Nana passed away last week.
Nana was my wife’s grandmother. After battling cancer, and finally beating it with the removal of a kidney, she eventually succumbed to infection — a side-effect of her immune system having been decimated by chemotherapy.
I am fortunate that I have not had to deal with death in my family since I began working full time. But a consequence of this is that I have never had to really decide how to balance related family affairs with the demands of work. In fact, I’ve never really had an experience where family and work collided. I’ve never had to answer the question: work or family. I’ve never had to draw a line in the sand.
In the absence of principles, decisions are hard. Every choice is new and has to be wrestled with singularly. I appreciate that life is complex, and that there are ethical positions that would have us grapple with every decision in this way. But values are important, and values should immediately translate into at least a small set of default positions.
I am fortunate to have a boss whom I also consider a friend and mentor. As the funeral was scheduled and I learned that it would conflict with work and work-travel commitments, I gave him a call. What he said was that, for him, family and religion are areas in which he refuses to compromise. Sure, work commitments might mean that you can’t make it to every one of your kid’s soccer games, but when it comes to things like funerals for close family members and religious holidays, he refuses to compromise, even it it might be moderately inconvenient.
I like to make the distinction between compromise and sacrifice. Compromise is what happens when preferences and tastes come into conflict. There’s nothing wrong with compromise, since compromising is often necessary for the sake of establishing, maintaining, and strengthening relationships. The art of compromise is the political virtue par excellence. Sacrifice, on the other hand, is what happens when you make a decision that conflicts with core values. To make a sacrifice, then, means calling who you are into question. It creates a significant dissonance between what you believe and what you do, and forces you to re-evaluate both. Compromise might be inconvenient, but sacrifice is unacceptable.
I have incredibly fond memories of Nana. She’s my wife’s grandmother, and so I have only known her for a relative short time. But in that time, I have enjoyed her sense of decorum (a true Southern Lady) and her authentic laughter punctuated by little snorts. I have enjoyed her cooking and her love of history. She, along with her husband ‘Papa,’ are committed to family above all else, and so it is fitting that her passing would itself leave this legacy: the fact that I am in Mississippi for Nana’s funeral and spending time with family as they recount stories and rekindle old relationships is a function of a decision precipitated by her passing.
I didn’t make a decision to take off time from work to spend with family in celebration of Nana’s life. The fact that I am here is a consequence of a decision that goes much deeper. It is the result of a line in the sand that I have drawn and now refuse to cross. (A line that I am embarrassed to say that I had not, strictly speaking, made sooner).