Friday, November 28, 2008

Breakfast With Saint Peter

Thanks to a man with troubles of his own, I was able to face mine.

This past spring, just two weeks after I turned 56, I was laid off after nine years at a company. The news came suddenly. One morning I got word, and by the end of the day I was gone from the premises. I rode the subway from Manhattan back to Queens, thinking about how to tell my wife. I was the sole support of a family of four, including a son in college and a daughter studying music.

Within hours of getting home, I reached out to people I knew -- friends, associates, recruiters, former colleagues and clients. Almost everyone lent some support: a lead, a reference, an offer of office space or a freelance gig, a kind word. Along the line, I reconnected with Peter. I'd known him for 15 years; we'd once worked closely together and over the years had stayed in touch, though mostly by phone.

Peter had gotten laid off a few times himself, so he knew how I felt. He'd always found new jobs. Over breakfast at a coffee shop just south of Central Park, he fed me advice and encouragement -- and in the coming weeks never stopped. Though Peter had his own job, a wife and three kids, a long train commute and other, much closer friends, he made time for me.

Make a to-do list, Peter suggested, and then do it all. Call everyone important you know. Meet with anyone influential who will see you. You're going to be all right, he assured me. I tried to believe him. But no one, even the most confident, can be sure. Meanwhile, every day brought a new, unwelcome "first": the first family dinner jobless, the first supermarket trip jobless, the first rent bill jobless.

I knew full well how long it might take to find another job, especially at my age. The older you get, no matter how significant your accomplishments, the harder it can be. The looming recession and the tough job market gave me ample cause for anxiety.
But Peter would hear none of it. Day in and day out, he doled out pep talks laced with hard-won wisdom. Talent always rises, he said. Hold yourself accountable to your goals. After you've done all you can, do more.

On any job hunt, Peter said, the candidate always fears the "X" factor, the other guy. Make sure you're the "X" factor. Always be locked and loaded (he's big on military metaphors). Never get down on yourself, or let anyone see you sweat, or sell yourself short. Talk to so-and-so. Tell him I sent you.

Now, none of this might be all that unusual, except for this: Peter had cancer. After suffering a massive heart attack six years ago, last year Peter was diagnosed with prostate cancer. Months of treatment, including external radiation and radioactive seed implantation, left him exhausted. It seemed his days were numbered.

The sight of him that morning at breakfast had taken me by surprise. Though still patrician handsome, he looked less than robust. Peter had issues of his own, and could have told me so, and I would have understood. But he never did, and just continued to help me. Thanks to him, I was better able to keep my own life in perspective. If Peter could face the end of life without complaint or a hint of self-pity, surely I could face my troubles. All I was missing was a job.

Eventually, by following his advice, I did land a new job. A better one, just as Peter had predicted. And so this Thanksgiving I hereby raise a toast to Peter, and to all the Peters out there.

Peter remains my guardian angel. His strength gave me mine. Remember your value, he said. If you believe in yourself, most of the battle is already won. He taught me the most valuable lesson of all: How to keep my head up. Peter made me believe we might be a city of guardian angels. A country, even.

I have extra reason for such a belief. Peter's cancer just went into remission.

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