Adrien would look you right in the eyes when you talked to him and always took a beat before responding. He would look at you expectantly when you walked into the room, as if he really wanted to have a conversation with you, but really wanted you to be the one to start it.
Adrien was a Program Support Assistant where I work, a job designed for people with developmental disabilities. As an organization that serves children and youth with disabilities and special needs, this is a unique opportunity to provide employment to past clients who often struggle to find work.
Because of the set-up of our office, Adrien did most of his work in the staff kitchen. This meant that his day with filled with quick interruptions as people used the water cooler, grabbed coffee or heated up lunch.
Whenever I’d walk in, he’d look up from his work and give me the “I’d like to talk” look.
Sometimes, and I feel terrible admitting this, I’d just give him a friendly smile, fill my water bottle and head back to work. Other times, I’d stop for a simple conversation.
“Hey Adrien. How are you?”
“I’m good,” he’d often say with a sigh. “How are you?”
“I’m good, thanks. I should get back to work, have a great day.”
One afternoon, our conversation went a little differently.
“Hey Adrien. How are you?
“Actually, I’m a little lonely.”
Now it was my turn to take a beat. I wasn’t expecting that.
“I’m sorry to hear that Adrien,” I awkwardly responded.
“I think it’s because I’m the only one here that does my job. Everyone else is on a team.”
This is where I’d like to say that I told him that he is a part of the team, but I probably didn’t. I don’t remember what I said, but it was probably something semi-encouraging, but also wrapped up that conversation and a fairly awkward moment.
But I did take his point. Imagine working in an area where people pop in quickly all day to do a personal task before getting back to work. Often people were in mid-conversation with each other as they filled their coffee cups – barely noticing Adrien’s “I’d like to talk” expression.
So I tried harder. I tried to engage Adrien in more than “how are you?” conversation. I asked about work (he also worked at a movie theatre), about his new apartment, about what he did on the weekend. I wasn’t perfect, I didn’t always engage with him and I felt guilty every time I didn’t.
Adrien passed away suddenly this week. It shocked us all. One day, he’s in the office, and the next day we’re gathered in a boardroom to hear the news that he’s gone. We spent the rest of the afternoon staring at each other wondering what the heck just happened.
Adrien’s life mattered. It was important and had an impact. He was a part of our team, he was a fixture in our little kitchen and it’s been so strange walking in and he’s not there.
I hope he knew that. I hope he knew that we’d miss him if he wasn’t there. I hope he knew he was part of our team.
And now I know I should’ve tried even harder. I should’ve engaged with him every time, despite how awkward it could be. I’m not great in awkward situations. I try to avoid them as much as I can. Adrien presented an opportunity to literally walk into an awkward situation most days of the week. I should’ve embraced this.
All he wanted was connection, to be a part of a team. He just didn’t always know how to do it. I claim to want the same things, and I should’ve tried harder to help him feel the way he wanted to feel.
Please try to embrace the awkward situations. Try to make connections with those that don’t really know how. You don’t know what else is going on, what they’re struggling with. Stopping your hectic life to say hello, ask what’s going on and encourage someone could be all the difference to that person.