Held in a small magnet frame on the side of our fridge is a photo of my father and me. In it, my toddler body is perched happily on my father’s chest as he lay on the couch in the sparse family room of my youth. My mother dutifully captured the moment, with me smiling down at him, and wrote the month and year on the back after it was printed. (Remember the days of sending film off to be printed? The near-breathless anticipation of what we’d find when we opened the package and viewed, for the first time, the fruits of our efforts? Yup. Me, too.)
Slashed across the top left corner of the photo, between the plastic cover and the image itself, I’ve inserted an old saying from a fortune cookie. I couldn’t tell you when I first put that fortune in the plastic magnet protector, only that I associated it with my father. In tiny print, the slip of paper reads, “Do the right thing because it is right. Have courage and face it.”
Both parents taught all three of their daughters to do the right thing, whether someone knew what you were doing or not, and whether there was a payout or punishment waiting for you at the moment of your action. This saying, though, seemed to have my father’s name on it, somehow.
I wish I could tell you if I found that fortune at a time of distress over a decision I needed to make. I can’t. I’d just moved into my tiny, gorgeous, painfully-expensive vintage apartment in the Wallingford neighborhood of Seattle, and I somehow needed this fortune to stay with me.
The phrase is a slightly bastardized version of an original quite from W. Clement Stone, a business man and philanthropist who lived from 1902-2002, and who advocated for (and built a business around) maintaining a positive mental attitude. He brought himself up from nothing at a young age, selling newspapers on the streets of Chicago (my hometown as well), and created multi million dollar enterprises. His greatest enterprise of all, though, was his philanthropy. At the time of his death, he had contributed over $275 million to philanthropic causes. (It should be noted, however, that he was also the single largest financial contributor to Richard Nixon’s campaign. Twice.)
I have returned to this belief as a way of life and a guiding principle since my childhood, and return to the side of the fridge to gaze upon the reminder on a regular basis. This philosophy drove me to report myself when I administered the wrong eye drop to a resident at work. I immediately told the nurse on duty, filled out the appropriate paperwork, drafted the signs and symptoms for side effects, noted to all who worked with me that we needed to keep an eye on her (truly no pun intended) for the next 24 hours. I wrote the report to the administrators and called the daughter to tell her what I’d done.
“Oh, that’s fine,” her daughter replied. “She’s had that eye drop before.”
“Yes,” I replied, “but it’s not prescribed for her at this time, and while we don’t foresee any issues since there aren’t any contraindications with her currently prescribed drops, I do need to make you aware of my error.”
It was a non-issue for the daughter, but huge issue for me.
I was distraught, which seems an over-reaction to many, but not to me: My carelessness, with any other eye medication, or any other resident, could have resulted in an allergic reaction and infection. People with corneal transplants and eye disorders are especially susceptible to complications. My actions had consequences.
The truth of the matter is that I quickly grabbed the Nurse’s Drug Handbook and did my research, and I was confident there would be no problem. The truth of the matter is that I could have let it go and not reported it and no one would have been the wiser.
But I would have known. And I knew that not reporting it was the wrong thing to do.
Even though the nurse thanked me for my honesty and willingness to immediately take the appropriate steps after an error occurs, I still wasn’t calmed. She talked to me about mistakes in nursing and in medicine. She said she appreciated my concern around my carelessness that evening. And I appreciated hearing all of that, yet it still was a lesson to me to not rush and a reminder that I quite literally held lives in my hands when I dispensed meds. Giving the wrong narcotic to a resident could send an 86-year old to the emergency room and it could likely be a trip from which they would not return.
If I didn’t take my one simple mistake seriously, if I didn’t stand up and take responsibility for it because it was a minor error by most standards, where would I draw the line? Where would I decide that an error is no longer minor but serious – and how do I navigate the gray area I create for myself with this philosophy?
In most instances, there is only right and wrong. There is only this black and white.
And in most instances, one person’s definition of “right” is the polar opposite of another person’s definition, creating a natural gray area that we, as humans travel in each day.
This is where my husband and I are today – in that gray area.
Two weeks ago, we found a stray dog. It crossed a busy road and headed straight for our truck. It let me pick it up and take it with us.
No tags on the collar. Nails well-overgrown. You could see its ribs. None of our neighbors had any idea who might be the dog’s owners. The dog flinches slightly when you raise your hand to pet it – it seems used to being hit.
A trip to the vet revealed no chip, rotting teeth (two should be extracted), and a pronounced heart murmur.
No “lost dog” signs posted in the area and nothing on the Internet. The vet posted the dog’s photo (sans collar) on their site. No response.
Less than a week ago, I found a lost dog flyer quite a distance from our home. It appeared to be for this dog, and indicates that the dog has been missing for quite a long time – and in the photo, it was wearing tags on its collar and has clipped nails. It is a heartfelt plea for information. Clearly, the dog’s owners are in some emotional pain over the loss.
So I sent a text asking for some information but received no response. A few days later I called and the phone is not in service.
At this point, I should say that the dog has never attempted to run away from us. It is getting superior food which it adapted to immediately (no kibble), and has put on weight. It has expensive joint supplements, gets lots of exercise, has two beds that it takes turns happily snoring in and toys to play with. It has a routine with its new older sister and my husband and me. It loves rounding me up to get me to come to bed after a late night of work. It loves when I get on the floor and tussle with it and going for car rides. It loves being loved and having a family.
So what is the right thing to do?
For us, the right thing to do is to get a chest x-ray for the dog to determine the extent of the heart condition and see if it’s safe to administer anesthesia for a dental cleaning and tooth extraction; if it isn’t safe, the right thing to do is to keep the dog healthy and as pain-free as possible. We also plan to have it chipped. We can’t wait to see if the owners call and it seems as if they won’t call any time soon.
But what if the owners suddenly call? The dog has a new home, is happy, well-adjusted, and isn’t attempting to find its previous home or owners. Is it fair to the dog if we just give it back?
Do we tell the owners we were just looking for information and pretend we don’t have their dog?
Do we tell the owners we have their dog and that it’s healthy and happy and not getting hit anymore?
I am heartbroken that someone is missing the dog they loved so much, and I am heartbroken that I may be responsible for their continued heartbreak, and I don’t know what to do if the owners suddenly call.
And the fortune in the photo on the side of my fridge can’t help me right now.