Saturday, October 04, 2003

The other day we were riding in the car down Oregon Avenue or Street, I don't know which, and Jack said, "I wish I wasn't famous for Henry being dead."

Mom said she understood and felt the same way.

This was in the paper last weekend. Your good buddy Lisa wrote it. The neat thing for me is that Lisa wrote about one of your doctors and my boss in one story. They are both incredible heroes. I didn't work that much when you were really sick. These guys work very hard during very difficult times, and they have incredibly important jobs. It is hard for people to truly understand how hard it is for them.

My boss not only takes care of his wife but also is responsible for all the people at XM. That's hundreds of people. He gave me a job after you died. I love my job and the people I work with very much. Even with how much I love Mom and Jack and Joe, I don't know what life would be like if I had to deal with the sadness of losing you without having such a great job. It makes me feel good each day.

For Some, a Job Puts a Life in Perspective


Nobody on his deathbed ever said, 'I wish I had spent more time at the office.' "

In the years since Paul Tsongas first gave that explanation for leaving the Senate, his words have become a slogan for a generation seeking balance. Whenever he is quoted (and a Google search shows there are any number of variations of that quotation) it is to remind us that a crisis can quickly put work into perspective, unmasking it as unimportant.

I have spread that gospel myself in this space. And I have heard from countless readers about how the pressure of a life crisis has made it impossible for them to work. But I have also heard from others for whom the opposite is true. A brush with catastrophe, they say, does not make them run away from the office, but toward it. Under the spotlight of mortality, their work is illuminated as life-affirming.

Hugh Panero has come to understand this. His story began with work. He is the founder of XM Satellite Radio, now a 101- channel service, which was launched, literally, in May 2001, when the XM satellite was sent into space from a platform in the middle of the Pacific.

Mr. Panero's wife, Mary Beth Durkin, was unusually tired on that trip and soon after the family arrived home, they learned that the cause was leukemia. Becoming paralyzed at work, he explains, was simply not an option. There were practical pressures; the success of the company determined the continuation of their health insurance. And there were emotional ones; the fledgling company was the vehicle for their dreams.

Ms. Durkin has been through chemotherapy, and, most recently, a bone marrow transplant. (To "meet" her - and to be inspired to be a marrow donor - go to the Web site Along the way, Mr. Panero found that he was better at his work when a crisis loomed. "You really don't have time to deal with ego issues," he said. "You become very lucid. Your decisions become much clearer."

Sometimes, a crisis at home can teach you how much you are needed at work.

Several years ago, I interviewed a researcher who had pioneered an experimental genetic test. At the time, only he could perform the steps that might save the life of one dying boy.

The researcher's own wife was battling cancer during the months that he worked to help this child. Her funeral was on the same day as a crucial, time-sensitive step in the process. His need to help, to work, proved even greater than his grief, so he was in his lab, as scheduled, hours after he buried his wife. (For the whole of this haunting story, go to

Sometimes, though, what you learn is not how much your work means to others, but how much it means to you. Laura and Dean Wellington founded their computer consulting company, Wellington Consulting, 15 years ago, just before they were married. Cancer of the small intestine was diagnosed in Mr. Wellington four years ago, just after their fourth child was born.

As the cancer took her husband's strength, and, near the end, his mind, Ms. Wellington took the company reins. When Mr. Wellington died last year, his wife went right back to work building what they began together.

"I turned to my work as a way of getting me through," she said. Friends wonder why, having learned that life can be short, she doesn't just sell the company and move on. "Yes, I do have an increased awareness of the value of life and the value of time," she says. "But I also have an increased awareness of the value of work. This work was part of him. It was part of our life together."

Ms. Wellington is certain that her husband would understand. Hugh Panero clearly understands. And I think a young woman named Jessica Grace Wing would have understood, too.

Ms. Wing died of colon cancer this past summer, less than a week before her 32nd birthday and three weeks shy of the Off-Broadway premiere of "Lost." Ms. Wing wrote the music for the play, and for months she took her work, on her laptop, along to chemo treatments.

As she grew sicker, she vowed to work 90 minutes a day for as long as she could. She finished her final composition for the musical two days before she died. (There is more information about her life and work at

The day before her death, Ms. Wing listened to a taped rehearsal of her music. Her father told her hometown paper, The Tucson Citizen, that work brought his daughter satisfaction to the end. "Now," she told him, "I can really say that I am a composer."

Copyright 2003 The New York Times Company

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