Friday, May 04, 2007

The Worst Day of My Life

Five years ago, today, May 4, 2002, was the worst day of my life.

For 15 months, I had worked for a book distribution company to the southeast of Nashville, doing technical writing. On that day, a Thursday, I had driven in as always, got in, sat in my cube, and started on the current assignment for that day. Sheryl was completing her first year as a part time teacher, working half time, and Kinsey was 11 months old, her first birthday being less than a month away. It was a comfortable time.

Until my boss's boss came to me that Thursday morning and said, "Hey Phil. Let's go talk to (his boss)."

At this point, the cold sweat that I had always heard about started up. I knew that this was either something really good, or something really, really bad. And when I walked with him into her office and there was an HR person in there too, I knew what was going on.

I'm not very good at hiding my feelings most of the time and I'm sure I didn't then. They told me that they were cutting back in the area where I worked and that I and another designer on our team were being let go. He had just gotten married and I had an 11 month old child. I'm sure it sucks to lay anyone off, but this felt particularly cruel, probably because it was me getting laid off. They told me that I was going to be escorted out of the building immediately and that I could return at 5 to clean out my cube. Again, I understand the business reason behind that (prevent someone from causing a scene), but then it just seemed like it was piling on.

My boss's boss escorted me out and we didn't talk much. When we got to the door, he mentioned how sorry he was, and I'm sure I said that I appreciated that, and then he said that even when things seem dark, there's always a light shining somewhere and I'm pretty sure I remember wanting to punch him.

I got into my car and had to make the worst phone call of my life. I called Sheryl at school. And it's one of those moments that's crystallized in my head. She picked up and sounded as cheerful as always, and then I told her... And life crashed down around us. She had been planning on taking the summer off that year to spend with Kinsey, so we had saved money from her check every two weeks, and now that plan was in jeopardy. I drove immediately to her school and we sat in her room and talked for a while. I then got onto one of her computers and started emailing people about my situation and asking for prayers. I got onto and started looking for positions. And for the next five months I looked.

Those five months were incredibly difficult. Thankfully, Sheryl and I had saved money to finish out our basement, so we had some in the bank. We went into what we called "crisis mode" in our spending. Nothing frivolous. No entertainment, no restaurants, nothing. We had a house payment, a car payment, and all the bills that we had to make sure stayed paid. For two months, May and June, I looked for work and there wasn't much. The internet bubble had burst and people were cutting back everywhere. So there were few positions and more people looking.

I was able to pick up odd jobs here and there. Doing some writing for one company, doing a little website for another. Some of it was charity work, I think. After two months of looking and only one or two bites (including from the company I'm currently at, in the position I'm currently in, even though I didn't get it then), I decided that I couldn't live off of unemployment anymore. I had to get out and do something. So I got a job waiting tables at O'Charley's.

And this is where the church stepped up.

We had told Otter Creek about our situation when it happened and told the people around us. People would always ask us how we were doing and I wouldn't lie. I'd say things were very tough, but we were scraping by. Every now and then, a check from Otter Creek would appear in our mailbox. I called the church to find out what was going on and the office manager there would say that it was an anonymous donation to us. $50 here, $250 there. Enough to help us out.

When I started waiting tables, I told that to several people and on Sundays after church fairly large groups of our friends started showing up. And they would wait for me to have an open table, sometimes over an hour. They would sit in my section and I would wait on them, and enjoy doing it and when they left, they would leave huge tips. $50, $100, sometimes $200. They would come after work for dinner and leave tips. In many, many ways, it was one of the most faith-affirming times of my life. But it was also so frustrating.

I got so angry at God for the situation. I would scream and cry, "What?!? What have I done?!? I don't deserve this! I just want to take care of my family and You're stopping me from doing that!! What do you want from me? Help me take care of my family!!" And I guess He did, through His people.

In September, the tech guy at Otter Creek left, and they offered me the part time position of technical director. I took and five years later (for better and worse), I'm still doing that. In late September, I interviewed with a contract firm, directly because of the position I had interviewed for with my current company. I got hired and at a good enough hourly rate to quit waiting tables. Sheryl had had to go back to work full time teaching, not because of our need, but because she got a new principal that didn't honor her part time teaching deal with her previous principal. And 15 months later in November 2003, the position I had interviewed for in July 2002 with my current company opened back up (I later found out I was the second choice), and because of my previous interview (they still had my portfolio), I got a great job with my current company where I still am almost three and a half years later.

I don't believe it was God's plan for me and my family to go through this. I don't believe that from the beginning of time, God said, "Yes, on May 4, 2002, John Philip Wilson will get laid off from his position at the book company and begin to learn a lesson about faith for the next five months." I do believe that from the experience, as crappy as it was, I was able to learn about faith, and I was able to learn about community, and I was able to see how God can work, even through what feels like the darkest time of life.

The day after getting laid off, I looked at the paper and saw in the business section a small blurb about my former employer cutting back 53 people and realizing that day every time I saw a story like that from then on, I wouldn't look at it the same because I knew that I was one of those 53 and that each of the people mentioned in that number had just had one of the worst days of their lives and that anytime I saw stories about layoffs, I knew that there were individuals hurting. I still think that today when I see stories. I pray that those times are short for those laid off and if I'm in relationship with someone in that situation, we try to help in the ways we were helped.

Perhaps in a small way, Sheryl and I can be an answer to someone's prayer the way others were the answer to ours.


Sam Davidson said...

Thanks for the honest writing.

Adam said...

Wow, Phil. I didn't know all of the details of that story. You are a good man and a good friend. I have nothing but respect for you.

TCS said...

Thanks for sharing that. It's a beautiful story. It reminds me of one of the most powerful things I have heard in the past year. Gary Hausen (speaking about Rowanda) said he is often asked "Where was God in this?" but he said the question to ask is "Where were God's people?". I'm glad you saw some of them.

jim said...

I've been through that experience twice (and it's even less fun the second time). I learned that the Lord always takes care of us in ways we don't expect. It always leads to something better. (It always takes longer to recover financially too, but that's another story.)

Christy said...

I had forgotten about that. You guys have come a long way and I'm glad to see you can look back on it with such faith. You and Sheryl are examples of going through a hard time with faith and belief...God used you through that and will continue to do so.

amanda said...

i remember parts of that story. thanks for sharing; i'm glad i read since today i got a crappy evaluation notsomuch b/c i do a bad job, but more b/c my supv got his own crappy evaluation from his boss. there are so many things wrong with upper management operations it's impossible to even sort out. government politics just suck.
for better for worse, i'm glad things have worked out like this b/c i'm so incredibly blessed you, sheryl, kinsey, and connor have become part of my life!

Lesley said...

Gaylord has a similar process I like to call "the perp walk." Casinos, do it, too. They actually have security walk you back to your desk and then out the door. HR packs your stuff and you can pick it up after 6 on a designated day. It's humiliating for the people it happens to. Fortunately, I've never had to go through that. When I was let go from Cummins Engine Company, I did have to leave without all my junk, but I had time to say goodbye to my employees and co-workers and didn't have an escort. It was much more dignified albeit emotional (though I knew it was coming because I knew there was a re-org and I put my name in to be cut).

But the first time I ever lost a job was when I was 23. I'd been there 3 months and they pulled a huge group of us in a room and said, "Your jobs have all been terminated. Please go back to your desks and gather your belongings. You must be off property by 4:30pm. Your manager will have your final paycheck for you." It was devastating and I learned some tough lessons I will never forget. Like have a big savings account.

Justin said...


always is a funny word. i'm sure there are people on the street that might beg to differ. I think we need to be careful saying things like that, because we don't know the situations of those around us. That could be really offensive or be another turn off towards christianity.

gavin richardson said...

great perspective phil, and i amazed by the generosity of the church. i wish we could react like that more often.

Anonymous said...

Phil, you know I remember it very well. Lots of good sunday lunches @ chucks (even though the service was average). Justin, give it a rest.

Justin said...


I'm not sure why what I said offended you so much as to tell me to "give it a rest". I'd appreciate your feelings on the matter.

mundiejc AT gmail DOT com

Dennis said...

I appreciate your story. I think it is so helpful to others to see your perspective when dealing with life's curveballs. When I saw the date on your post I couldn't believe it. On that exact same day, I wrote about my difficult time in my post called "Extruded" on I'm really enjoying your blog. Keep up the good work. Dennis

Amy said...

Wow, Phil. I'm sorry I missed reading this the first time around, but thank you for sharing your story. I can see how this was both the most and least faith affirming experience for you.

It is beautiful how our family takes care of us, even when it is difficult being on the receiving end.

GingerSnaps said...

As you know, I've been through this a couple of times, too. God showed Himself through His people. It has been amazing. I'm still struggling, too, but light is at the end of the tunnel.

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