Sarah West Vattano 1931-2020
When my mom died in December, I got an outpouring of messages from family and friends about how wonderful she was – the “mom of all moms”. I heard familiar stories about her kindness, her humor, her engagement, her optimism, her strength and her unconditional love for her seven kids. All of it was true, heartwarming and helpful as I processed her death. However, my mom and I were very different from one another, and while I loved her dearly and respected her wholeheartedly, I often disagreed with her perspective.
A sophomore in high school, I made the junior varsity basketball team as one of two alternates. Thus, I practiced with the team but didn’t play in the games unless they were down a player. My mom’s advice when I was disappointed about being on the bench was to quit and do something else with my time. I, however, went a different way. I played basketball for hours in my backyard after every practice, determined to get into the game. By the end of that season, I was the starting forward on the team. Similarly, when I was newly married and working, I called my mom to complain about how my working life was too hard. Her advice was to stay home and take care of my husband. Again, I went a different way. I got my master’s degree while working full time to accelerate my career.
Her advice often made me upset and I didn’t take it. In fact, I would do the opposite. She was neutral when I wanted to advocate, she took the easy path when I was willing to put in the work. She wasn’t someone whom I could call and connect with for hours. I sought out others for advice and guidance. My sister became my best friend – part friend part mother. Maybe my mom and I were simply generations apart, maybe we were simply opposite personalities, maybe she was simply exhausted from running a nine-person household, and then again, maybe she knew exactly what she was doing to parent me.
I’ve thought about my mom more in the past five months than I have in many years. The only girl of five kids, she put herself through college after a tough childhood to become an occupational therapist. She got what she wanted out of her life – a kind, loving and supportive husband and a stable family. If she did have a passion in her nerves-of-steel demeanor, it was the love for her kids. She cooked dinner every night for 40 years, and faithfully came to all of our sports games, choir concerts and dance recitals. She created family traditions with the holidays and celebrated the small stuff. She was always there when we needed her, and she loved, accepted and supported each of us unconditionally.
My mom was an incredible mother and an inspiring woman. She fueled my self-reliance, independent thinking and drove me to make the most of the hand I was dealt. If she were able to give me advice today, I still may not take it, but I would appreciate it more, tell her I loved her for who she was and thank her for making me the person that I am today.
August 14, 2014: It's 5:00 a.m. on a Saturday, and I’m up making coffee. My spirit is still asleep but I’m moving. I’m rarely up this early and never on a Saturday, because it’s really hard for me to wake up. If I were queen, no day would start until 10:00 a.m. But today I’m motivated to be up because I’m volunteering at an aid station for the in Boulder, and the riders need helpers to prepare and hand out snacks and drinks. About 50 of my colleagues, including CEO Kevin O’Hara, are riding one of the two loops (a 69-mile Mountain Loop and a 24-mile Countryside Loop) on an Integra team and the least I can do is volunteer.
I fantasized about riding in the race–-I had my outfit picked out from the window of Title 9–but having not ridden my bike further than the park and back this summer, I would likely faint by mile 10. Many people have trained for it, however, and I truly admire their strength. I believe there are about 800 riders today to raise money for cancer patient care for and support for the (this year’s event raised more than $336,000 to date).
Every Role Counts
My role at Integra, a job I enjoy, is similar to my role in the event. As the director of internal communications, I’m not a core function of the business. I’m not a network engineer, a circuit designer or a service delivery manager. You don’t need me to physically provide communication and networking services to businesses in the western U.S. But you do need me to motivate employees toward one goal, set role expectations and recognize people for their daily, hard work. At Integra, we measure our value and success through the eyes of our customers. The more the employees with their various roles are connected to each other and to the organization, the easier it is to work in concert to serve our customers well. Companies need the behind the scenes functions just as much as bike rides need volunteers and sponsors to produce a successful event. I’m happy with my “volunteer” T-shirt.
Evidenced by my willingness to volunteer on a Saturday, I’m motivated to work hard for Integra. It matches almost squarely up with Daniel Pink’s principles of motivation: autonomy, mastery and purpose. I’m re-reading his book called that presents motivation as a result of autonomy, or the freedom to achieve your goals your way; mastery, the idea that you can continually strive to get better to be a master at your craft; and purpose, whereby you believe what you are doing has a greater meaning or purpose in your life. I’m extremely fortunate to have all three in my work at the moment, and I strive to infuse these concepts into the internal communications as our culture continues to evolve. Motivation is individual, of course, and what drives me to work hard or volunteer is not necessarily transferable. But to the degree I can make an impact to motivate employees through communications or messaging, I will try.
It’s 9:45 a.m. and all the mountain racers have passed our aid station—sooner than I thought. The six of us have cut up fruit, bagels and muffins and supplied a few hundred riders with water and an exercise hydration mix made locally with all-natural ingredients. What started as a box of food became an appealing and healthful grab-and-go picnic through teamwork. I even replenished the port-o-potty with toilet paper as part of my duty. A highlight of the morning was seeing the camaraderie between the riders and knowing they each had their own reason to support the cause of the ride. Integra employees Thom Birich and Brian Kelsey, both in the Operations department, drove from Utah to ride with their colleagues. By the end, I realize this event is about celebrating the human spirit on many levels.
I can clean up now, go home and take a nap. I’ll rally to take a bike ride with my son later—I’m inspired. If I start now, I can be in shape enough by this time next year to ride in the B Strong event; the Countryside Loop, anyway.
Life in Pieces
I’m late to the 12:00 introductory meeting with my enthusiastic personal trainer lovingly known as Ben-ergy. It’s a workday and I’m rushed. Ben slaps me a high five and says, “Whoa, change everything, huh, is that why you’re here today?” My shirt actually says Running Changes Everything but I don’t correct him. I’m not a runner; I got the shirt for free when I signed up for a running workshop a few years ago with my friend, Kim. Not wanting to open up to Ben, I tell him unemotionally, “It’s just a shirt.”
He prods me with a smile and asks for more specifics about my fitness goals. I tell him I simply want to get in shape and deflect further depth by asking him what lured him into personal training. Ben confidently and unashamedly dives into his personal story detailing his journey through difficult times, his successful rehab experience and how he found his passion in fitness, health and helping others. I surprise us both by crying right there next to the kettle bells.
We go into a back room for privacy and through more of Ben’s questioning, I open up to him by sharing the big changes I have endured over the past year. (I’m fairly certain this type of consulting is over and above what he signed up for, but he’s a pro.) I keep some things to myself but tell him how I ended my marriage of 21 years, bought and moved into a town house 12 miles away from a city I called home, got a new job in a different industry and recovered from a ligament tear in my foot. Collectively that is quite a bit of change but in order to get through it I’ve been focused on managing the completion of each day hour-by-hour. It’s not often I have to explain the past year in one sitting—my friends, my sister and my therapist have been alongside me for the turbulent ride.
Up until recently, my life had been fairly predictable, void of any publishable drama. I had a husband, a kid, a house, a job, an education, a creative outlet and a social life. Alas, human behavior is unpredictable, and the universe is unstable; nothing gold can stay (better said by Robert Frost). I came to understand there’s only so much I can do to control the circumstances in my life. Over and over I read an article on managing change that my sister gave to me for guidance. The author talks about mustering up the courage to make change when it’s necessary, having a general faith and trust that everything will turn out OK, being patient by sitting with time, and lastly, surrendering to the universe because everything is connected. I lost the article in the move but understanding those four points has helped me reason my way through uncertainty.
Ben and I discuss the idea of focusing on what I can and cannot control in my life and eating well and exercising is on the control list. My homework is to determine my specific fitness goal so we can achieve it together. I make him blush by declaring out loud that I love him like he’s my younger (by 19 years) brother. I don’t know if running changes everything—I didn’t give it enough of a chance—but I do know that everything changes. I may as well get up again, dust off my hands and knees and at least walk fast toward what’s next.
I stood up to leave a meeting that I was having with my manager this morning and the button on the strap of my Mary Jane-style shoe popped off and landed on the carpet. “Oh, no,” I said out loud. Without the strap secured to the shoe I couldn’t imagine the shoe staying on my foot when I walked, and it didn’t stay on as I hobbled away. After a few failed attempts to fix the strap, first with a paperclip and then with a safety pin, I was at a loss for what to do. With a day full of meetings and no shoe store in site, I wondered how career limiting it would be if I walked around the office bare foot for the rest of the day.
Then, my manager, I’ll call her Felicity because that is her name, offered me her shoes. She was leaving for the day to work at home where she didn’t need them, and of course I should have her shoes. Gobsmacked, I accepted. More astonishing, they fit me. What wonderful person offers up their stylish, expensive-looking shoes? The leader of the HR department and my heroine, that’s who.
I try not to walk around too much because my feet are slightly fatter than hers, and I don’t want to stretch out the black leather straps. I unbuckle them when I’m sitting at my desk during my phone meetings. Taking a mental break, I thought about the shoes giving me magical powers like a super hero. Suddenly, I’m Felicity leading an organization with diplomacy, wisdom and kindness. I take the high road in a conversation with a crazy-maker, make intelligent decisions swiftly to keep a project moving, and give credit and praise to those who work for and near me. I’m a leader… with a cape.
Alas, a bit of fantasy gave me a power moment and a bit of of generosity turned a bad situation into a good one. I placed Felicity’s shoes under her desk when I left that evening and slowly shuffled to my car in my old, broken Mary Janes. Embarrassment from the walk to the parking garage aside, Felicity’s kindness and energy has stayed with me after literally wearing her shoes. The next time someone breaks their shoes at work I will give her the ones off my feet. I’m inspired to be kind and motivated to be a stronger leader myself after walking in Felicity’s shoes, and I have a solid reason to go shoe shopping this weekend.
When my son was younger we occasionally watched a TV show called Zeke and Luther in which a standing character was nicknamed Stinky Cast. His distinguishing feature was his perpetual arm cast, and by nature the cast must have had a noticeable stench. By self-proclamation I have become Stinky Cast. Not because I’ve started acting like a teenage boy but because the cast on my left hand stinks—it smells bad and it stinks to wear a cast.
A month ago I was holding my son’s sweatshirt on the handlebars of my bike and it inadvertently slipped down in between the wheel and bike frame. The wheel stopped moving suddenly, I flipped over the handlebars and landed on my side, sprawled out on my neighborhood street. An orthopedic specialist put me in a cast to heal a torn ligament and bone bruise in my left hand. “But doctor, I’m a writer and a photographer, I need two hands to function,” I say, not holding back the tears. “Sorry,” he says, “If you want it to heal, you can’t use it for four weeks, minimum.”
The extra attention I received from friends and co-workers carried me through the first week. But by the end of the second week the novelty wore off and the inconvenience and the pain were punctuated. I had a temper tantrum when no one in my household wanted to cut the fingernails on my right hand. My son was finally relegated to the task. After hacking his way through it he says, “Eww, your cast stinks.” I wait until he leaves to cry again, this time in silence.
I call my mom. Having lived through much more hardship than me, she says, in her even-keeled voice, “It could have been worse. You weren’t wearing a helmet and you could have hit your head.” That’s not what I wanted to hear but it’s true, of course. I know a guy at work who has hooks instead of hands, I see a child down the street who is physically disabled and has to spend his whole life in a wheelchair, and I have friend who is getting ready to have a cancerous tumor removed from her neck. How can I possibly feel sorry for myself for having a temporarily injured hand and a stinky cast?
And, yet, I do feel sorry for myself—because things could also be better. I could be living pain free with no cast. I could be able to type faster without pecking, keep my photo shoot commitments at the peak of leaf-changing season, cut my own fingernails, pull up my tights, floss my teeth, shave my right arm pit, zip up my jacket and open the container of pain reliever I need to quell the throbbing. I’m conflicted. Life circumstances could always be better or worse depending on your comparisons, and the only real comparison I have is to what my life was like before.
At the end of week three the pain is subsiding and I’m getting used to single-handedly managing my life. I take a lunchtime walk and am fully present. I realize I can walk, see, hear, think and feel the warm sun on my face. If nothing else, my stinky cast has given me a renewed appreciation for my health and my life. I still have my cast, but I also have a newfound habit of recognizing what I do have—especially the smallest of life’s conveniences—on a daily basis. I more clearly understand that life is so very fragile and everything can change at the slip of a sweatshirt.