patrick (and there were a lot of us, Pat was a career server and had been with the company 14 years) to attend the service. Newer employees who weren't as close to the man picked up doubles, came in early or stayed late without complaining, just so his friends could pay their respects and grieve in peace. Our former GM actually flew in from California the morning of the service so he could attend and I later heard through the grapevine that our current GM personally had helped out with Patrick's hospital costs
And it's that - that coming together of people working around the system, doing what needs to be done so that the business could keep running but that we, the actual human beings, could have our time - that makes me well up just sitting here writing about it, even over a month after it happened. Because the world doesn't stop for pain, or for tragedy, or for loss. We stop. The world itself is fairly indifferent. It's we who care, it's we who make the meaning. Tragedy takes us out of the world, makes us take stock and, hopefully, wakes us up to what's really important. And the days pass, and the earth keeps turning, and the tables do too. Before you know it you're right back to complaining about your shitty section, or the or the bad tip, or your managers or your coworkers or whatever whatever. But for a few days last month each of us knew what was really important, and each of us treated each other with genuine warmth and grace and care – like actual human beings.