A couple of months ago, right after my first son was born, I thought about the lessons I wanted to pass along to him that I had learned a little late in life. Among the morals I scribbled down in my mind, one that stood out began with a story involving Steve Jobs and ended with the serving of my mother’s last meal.
The Jobs portion of the story occurred on a late-October morning in 2010, when he was sitting with a mutual friend in the restaurant of the Four Seasons hotel in San Francisco. The waitress, a shy woman who looked to be in her mid-30s, according to the friend, approached them and asked what they wanted for breakfast. Jobs said he wanted freshly squeezed orange juice.
After a few minutes, the waitress returned with a large glass of juice. Jobs took a tiny sip and told her tersely that the drink was not freshly squeezed. He sent the beverage back, demanding another.
A few minutes later, the waitress returned with another large glass of juice, this time freshly squeezed. When he took a sip he told her in an aggressive tone that the drink had pulp along the top. He sent that one back, too.
My friend said he looked at Jobs and asked, “Steve, why are you being such a jerk?”
Jobs replied that if the woman had chosen waitressing as her vocation, “then she should be the best.”
Hearing this story, I was immediately put off by how Jobs had acted; he was being – to borrow from his breakfast companion – a jerk. But looking past his rudeness (Maybe he was having a bad day?), I couldn’t get the idea out of my mind: No matter what you do for a living, should you do the best work possible?
Of course, this question breaks down a bit when a job is just a job; it’s not your vocation. It can be especially disheartening when you don’t believe that what you’re doing for a living is appreciated or that it is having very little impact on other people’s lives.
I get it. I was a waiter for many years. I was a line cook. I worked in the garment district in New York City carrying spools of fabric between warehouses. I worked in a salon washing women’s hair. And I worked for a birthday-party camp, dressing up in one of those giant furry character outfits (they stink inside) and doing magic tricks for kids who were not impressed by my card skills.
And yet it wasn’t until my mother found out that she had terminal cancer in mid-March and was given a prognosis of only two weeks to live that I learned even if a job is just a job, you can still have a profound impact on someone else’s life. You just may not know it.
My mother loved shrimp. She had no qualms about where her shrimp came from, if they were fresh or frozen, large or small. She would eat them in a grimy airport cafe or a five-star restaurant. And when she was done with her crustaceans, she always beamed a big smile and, in her posh British accent, said, “Oh, that was just lovely.”
My mother was the one who taught me how to cook shrimp – and everything else. (When I was really young, I was allowed to lick the leftover chocolate cake icing out of the bowl when I helped in the kitchen.) So I jumped at the chance to become her personal chef for the last two weeks of her life.
When she asked for some vegetables to nibble on, I fastidiously julienned a cucumber into thin slices, layering them atop one another in a semicircle on a florid porcelain plate.
When she asked for a pita and hummus, I cut the bread into perfect little triangles, found elegant small bowls in her cupboards and carefully quenelled three dipping options, as if Thomas Keller were watching over my shoulder.
I proudly took every meal to her on her finest china, placed carefully on an ornate tray and finished off with a single English flower. I prepared every menu with meticulous detail, unsure if the meal I was taking to her bedside would be her last.
As the days went by, her appetite started to wane, as did her mind. The meals she asked for grew smaller and smaller. There were fewer slices of cucumber and one less dipping sauce. Then she stopped eating altogether, barely able to finish a cup of white tea.
We all knew the end was near.
Then one evening my mother became incredibly lucid and called for me. She was craving shrimp, she said. “I’m on it,” I told her as I ran down to the kitchen.”Shrimp coming right up!”
The problem was, I didn’t have any. So I did what anyone in that situation would do: I called for takeout. From my mother’s house in Leeds, England, the closest place was Sukhothai, a tiny nondescript Thai restaurant a few miles away. My sister ordered, and we headed over in the car as quickly as we could.
The restaurant was bustling. In the open kitchen in the back, I could see a dozen men and women frantically slaving over the hot stoves and dishwashers, with busboys and waiters rushing in and out.
While I stood waiting for my mother’s shrimp, I watched all these people toiling away, and I thought about what Jobs had said about the waitress from a few years earlier. Though his rudeness may have been uncalled-for, there was something to be said for the idea that we should do our best at whatever job we take on.
This should be the case, not because someone else expects it. Rather, as I want to teach my son, we should do it because our jobs, no matter how seemingly small, can have a profound effect on someone else’s life; we just don’t often get to see how we’re touching them.
Certainly, the men and women who worked at that little Thai restaurant in northern England didn’t know that when they went into work that evening, they would have the privilege of cooking someone’s last meal.
It was a meal that I would unwrap from the takeout packaging in my mother’s kitchen, carefully plucking four shrimp from the box and meticulously laying them out on one of her ornate china plates before taking it to her room. It was a meal that would end with my mother smiling for the last time before slipping away from consciousness and, in her posh British accent, saying, “Oh, that was just lovely.”
© 2015, The New York Times News Service