One of the hardest things about leadership, whether parenting, teaching, or mentoring, is letting go of the illusion of the necessity of yourself. I recently got to practice this surrender yet again, as I became ill the weekend before semester exams, which is also the week before Christmas. There is never a good time for a mom or a teacher to be sick, but there is a worst time and this is it.
My Christmas shopping was incomplete. The tree was in the living room in its stand, but without a single light or ornament adorning it. Preparations for having family visit at Christmas had not even begun and my usual custom to delivering bread to close friends still lay ahead. My college-age children were headed home that weekend and I needed groceries in the house. A younger woman I mentor had a tough week and needed to talk a few things over with me. As for school, I had one teaching day left to review my students for their exam and was in the midst of grading a writing project they had turned in that consisted of six essays for each of them – a total of about 3,500 words per student, delightful, but time-consuming reading.
That’s when I got sick. My husband came down with it first, and while I tried to be a good nurse to him, I couldn’t resist reminding him that I’d taken the flu shot and he should have too. He probably should have used one of his favorite lines on me, “Never miss a good chance to shut up,” but he was either too sick or too gracious to say it.
My pride came before my fall. It strutted around the house for a couple of days, enjoying decent health and smug about having taken my flu shot, and then I awoke at 4:30 in the morning the week of exams running a high fever. The bones in my face hurt from the congestion. I coughed until my muscles were sore and I couldn’t keep food or water down. When my husband improved slightly, he had to drive me to the doctor, who diagnosed the flu, a sinus infection, and bronchitis. (Am I an overachiever or a glutton?) Apparently this year’s flu shot was not a good match. Again, a good opportunity to say, “Never miss a good chance to shut up.” But he didn’t.
I seem to have lost much of that week. Five days just disappeared. I remember lying in bed in the dark, hearing my adult children in the living room laughing while they decorated the tree, wishing I could drag myself in there to be with them. My daughter would poke her head in my bedroom door occasionally to see if I wanted her to cook me an egg or bring me some water, or if she caught me awake during the day would make a list of errands I needed her to run or gifts to buy and wrap. I know I texted colleagues at school with the details of what to do with my classes and how to administer my exams, but I can’t actually remember doing it. At some point I notified my church choir director that my singing a solo the following Sunday at church was in jeopardy.
When I finally emerged from the blurry mix of those days, this is what I found. The Christmas tree had lights and ornaments. My family had fed themselves. My daughter is a good personal shopper. My younger friend told me that because I was too sick to talk, she went straight to God in prayer instead. My colleagues in the English department stepped up and covered my classes and gave my exam, and my students performed just fine without me there to answer their questions. Another singer took my solo at church on four days notice.
The lesson for me: I am not needed to run the universe, even my small part of it. Ours is a privilege of participation, but we are not needed. Whether family, friends, colleagues, or strangers, there’s a community out there who can step up with their own gifts and keep things going. I love taking care of my family and my students and colleagues are a source of joy to me. I learn constantly from being in a mentor role with a younger woman, and value her friendship immensely. But a few days of darkness reminded me that I am not the one who keeps the lights on in my corner of the world. That might just be the best present I got this Christmas.