By Matt Gordon
“I get by with a little help from my friends.”
Lennon and McCartney must have been far better men than me.
Years ago I was struggling with work. There was too much of it and not enough of me—or at least I was not enough for the job. I went to one of my bosses with a much different Beatles’ lyric in mind (Help! I need somebody!) and he asked what would help things along. I said: “I need someone like Katie Choi.” We all do.
Katie was a woman in our organization that I had worked with in planning and executing some events. She was organized and detailed and forever punctual. Yes, yes, and yes—qualities that would complement my strengths of disorganization and haphazardness and forgetfulness. I thought her vocational qualities were what I needed, and, to a point, I was right. But with a rare person like her, as is usually the case, one gets so much more, again and again.
When I got the call at work that my wife’s mother had fallen into a coma, it was Katie who drove me home. Our family’s car was in the shop. Katie arranged for it to be picked up immediately and brought to our house. She made sure we headed off on the worst kind of road trip with drinks and peanut butter sandwiches.
When my mother-in-law didn’t make it, I had to travel back to our home to gather up funeral clothes for our family. My two-year-old made the trip with me, a chance to get him in his own bed and routine for an evening. Our car had hardly shifted to “Park” at our home before Katie’s pulled up. Out she bounced with a bag from Target in one hand, and a bag from Wendy’s in the other. She let MJ and I wolf down cheap protein—a glorious thing after a week of meager meals and miserable moments—while she showed me options of funeral attire for my little sons. She figured we didn’t have clothes of that sort; she was right—of course, she was.
Again her car seemed to follow ours, as it was the first to arrive at the visitation—an hour before it was to begin. She had loaded up other companions, volunteering a small, stalwart party of strong women to wrangle my baby boys, and thus allow me to be present with my wife and her family as the cascade of well-wishers, and the reality of death, descended upon them. A place of great loss was graced with the life of loving friendship.
When she was in event planning, Katie delighted in arranging details, perfecting spaces, and, as the lights would come on, she’d recede to the background, only stepping forth if a party-goer needed some sort of support. People would leave her events, already reminiscing about the wonderful experience, and only then would this unnoticed maestro allow herself to smile at a job well done, before dutifully cleaning up the mess left behind.
When she joined my team, I wanted to change all that. My job routinely sees me foisted to the front of the room, microphone in hand. I often get to stand when others are sitting and say funny things or deep things. Because people are nice, they applaud afterward. Some even linger to thank me for this or for that or inquire more. I wanted to give this experience to Katie—she had earned it a million times over, after all. At one such event at which I would be speaking, I arranged for her to make some introductory remarks—thanking folks for coming, informing them on the flow of the evening, and generally break the ice with charm and endearing wit. I envisioned retiring someday and at some farewell gathering in my honor, Katie would video in from her busy speaking tour, over-ear mic a-dangling, to give a few hurried acknowledgments of how I had, on that fateful night all those years ago, changed the trajectory of her life by putting her in the light.
It was a stupid, noble dream. On that night, she mouthed across the room at me, “I’m not doing it.” She joined these exaggerated words with a motion of the hand flicking in front of her throat, as if to say, “I’m not doing it.” I smiled, knowing this is how it had to be. A little adversity for her would make the spotlight all the more intoxicating.
We came to the moment where she needed to approach the front of the room. She sat, arms crossed, unmoving and unmoved. I jumped up: “Hey everyone, welcome!” What followed, no doubt, was a general breaking of the ice with charm and endearing wit. Applause surely followed, and smiling and clapping hardest, contentedly just beyond the spotlight, was my friend Katie.
For that is the way of these gentle saints—the ones we all need. They have no craving for being in the light, only for its existence and brightness; for its accessibility to others. They throw baby showers for friends and anonymously put together office-wide swag bags. They are quick to clap and encourage, quicker to listen, and quickest to show up when you just need a bag of Wendy’s and a good cry.
Speaking of crying, Katie has entered my office a handful of times on the verge of tears. When the door closes, her vulnerability opens, and the floodwaters come, occasional sobs of them. Every time this happens, we eventually get to the heart of things—through some snorts and silences. It is always the same thing: the dear soul feels she has let someone down. Her unflappable servanthood is her calling, and she feels cosmic weight when she can’t fully bear the burdens of others.
This occurred the other day, actually. After she was done berating her own discourtesy and lack of gumption and general loathsome unhelpfulness, I reminded her, “Katie, you are forever serving. You are one of the finest people I know.”
In humility, she looked affronted at me and said, “Please don’t say that.”
She meant it, so I obliged, deciding to write it instead.
And you should too. Find the Katie in your life and thank him or her. You might have to write it, and all the better for the opportunity to put your hands to the task, physically being made to scratch out the difference a good, servant-hearted friend makes.
I could not get by with just a little help from my friends. I need much more than that. Fortunately—or more likely something much sweeter than fortune—I have saints in my life. I need someone like Katie Choi. We all do.
This post is part of a series of “living tributes.” Click here to visit the opening post (and the rest of the series). New entries will post Tuesday and Thursday mornings.