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SERIES: 2016 is the tenth anniversary of Bill Jensen’s seminal book, What Is Your Life’s Work?, composed of legacy letters — letters from leaders and managers to their loved ones. Each letter describes a life’s work legacy they wish to leave behind. Each letter is published and attributed as it was ten years ago, with 2016 updates as postscript.
Work: Living life to the fullest for his daughter
John Santoro is Executive Director, Leadership Communications for Pfizer. He works with the company’s chairman on communications strategy and execution. He also has overall responsibility for Pfizer’s Annual Report. He’s writing to his son, Michael, 14 years old.
I am writing this at the national meeting of Compassionate Friends. All of us — you, me, and Mom — are sadly members of this organization, devoted to those who have lost children and siblings.
Our Paula — your twin — left us on December 10, 2000, at age 10, from the complications of Cushing’s Syndrome. Few people have ever heard of this disease. We know it painfully well.
We come to these meetings not only to honor Paula, but also to continue our journey through this valley of tears. I know I speak for both me and Mom, and I can try to speak for Paula, in saying that we cannot be prouder of how you managed to grow into a fine young man, despite enduring the unendurable.
You’re nearly 14 now, strong of body and spirit, warm-hearted, smart, funny, and talented. It is incredible to watch you play trombone and sitar with skill and passion. Your music may be as important to me as it is to you. When you play, I feel almost as I did before Paula passed on. The moments without pain are fleeting, but I am grateful for each one.
I went to a seminar this morning called For Men Only. Two dozen guys, from all walks of life, talking about the unthinkable. Most of the sharing was wrenching and poignant, but some of it was comical — like our almost-maniacal devotion to work, even in the face of tragedy. We spoke of the intersection of work and grief — that somehow, in the middle of the worst event that could ever happen to us and our families, our thoughts turned to our “To Do” lists. One man spoke of going back to the office two days after his 22-year-old daughter died, even before her funeral was held. He didn’t know why, he just had to go. I wasn’t quite that way after Paula died, but one of the first phone calls I made on that dark Saturday of her passing was to my boss, at home. I began going through all my projects, one-byone. He was stunned and fighting back tears. I had the calm demeanor of a man rightly in shock. Two days later I took the car in for service. It was due.
Paula lived a life under constant stress. The hallmark of Cushing’s Syndrome is a set of adrenal glands gone haywire, pumping out much more cortisol than the body wants or can use. Cortisol is a “flight or fight” hormone. Paula’s body told her that her world was always in chaos.
She adapted to her body’s screwed-up signaling by trying to control every aspect of her activities. Each day began with a checklist, finely handwritten, with sharply drawn checkboxes. All her possessions were arranged in precise rows. She was a walking Palm Pilot, who could unfailingly remind you of appointments made or library books due. When she started a project, be it a poem or a picture, there was no stopping her until it was complete. She was literally driven by her disease to perfection.
Yet Paula had remarkably modest career aspirations. She could read stock charts at age eight, but all she wanted to be was a store clerk or a letter carrier. She cared about others much more than she cared about herself. The plight of the poor and the fate of the Earth were very much on her mind, even at that tender age.
Our mementos of Paula are her work outputs — dozens upon dozens of detailed drawings and poems with metaphors so startling that it’s hard to believe they were composed by a preteen. Our house is teeming with these elaborate artworks. We are grateful that she was so prolific in expressing herself.
Yet my fondest memories of Paula are found in the times she could cast off the mantle of work. A week before her body delivered its final betrayal, we watched “America’s Funniest Videos.” Paula loved slapstick humor and she laughed so hard I was afraid she’d burst the surgical stitches in her abdomen. It was the last time we would really share her famous belly laugh. One week later, she belonged to the ages.
And then there was June 2000, just a few months before Paula entered the hospital. Along with everything else in our lives, my company, Warner-Lambert, was bought by Pfizer in a transaction that started on less than positive terms. When it turned friendlier, I was asked to help on the transition team, and ultimately joined Pfizer, in large measure due to their compassion after Paula’s passing. The first half of 2000 was a time of great upheaval in my work life. I was looking forward to a long-planned family vacation to Disney World.
I scheduled that vacation for long past the most pessimistic estimates of when Pfizer would close the deal on Warner-Lambert. As fate would have it, Day One of the new Pfizer was the day we were set to leave. I was asked to consider postponing my vacation, just for one day, and decided not to. We left as planned for what would become the last vacation we would take together, at least on this earth.
At Disney World, we asked you and Paula to tell us one thing you wanted to do above all else. For you, it was a ride on Space Mountain. For Paula, it was perhaps the lowest-tech activity you can do at Disney — visit the home of Minnie Mouse. I remember her excitement about the whimsy of the house of a fictional mouse. She laughed and laughed, that belly laugh again.
I now get to Orlando quite often on business. Every time, I make it a point to visit what is now, to me, sacred ground…Minnie’s House.
My first few times back there, I’d break down in tears, sometimes so violently that people would give me the “Madman’s Berth.” Things are better now. I still weep at the Magic Kingdom, but I am also grateful for the memories of being there as a family in June 2000. My company was gone, my career uncertain, my life about to change in ways I could not fathom, and still don’t. For 30 glorious shining minutes, though, Paula saw her beloved Minnie’s home, poked around in her refrigerator, and walked in her garden. She threw off her mantle of work, and, on that day, let me do the same.
Remember that day as you build your career. Hard work is noble, but nobler still is knowing when to put it aside, and savor the love and warmth of family, to whom I know you will give your best.
2006: John Santoro lives in New Jersey but is often on the road. He cheers Michael on in sitar competitions (this dirty-blond kid from the burbs wows the Indian community), and Boy Scout overnights and volunteer activities.
2016: John, Pam and Mike remain close personal friends. John is still at Pfizer, and Mike is teaching music and engaged to be married.
Want to Write Your Own Legacy Letter? Go here for step-by-step instructions.