Every day as I walk my route in this wonderful weather, I consider each day a reprieve from what I know is coming. The ice and snow are just over the horizon. We’ve been lucky—I’ve been lucky as a mailman—to have a warm December. Even when it’s 25 in the morning, a day that promises something over 30 or 32, is a good day for me.
Last January and February, we had weeks of subzero temperatures and snow on the ground. Unless you’ve walked a good distance on the beach, you might not have an idea of what it’s like to slog through the snow for 14 or more miles. I think about that. Every time my friend in Salt Lake City sends me a picture of new snowfall, I feel the exhaustion I felt that fateful day in February.
It didn’t start like every other day. I had done my 16.5-mile route the day before and as an assistant was sent out in the dark to carry another three or four miles of mail. When I started my route, I felt the work of the previous day in my legs for the first time since I started carrying mail a year and three months before. It was strange. I thought I just needed more warmup. After all, we had been working for weeks in top daily temperatures of 9.
That morning was warmer than it had been in what seemed a long time. It was something like 15 or 16 degrees. After about three relays (delivering from the truck, up the block, and back to the truck), I thought maybe something was wrong. I was not warming up. I was physically degrading.
I‘m not going to make it through the day, I thought to myself. But that can’t be right. What will happen to the rest of my route? Who will carry all this mail, deliver all these packages? I determined I would carry on. I’d felt bad before. We’ll see how this thing shakes out.
A couple more relays in, I decided I would get through half my route and see how I felt. I made it through my fifth and sixth relay. I needed to make nine. That would be half. The seventh relay found me stumbling and wandering in crooked lines. During the eighth, I was falling down, struggling to my feet and to the next mailbox.
I arrived back at the truck and realized I could not take another step. Reluctantly, I phoned my union steward and asked him how to approach the situation, how to tell my supervisor my day was done. He counseled me to be direct and give no more information than necessary. I ended the call and took a deep breath. This was a moment of truth.
The call to my supervisor went easier than I thought. “I don’t feel well and my day has come to an end,” I said. “I have to go home now. What do you want me to do with the mail?”
Fortunately, that was it. The situation was now a safety issue. I took the truck back to the station, arranged and flagged the mail so the next carrier could know where the relays began and ended. By the time I stepped into my car, it was turning out to be a nice day with the temperature approaching 20.
The drive home was surreal. My body was effectively shutting down. I was beyond tired. For the first time in a long life of hard work, I had reached the end of my physical limitations. It was an odd place to be. Never had I gotten to the point where I had no more to give. As an ironworker, I thought I’d been there a time or two. Working long hours on little sleep in my other occupations had gotten me to the point where I thought, that’s it.
But here I was at the very end. It was not sleep I needed but water and rest, the actual putting up of feet for a couple of days.
The rest of the day I pooped out, I spent time in front of the television. I think I e-mailed a couple of mates. But my head was as empty as a bubble. My body felt like loose wires. I’ll be all right, I thought, if I could just sit here and regain my strength.
How wrong I was. I called in sick the next day and set myself up for a covid test. The symptoms of the disease included physical fatigue and I thought I’d better check that out. Plodding into the testing center, I thought, I’d finally contracted the disease despite all my efforts to subvert its success.
But no, I tested negative. I had to accept that I had nothing left. No spunk. No will. No physical strength. I was just ribbons flipping around in the wind.
I called in the next day and floated around the house between the television and bed. I slept long hours through the night and the day.
The third day, I woke at my appointed hour and felt some semblance of being human again. My limbs felt attached to my body for the first time since I’d last fallen down in the snow. My brain seemed to tune into things that had escaped it for at least 72 or more hours. Instead of going to work, I wisely decided to call in again and give myself another day of rest.
It was a difficult decision. I didn’t have sick leave—assistants don’t have those kins of benefits. I was losing something like $200-$250 a day staying at home. But for some reason, I thought I’d better take care of myself or I’d be in a position to lose a lot more than that.
When I returned to office four days into this escapade, no one had noted my absence. I took to the work again with a renewed sense of energy. Nothing had changed and I was all right.
So, now, in this warm December, I think about the day I lost my ability to carry mail. Every day above freezing is a reprieve, a deliverance from real, grueling work. It’s coming. March and April are still a long way away.