Saturday, November 15, 2014
Tears of a Family
This story is of my most powerful Andersen memory. I can feel the events each time I reread or try to improve on what is written. I know I have not done it justice. This is the only tale from the Andersen Years where I asked permission of the main characters to share the memory after giving them a draft to review. I thank them for that permission.
TEARS OF A FAMILY
“I am a good mother.”
“Who was that lady with the gorgeous hair?”
“That lady is Tammy Myers. She just transferred to our office from the San Francisco Arthur Andersen office.”
The year was 1991 and the question came from my girlfriend at the time, Whitney. We had just exited an elevator as Whitney and I were headed to lunch in downtown Denver.
Indeed, the first thing most people noticed about Tammy was her beautiful hair. It was, auburn, long, and thick, but still wavy. Tammy reminded me of a gothic model. She was tall with a pale complexion and often wore stylish dark suits and bright red lipstick.
One might ask why a sophisticated lady from San Francisco would purposely transfer to live and work among the rubes of Denver. The simple answer was love. Tammy Myers had met Tom Byrnes at the Arthur Andersen training facility in St. Charles, Illinois. Tom worked in the Business Consulting Group in the Andersen Denver office. Tammy did leave a piece of her heart in San Francisco, but mostly she followed it to Denver.
In theory the Andersen rules frowned on intracompany romance. In practice relationships and marriages between coworkers were pretty common. Since Tammy worked for the Tax division and Tom for the Business Consulting division there were no work rules preventing their careers and relationship from growing in parallel. In due course Tammy Myers became Tammy Myers Byrnes.
Tammy was one of my charges under the Andersen mentoring program. We talked often about how she could best further her career. Tammy ultimately decided to stake her claim to the compensation-related aspects of the tax code. Nobody else in the Denver office specialized in this area at the time. Many people considered the compensation arena to be unsexy and cumbersome, even by tax law standards. It was a smart choice though. Tammy now had the coveted "niche" to carve out an expertise and serve clients across all industries. She quickly began to build her competency and reputation in her focus area.
As Tammy and Tom were mapping out their careers they also started to map out plans for a family. In the first half of 1994, after suffering through a miscarriage, Tammy and Tom had a son whom they named Harrison, Harry for short. I met Baby Harry for the first time in the spring of 1995. Tammy brought him into the old office on California Street shortly before we moved to our new offices near 17th and Lawrence. Tammy sat Harry atop one of the cubicles and we all gathered round to entertain him.
“How can you name such a perfect little baby, Harrison?” I asked.
“He will grow into it” was the reply.
Harry was a perfect little person, happy and handsome. Tammy and Tom were justifiably proud parents. The new Andersen office on Lawrence Street was just a block from an office building that housed a premier day care facility on the ground floor. Tammy and Tom enrolled Harry there and were close enough to visit him during the course of their busy days.
Not by coincidence Andersen moved to the Lawrence Street address at the same time the Colorado Rockies baseball team was christening its new home, Coors Field, at 20th and Blake Street. The partners in our office recognized the status and client entertainment advantages of being near the stadium. As the owner of a fractional interest in Rockies season tickets I appreciated this proximity. On game days I could park in my normal parking space in the garage underneath our building and walk to the ballpark.
I took a random vacation day on Wednesday May 3, 1995. I didn’t really have any plans other than not working. A radio spot that morning reminded me that the Rockies were playing that afternoon and I remembered I had tickets for the game. The tickets were in my desk at work so I had to venture into the belly of the beast to claim them. I parked my car in the garage and headed to my office on the 27th floor.
I had timed my entry for lunchtime in the hopes of avoiding contact that would suck me into any unforeseen responsibility. It was an overcast, cool day but I sensed a layer of something worse than gray day blues in the few people I saw walking through the halls. I was in no mind to find out what was going on. It was my vacation day and I had tickets to find and a game to attend.
Brad Strom, a good friend and fellow tax manager, walked into my office as I rummaged for my tickets. Brad is somewhat of a high school sports legend in Colorado owing to his exploits at Cherry Creek High School. In college he started at quarterback for Oklahoma State and married a cheerleader. He played a little pro ball but eventually the glamour of public accounting lured him in.
Brad and Tammy had what you might call a love hate relationship. Brad loved to tease Tammy about her prim ways and unexciting career focus. Tammy hated it. Brad would say something like “Tammy Byrnes, where good times go to die.”
Tammy would offer a “whatever” in return.
“Did you hear?”
I looked up as something in Brad's voice was dire yet lifeless. There were tears in his eyes.
"Tammy's baby died.”
I heard the words but couldn't put them together. I garbled something about the how and the when.
“I don’t know, I just heard about an hour ago.”
“Where is Tammy? How is she doing? Why didn't somebody call me?”
We realized we were screaming at each other and closed the door. Brad gathered himself and continued with what he knew: “Tammy is flying home from St. Charles. I am not sure where Tom is. I think he went to the day care center. I don’t know everything but I think the baby died at the day care center.” Brad, a father of two young children then went to his office to cry alone.
I closed my door and sat motionless on the floor staring out the window for maybe twenty minutes. The sudden force of a lives-altering tragedy left me stunned. What must be going through Tammy and Tom's hearts right now? I envision somebody walking into a training session and asking Tammy to step outside. I imagine Tammy walking to the door with that sense of dread that had to be taking hold of her. I hear the words of that person who had to deliver the news. I see the shock and grief in Tammy’s eyes. Did she scream? Did she collapse in agony? Was she too stunned to speak or move at all? How will she get home and what kind of tortures will consume her on the flight back to Denver?
I see Tom having to look upon his lifeless son. I sense him having to endure this moment alone with his wife a thousand miles away. I hear him screaming the question of how this could happen. I feel him worrying whether Tammy can stand this kind of pain. I wonder does he lament that she decided to keep working after Harry was born.
Nora Stephens was also a tax manager in the Denver office in 1995. Nora was a small, mousy woman with a rather severe short blonde hairdo. The partners loved Nora because she was efficient. She got her engagements done early and she billed her receivables on time. Her peers, myself included, tended to waste some time enjoying the social aspects of the Andersen experience. We routinely worked late hours and weekends to recoup time wasted and fun had during the "work week". We could have all learned something about time management from Nora. We just weren’t willing to sacrifice a long lunch on a sunny patio or a spirited afternoon debate about nothing important to achieve the same level of efficiency.
Nora created an even stronger polarity among the staff and seniors. She played a role in the recruiting process whereby Andersen and the other firms courted and hired graduating accounting students. Nora recruited people in her image. Conversely, I and other recruiters in the Denver office leaned towards more free-spirited personalities. These free spirits nicknamed Nora "Dieter" after the disaffected Saturday Night Live character played by Mike Myers.
Context can severely limit our perception of others. All my petty notions of Nora faded in the tornado of service she provided to Tammy and Tom following Harry's death. Nora channeled and orchestrated the compassion of Tammy‘s tax department coworkers into a myriad of support activities. She directed the preparation of meals. She helped Tammy with the logistics of the funeral preparation and completed personal errands for Tammy. She helped plan and schedule whom would complete Tammy’s work obligations. She even helped schedule times for Andersen people to visit the Byrne's home so they would not be overwhelmed by well meaning visitors. I admired the way Nora supported her friend.
On Friday evening I drove three friends to visit Tammy and offer support. Chris Turner a mid twenties staff person was one of my passengers. “Most Fridays we would be heading to happy hour somewhere about now." This wasn't most Fridays but it felt like a time when we needed to spend time together.
The sudden nature of this tragedy was something all of us were trying to grasp. We talked how forty-eight hours ago Tammy and Tom were busy parents, successful business professionals. Now they were confronting a void that seemed too dark and deep to overcome.
Nora met us at the door when we arrived at the Byrnes's home in the foothills southwest of Denver. She told me that Tom was upstairs trying to get some sleep. Tammy welcomed us and we asked the obligatory questions about how she was doing and what we could do to help. Though I knew Tammy well I found myself struggling to put the right words into a sentence that wouldn’t feel contrived. Mostly we sat there and commented on what a beautiful baby Harry was and how we appreciated that she had introduced him to us.
Tammy looked extremely tired, pale and thin. She told us when the service would be and said our support meant very much to her. We stayed about forty minutes. I know Tammy needed the company but we had no magic words and I felt like we had not done enough. Perhaps if we were “family” rather than work family we could have more comfortably just been present in the moment and navigated the silence. We offered our hugs and left Tammy to her pain.
That night I knelt and prayed at my bed for the first time since my childhood. I did not reach out to God. Where was he when an innocent child reached for a capsule on the playroom floor? What act of evil chance had he set in motion? I would feel a hypocrite to pray to a God whom had fallen asleep at the wheel. Young Harry though must be in a special place. “Please give comfort to your mom and your dad. Please help them survive losing you.”
Saint John’s Episcopal Cathedral sits on the corner of 14th and Washington Street in Denver’s Capitol Hill neighborhood. It opened for services in 1911, built in the Late Gothic Revival Style; heavy stone on the outside, ornate and spectacular on the inside. Even though I had lived in Denver all my life I had never been inside this landmark until the day of the memorial service for Baby Harry Byrnes.
The weather was gray and overcast as I rode with several coworkers the short distance from the Andersen office to Saint John’s. Everybody from the tax department attended the service and I assume most of Tom’s coworkers from the business consulting division did as well. I sat in the middle of a pew about nine rows from the altar between my friends Brad Strom and Paul Jacobs.
The ceremony started and Tammy approached the microphone. I was relieved to see that she looked much better than she had during the Friday visit. She had some color back in her face and a sense of purpose as she started to speak.
“I am a good mother……” she began. But that is all I heard. That is all I heard because my mind locked into those words and froze in analysis of them. How did it come to be that these good parents were mourning their beautiful son? How did it come to be that this mother must have felt compelled to defend the care she had given her child? How did it come to be that during this season of rebirth and new life we were grieving the death of a young life just begun? What words followed? What does a parent say in the face of a loss so great? Maybe I couldn’t bear to listen. Yes Tammy, you are a good mother.
We proceeded outside to a courtyard on the east side of the building. There lay a special walk path where urns are laid to rest under earmarked paving stones. As the priest began to speak a light rain started to fall. Across the street from Saint John's is Morey Middle School. The voices of children outside playing carried to us and blended into the background of the prayer for the soul of Baby Harry. The poignant irony was almost unbearable. Men shuddered and sobbed. Women cried out loud. I looked to my right to see Ben Walters, a partner in the firm and an advisor to Tammy, bow his head as tears rolled down his cheeks.
To this day there is a certain color of day, a certain teary rain that conjures this memory. In these moments I pray for and to Harry Byrnes and remember the grace of my Andersen family.