Bob’s Going Away, a Reflection on Health and Values

Every afternoon Bob cleaned my office.  He cleaned with a smile.  He smiled when it was cold out; he smiled when it was hot.  Most of all he just smiled.

There certainly is dignity in all human work.  It’s commonplace to ascribe and glorify a certain quiet dignity to manual labor, especially coming from today’s office professionals who do their work while sitting down in front of a computer. But this post is not about Bob’s quiet dignity, although he had it, and had it in abundance.  No, this post is about something a little different: Bob’s going away party.

The email came at 11:27 or 11:48 or one of those innocuous times that all blur together in the modern whirl of online communication.  The subject line was simple enough: “cake in the break room.”

Many offices do cake-in-the-break-room as a matter of course, a workplace ritual of small talk mixed with office talk, none of it too serious and all of it conscious of the sugary sweets we’re gathered to consume. Being relatively new to the office, I shied away from leading the charge to the break room.  A little past the start time, a coworker brought a slice of cake to my office and invited me to join the party.

The break room was as it always was.  It took awhile for me to get that other things were not as they always were.

This was Bob’s going away party, so I assumed he was retiring.  That was, sadly, not the case.

As I learned, Bob was going away for a round of cancer treatment.  “You’ll beat it,” rang the break room chorus.  “You’re great, and we’ll see you back here,” was the specific sentiment coming from many cake-filled mouths.

The next day I asked a coworker about Bob’s cancer.  I learned more details about the tumor, and it all seemed so routine.  It might be inoperable, but odds were the doctors would blast that thing with radiation and other assorted chemicals. That’s how we beat cancer nowadays.

A mere two weeks later came a second email: Stage IV tumor continued to grow…body broken down from treatment…Bob is in hospice.  My eyes reddened and my head hurt.

It turned out that Bob had known his cancer was terminal all along, although this fact just was not shared widely within the office.  It was, of course, entirely reasonable and appropriate to keep the details private in such a situation, but the whole episode left me reflecting upon the dignity of life, about how we value each other.

Bob seemed to receive the treatment and much of the support he needed, which, of course, he had worked hard for and deserved. Even though his life could not be saved, Bob had access to quality care and, because of that quality care, Bob’s dignity was maintained. Bob faced dying with dignity, and he even ate cake and joked at his own going away party. This led me to think: does everyone have the same opportunity that Bob did?  If not, does everyone deserve the same as Bob: an affordable chance at treatment, a support system that places patients in control of their care?

I’m sure almost all would agree that we should value human life, but there are deep trenches in the policy debate about who should get what care how often and for what cost.

Bob worked in a Courthouse and a Post Office, institutions that had long-established benefit plans allowing for life-valuing care. This particular Courthouse was privatized (sold by the government and rented back by the judiciary) and, well, the Post Office is the Post Office. So more and more workers like Bob who might have been fully-insured government workers in the past are now independent and uninsured government contractors. They toil quietly in our halls of justice without the health or retirement plans of their predecessors, without the ability to grow ill or age with dignity.

We don’t have to be experts in the economics of the health care system to recognize that too many janitorial, clerical, and manual laborers are alone in this wild world of health and retirement.

This leads me to the conclusion that our current system doesn’t fully value every life, that it doesn’t allow for others to have the same opportunities for care and dignity that Bob did.

It is easy to ignore that smile coming in to clean everyday, that worker giving his all.  It seems to me that earlier generations of Americans did their best to care for each other–whatever their station in life–in times of sickness and frailty. In the midst of our very real budgetary challenges, I wonder if we have lost sight of that common commitment.  How many Bobs are now in our offices, doing their best to smile as they work through retirement or debilitating illness?  One seems way too many.

About Chris Burks, Contributor

Chris is an Arkansas attorney and writer. He graduated from Davidson College and the University of Arkansas School of Law. He writes a bi-monthly politics column for The Log Cabin Democrat newspaper in Conway Arkansas, and practices primarily in the areas of property and family law in Central and South Arkansas. His all-time favorite basketball player is "The Floor General'" Corey Beck -- the starting point guard on the Razorbacks 1994 NCAA Championship Team -- someone whose story perfectly encapsulates both the triumphs and madness of our sports, culture, and time.