By Brian G. Ricca, EdD
I first heard this word in the fall of 1982. I don’t remember the details, just the upshot. My grandfather was diagnosed with it and had approximately six to eight months to live. If you were wondering, that doesn’t land well with a third-grader.
I LOVED my Grandpa, and he loved me. I have distinct, down to the smallest detail, memories of some of my most cherished moments with him. Before I went to school, on Fridays, I would watch Sesame Street, then go outside and wait by the corner for his car to come up the street, with him and my Nana coming to pick me up. We would go to the nursing home where my Omar (great-grandmother) was living. Just the three of us – not my parents, brother, or sister. Just me.
While at the nursing home, I was the king of that castle. Seriously, I must have thrown off the average age of the people there by a factor of ten. I had the run of the place. Even to the point that once, when I got a hard candy stuck in my throat, I was told at least three nurses came to my aid, turned me upside down, and whacked my back until it was dislodged.
Then, the ride home to get hot dogs, from a truck on the right-hand side of the road, right off their exit. Allegedly, I once said, “You can drop off Nana first,” wanting to have him all to myself. I really was in love with her too. After hot dogs, I spent the rest of the day with him where he worked.
Then that six-letter word: cancer. And in the spring of 1983, he passed away. As a third-grader, it made no sense. It still makes no sense to this day, and this spring, it will be forty years later.
I was reminded of that twice this week when two different email messages came into my inbox. Both had that six-letter word. Both brought me back to the spring of 1983.
The first was a staff member telling me they needed a day for a follow-up visit. The day was next to an existing nonemployment day, and while permission was not required, this individual wanted to ensure I knew why the absence occurred. During the message, this person stated the reason for the follow-up, and it had to do with cancer.
I couldn’t write back fast enough to acknowledge receipt of the message. I shared how unnecessary it was and my gratitude for sharing part of their story with me. Also completely unnecessary. After clicking send, I sat back and thought of my grandfather.
One day later, another message came in from a different staff member, also including that six-letter word. This time it was letting me know someone in their family had been recently diagnosed, and while again unnecessary, letting me know they would need some of their sick days to be with his person. I again acknowledged their message, expressed my empathy and gratitude. Clicked send and, once again, thought of my grandfather.
One word. Two days in a row. Changing lives.
The truth is neither individual needed to share their stories with me. Sick days are not only for the individuals themselves but for families. I’m humbled that they did. It gives me a little more of a window into who they are, both because they chose to share with me and to ensure that I can have the whole picture. Sometimes because I’m the superintendent, I’m entitled to that, but in this case, both employees chose to share with me. I’m proud of that.
It also reminds me that we all know so little about the lives of others. We see their behaviors when they come to work, and we have no idea what else they’re dealing with when they go home. I learned a critical lesson from one of my first principals when he told me, “It’s our job to walk with people during every phase of their lives.” It’s why my commitment to relationships is so fundamental to my leadership.
We really don’t know what is happening in the lives of the people around us beyond what we see day-to-day. Be kind.
It’s not trite. It’s true.
Brian G. Ricca, EdD, is the superintendent of East Greenwich Public Schools.