Jan McColaugh's AH-OO-GAH cane

Jan McColaugh In the early 1990s, I worked at Microsoft with a woman named Jan who had a gift for remembering silly jokes and making people laugh when they were trying very hard to be serious and business-like. Jan was also my mentor as I became a manager of people and teams. She was a living embodiment of the philosophy that giving people orders never works optimally -- at best it elicits a narrow conformity to instructions -- but listening carefully and then helping people do what they already want to do is a recipe for happiness and productivity.

(To the right is a picture of Jan with her husband Jack McColaugh at my birthday party in 1993.)

One day Jan walked into my office, shut the door behind her, and told me she had just been diagnosed with Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis, or ALS, otherwise known as Lou Gehrig’s disease. In the clinical language of the ALS Foundation, ALS is a neurodegenerative disease that usually attacks both upper and lower motor neurons and causes degeneration throughout the brain and spinal cord. Jan told me the diagnosis had been confirmed by two doctors, and the prognosis was not good. Over 50% of ALS patients die within eighteen months of their diagnosis, so Jan said she needed to tell me she was thinking about how to leave her job.

I was stunned. At that point in my life I had never had a friend of mine die, and only a handful of family members. I couldn’t then grasp the implications of what she was saying. So that morning I only told her that all of us loved her, and I asked what we could do to help; she could work as long as she wanted and do whatever she wanted to do, either fulltime or part time, and work from her home if she wanted to. Jan was more interested in talking about the impact she expected this news would have on all of us and on her husband Jack and their two teenage daughters. At her request, I agreed to keep the news a secret until her symptoms became more apparent.

Over the next few weeks, Jan had more difficulty walking and moving up and down the halls of our building. It was becoming obvious she had some kind of problem. So we decided to share the news with the rest of our group. Jan would work for a few more months, and then leave when she had to adapt to a wheelchair. At our next team meeting, I told everybody what was going on. It turned out that no one was surprised by the news, which had leaked out earlier, but no one had brought it up in a meeting because they wanted her to be the one to break the news. Everybody laughed when I brought out a cane I had brought to present to Jan to aid in her navigation around our hallways. The cane was a beautiful, four-footed, rubber-tipped, stainless steel model, equipped with an AH-OO-GA horn with a round rubber bulb for use in honking, plus blinking lights so we wouldn’t run her down.

Jan made a lot of trips up and down the hallways with her cane, and the sound of her horn could be heard at odd times of the day from three different floors. When the time came, we had one last big party for her. None of us planned to truly let her go, however.

The next day, I met with her husband Jack and her daughters. We drew up a schedule. For the next year or more, every day, one of the members of our team from went to Jan’s house and sat with her for a couple of hours, reading aloud or talking to her. Altogether, over fifteen people participated at some point in our team’s community safety net for Jan and her family, sharing their days, their tears and laughter, sharing our stories and hearing theirs.

A time came when she could no longer hold up her end of a conversation. Days arrived when she could no longer sit in a wheelchair, no longer feed herself, no longer communicate at all except for it the movement of an eye or the pressure of a fingertip. Finally, several of us from the team kept watch in the hospice with her family as Jan moved toward her death. At her funeral, many of us told stories of how she’d helped us through a rough patch, or of some silly thing she had done or said that had brightened a particular a dark day. We spoke of how we appreciated being able to go to her house in that last year and read stories to her or just talk quietly as she smiled and nodded.

Our time with Jan cemented our relationship to each other as friends, allies, companions, and citizens of the commonwealth of Jan. Her generosity in sharing her life and death changed us forever. We understood something about humor and love, about compassion and storytelling, about mutual dependence and the importance of silliness that none of us could have known otherwise.  Our team added many people who had never known Jan and who had no idea how her life and death continued to influence their lives -- the lives of people who had never met her.

Now, many years later, it has been a long time since most of us worked together on a daily basis. We all continue to be shaped and educated by our collective love affair, and many of us are still in touch with each other. A remnant of our team still gets together for lunch every month or so, almost a decade and a half after Jan’s death. Long-term friendships and family relationships live on, and many of us think of those years as the best working experience we’ve had. Jan’s magical safety net, along with her blinking, honking walking cane, lives on.

Please visit my friends at Personal Safety Nets.