Front of leaf, by Susan
Front of leaf, by Susan

Learn From Yesterday

A few connected stories about the importance of your life and the impact you could have on others.

Like many people I’ve had a varied set of jobs over my life and when I look back I wouldn’t change a thing. Each job has taught me lessons and given me perspective that is unique to that time in my life and has shaped my thinking and ability to empathise.

My third job was a short 3 months stint in middle of a Melbourne winter. Waking up before dawn I would have breakfast, pack my lunch and eagerly be ready to go. My dad left for work early in the morning so he would give me a lift part of the way, dropping me off at a local McDonalds. There I would wait in the warmth, often reading the newspaper or maybe buying some food or warm drink.

Shortly after, my second ride would come past and pick me up. Susan was a work colleague but also an attendee at the same church I have attended every Sunday of my life. We knew each other and each others families.

I would hop in the passenger seat and Susan would then drive the remaining 10 minutes into work. I forget how this arrangement came to be but I remember thinking that I was an imposition, Susan always assured me she was more than happy to do this. I grin remembering a handful of times Susan asked me to do her head check as the car windows were foggy and she couldn’t see the next lane over.

We would arrive and go through the motions of putting our lunch in the fridge, make a tea and cupping our warm mugs with our hands have some light hearted bantering with the others who had arrived. We’d talk about the morning headlines, maybe what was on the news last night — a little period of calm before the day begun.

Like many warehouses there was a machine that everyone had to clock in and out on — this wasn’t foreign to me having done the same at my previous job I’d held in a supermarket. The difference is while the supermarket had a little tag on your keyring that you used to touch on and off — the warehouse machine was a big metal box that would “punch” your inserted time card. Once you “clocked” your card the day officially begun and with it activity.

I was 18 years old at the time and was less sensitive to the cold than some of my fellow workers. There was a great mix of young and old as well as various ethnicities and backgrounds. I was a picker and did a handful of different tasks. Mostly I walked around a few warehouses picking clothing and footwear off shelves and putting them in a container ready for a packers to box and label ready for shipping.

Other times I would receive a large order to pick but what picking actually meant was getting whole boxes of items and stacking box after box on a pallet, ready to be wrapped in plastic and sent out. Sometimes it was the other way around, stock would come in and so I’d unwrap the pallet and take box after box from the pallet to the shelf where it would later be picked from.

I say “I” but this work was usually done alongside other people. On the building up or breaking down of pallets it would often be younger guys working alongside me and we would race each other to see who could do more boxes. In the dead of winter we would shed our layers of jackets and jumpers, sometimes ending up sweating in t-shirts in a warehouse without much heating.

The heating in these warehouses varied, but the further warehouses — in particular the third warehouse was really just 1 or 2 cylindrical floor heaters that you would walk up to and warm up your hands mid picking. This third warehouse was known as Siberia, that far flung freezing place that people usually tried to avoid.

I don’t remember being that cold, or being tired from the work but I remember the people. The young guys working hard, trying to move from being casuals to full time so they had more permanent employment to support their family with. But more so I remember the older people who wouldn’t rush about like I would, who had a steadier pace and wanted to chat on the walk back to get another pick slip. Two older gentlemen in particular I remember and this is where the story changes.

Wayne seemed more Australian to me than Sergio did. His accent was Australian and the chats we had felt like they stemmed from a more local set of experiences. He was always smiling, a warming smile and had an appearance that reminded me a little of my grandfather. Sergio was definitely not Australian by birth, having a strong Southern European accent and views that I had heard before from my European uncles.

Wayne and Sergio would often banter, having different opinions and know exactly how to push each others buttons. I grew to respect them, they would often out manoeuvre me in debates over lunch or make me feel young and immature as they discussed their varying views on things of life. There was however one thing they never disagreed on, and that was me.

“What are you doing here” Wayne would say, “you’re young, you should be in school getting an education. This isn’t a career”. Sergio not being one to miss out would agree, “You shouldn’t be here, I don’t want to see you here when you are an old person”. It was endearing, encouraging — “what do you like, go study that” and it made me think about where my working would lead to.

I finished job number three and within a few months I was studying an accounting degree part time whilst working in an accounting role in a business. This had been the plan for some time, even during my time at the warehouse job — it had always been a gap filler job. For all the people I worked with Susan was the only person I kept in touch with, seeing her at church on Sunday and at events. That is until recently.

It has been 10 years since that warehouse job and while I finished the accounting degree I no longer even work in accounting. It’s been a busy 10 years of intense learning, working and putting my dent in the world. My most recent job allows me to work from home which in turn means I go to the local supermarket, running errands or even just getting out of the house for a break. Today, on a cold winters’ afternoon that supermarket trip had me serendipitously bump into someone from my past. Today I bumped into Wayne.

When I worked with Wayne he wasn’t young, hard to say his age but he was active walking around those big cold warehouses. When I saw him today he looked like he had aged, which wasn’t a surprise — what did surprise me was his slow and much more limited movement. He was slowly getting out of a mobility scooter when I saw him, I was at the checkout putting bags full of groceries in my trolley. I wanted to leave my shopping and go say hi. “Would he remember me?” I thought, “it’s been a while and I only worked with his briefly”.

The cashier broke my train of thought, “Rewards card?”. I handed over the bright orange card and mentioned I would like to pay by EFTPOS. “Any cash out?” she asked. I tapped the card and accepted the receipt the cashier gave me. As I turned around to put the receipt in a bag there was Wayne, bent over and slowly walking past me pushing a shopping trolley.

“Wayne!” I said. He looked at me and already had a smile on his face. “How are you?” I continued putting out my hand. “Hello” he said shaking my hand. I couldn’t help but notice how warm his hand was, mine was cold and he had just come from outside on the mobility scooter.

He asked how I was, what I was doing. He was happy to hear that I’m working in the city and when he enquired even happier to hear it was for a technology company. I then asked how he was and if he was working which felt a little odd given I could see that he wasn’t even that comfortable standing. “I’m retired full time now” he replied “and my bones are weak”.

He continued “I have cancer in my bones”. “I’m sorry to hear that” I replied wondering if that may end the conversation. “But it’s ok, I have it much better than a lot of other people” he quipped with a warming grin. I was caught of guard. “What a great attitude” I replied. Wayne was smiling and enjoying the conversation and I noticed that we were standing blocking the supermarket entrance so I said that it was great to see him.

He put his hand out first this time, “great to see you, and say a big hello to everyone” knowing that I knew Susan and he had also known my sister. We shook hands and he placed his left hand so my right hand was surrounded by the warmth of his big hands and his smile.

I walked away, happy that I had the opportunity to talk to him however briefly. His last statement “say a big hello to everyone” in particular stuck with me and it’s because I left out a big detail. Almost instantly I was reminded of Susan.

Susan was in her forties when she passed away and my memories of her are of warmth and genuine sincerity. She never married and I distinctly remember her passion for art. I remember attending a gallery of her paintings years earlier — and in particular I remember and still have a bookmark she gave me. One Sunday Susan came to church and had a whole heap of leaves from a gum tree that she had painted on, added an inspirational quote on and then laminated. They made for unique bookmarks and I didn’t really know why she was giving them out.

Speaking to someone later I found out that she was going for an operation and she had a feeling that she may not return. She had gone and created these in anticipation of that operation and given them out to as many as wanted at church. I was thankful for the bookmark and put it in the inside pocket of my suit jacket.

Going back in time a little Susan had handed these out about 4 years ago. It was about 6 years since she had given me lifts to the warehouse and I was running my own business. It was stressful but I was thoroughly enjoying it — being my own boss, charging people for work I enjoyed, learning really fast and it was leading to new experiences. The week following Susan giving me the bookmark I was travelling from Melbourne to Sydney where I would attend a conference. I packed my things and flew up on Thursday, a day before the conference to spend time with some of the team that made the software that I used.

It was a very enjoyable three days in Sydney. I went up and met the team on Thursday. Then on Friday was the conference. I had organised a breakfast for fellow conference attendees that I knew, so I got up super early to make sure I could be there first. Putting my wallet in my jacket pocket I realised something was in there. It was the bookmark Susan had given me. I remember thinking about her and wondering how she was doing, if she had had her operation yet.

The conference was better than expected. I won an award, the highest honour and I remember the CEO with a huge grin on his face while I looked between him and my logo on the big screens in shock. I remember excitedly calling my family to tell them. That evening a group of conference attendees went to dinner and we landed an amazing spot after one of one guys in the group called up the restaurant, pretending to know the owner and got us an exclusive room upstairs. The 10 or so of us enjoyed a celebratory meal talking about business, life and more.

Saturday I woke up early again to have breakfast with some conference attendees I knew. I had great deep conversations before then going and spending a few hours with the CEO and his family at the beach. I could not have had a better time, I was on cloud nine having met so many great people, having had multiple enjoyable dinners, breakfasts and even lunches with interesting people. It was Saturday evening when I finally got home, thoroughly tired, award in hand.

I dropped my bags, excitedly reeled off experiences, people I’d met and proudly displayed the award I’d won to my family. It was then my mother told me that she hadn’t called me during the day, she waited until I got home. Susan had passed away. As she had expected the operation lead to complications and my mind instantly went to the day prior when I had put on my jacket and found the bookmark.

Bumping into Wayne at the supermarket earlier today brought all this flooding back into my memory. Like a freight train I was both happy and sad at the same time. It reminded me of the importance of looking back, learning and being hopeful for tomorrow.

Back of leaf, by Susan
Back of leaf, by Susan