Copyright © 2016
By Ralph F. Couey
It was a cold, but bright and beautiful morning. The night before, freezing rain had moved in and had coated the 8 inches of snow with a veneer of ice. It was the kind of surface that guaranteed some heart-stopping sledding. My friends and I met at our customary place, a moderately steep hill. At the bottom, we had built a jump ramp which we figured would give us enough air to span the rocks of Mill Creek.
Getting there was difficult, as the icy top of the snow kept us falling frequently, only occasionally crunching through the surface. Finally though, we stood at the crest of the hill. The sun was well up, and it's light reflected on the surface, turning the hill into something that resembled a huge sheet of glass. Now, we were adventurous youth, but some tendrils of mortality crept into our collective brains as we began to realize that disaster could await us at the bottom of the hill.
Me, being me, decided to go first. I waxed the runners and flipped it over, laying down on the top. With a brave-sounding "YEEEEHAWWWW!!!!" I started down the hill.
I hadn't gone a hundred feet before I realized something was very wrong. The icy surface was very fast, but gave me absolutely no way to steer. The runners, instead of creasing the surface were just skittering across it like a waterbug. About halfway down, I knew I was in trouble. The sled began to swing back and forth, at times going sideways. I tried to dig the toes of my boots into the unyielding surface, but to no avail. About 50 feet from the ramp, I was in a full panic. I was headed downslope, faster than I had ever gone before, and with absolutely no control.
That memory has come back to me as my life has unfolded, and unraveled, over the past two months.
This all started with the situation related in my last posting. The revelation that my problems at work stemmed from the diagnoses of two...count 'em...two learning disabilities explained a lot, but did little to improve my situation. My bosses were great. Empathetic and understanding, but always cognizant that the work still needed to be done.
Then one day, I heard a sort of gong go off inside. As that tone resonated, I realized that I had to retire. This was five years too early from a financial standpoint, but I was out of options.
We knew we had to leave Virginia. Living here on what I had saved thus far was simply undoable. We had for several years assumed we would resettle in Las Vegas, but recently Fun City has experienced a disquieting uptick in violent crime. In addition, there are still some 14,000 vacant homes in the Valley, many of which have been taken over by squatters, bringing with them the inevitable drugs and crime. Efforts by neighborhoods to address the problem didn't go well. We decided that Vegas had become too dangerous.
We decided to go to the Denver area. We have two daughters there, one of whom invited us to move in with them until we got our financial feet underneath us.
That settled, we now had to sell our home. This made me nervous. The DMV (DC, Maryland, Virginia) region is it's own real estate bubble , which doesn't often follow national trends. Plus, every four years a presidential election takes place, which means an influx of people working for the new administration. So we went to work on the house. Going through our belongings, we ruthlessly began to downsize. We were able to find buyers for several pieces of furniture that we didn't want to take with us, and began boxing up things and filling the garage. Once the clutter was removed, we brought in painters and carpet cleaners. After two weeks of very hard work, the house was as ready as we could make it. Then we interviewed several Realtors, choosing the one who was able to get a contract within two weeks on our neighbor's home. We interviewed several moving companies, and chose one, waiting until we knew a firm date on the house before scheduling the move.
We are on a clock. My last day of work is in early January, and we had to get the house sold before then, as my reduced income would not cover the mortgage payment.
A sign went in the yard on November 10th, and the ad went live on the 'net the next day. Within 10 minutes, we had three showings scheduled for Monday. Tuesday noon, we had an offer, a really good offer from a buyer who already had their financing in place. There was a little back-and-forth over details, but the contract was in place by the 18th. Now we're working through getting the inspections done, looking at closing December 9th.
I guess I'm getting old, but this seemed like way too much change way too fast. In the midst of this breakneck-paced process, I remembered that day on the sled. We've been racing downhill with very little sense of control over events, and feeling just a bit panicked.
If this wasn't enough to think about, I have to sell my motorcycle. It would be too expensive to ship, and to store until the snow melts in the Rockies come springtime. Given the time of year, I had to price it really cheap, and I think I now have a serious buyer. But looking at this wonderful machine which has given me so much pleasure and peace over the years, I can't help but feel sad that my life is going forward without it.
Yesterday, I took my venerable Highlander in for a simple oil change and tire rotation. But once the mechanic got it up on the rack, he discovered that many of the vital suspension and braking components had corroded into dangerous uselessness. The front brake calipers are fused. The suspension bushings are shot. A wheel bearing is dangerously worn. There are also several other problems, bringing the cost of the repairs to over $5,000. We've owned the vehicle for 11 years, racking up over 216,000 miles over that time, so we definitely got our money's worth. But it is unsellable in it's current condition, so we will try to get it donated. We now have to rent a car, because I still have six weeks of work left, and I need transportation, so the costs continue to mount.
We were counting on the SUV to help carry our interim belongings cross country, but now we have to consolidate things into a Hyundai Sonata. Yeah. Talk about making decisions.
So, I've lost my career, my SUV, and my motorcycle. I think I'm leaking my sense of "self."
So, I've lost my career, my SUV, and my motorcycle. I think I'm leaking my sense of "self."
If we were wealthy, we just turn this whole thing over to an assistant and say, "call us when it's done." But our lives don't work like that, so at this point, we have to pick up the shovel, dig in, and get through it. This has become like hiking up a very steep and very long hill. At some point, you stop looking for the end, stop looking back at the beginning. You just look down, and concentrate on putting one foot in front of the other.
During the Normandy landings, US Army Rangers found themselves at the base of a sheer cliff known as Pont du Hoc. Told there were huge artillery pieces to be taken out, they scaled that vertical cliff while the Germans shot at and grenaded them from above. Years later, the former officer stood on that same beach and looked up at the sheer cliff and asked, "Will someone please tell me how in the hell we did this?" There will be another side to this, where the house is sold, the stuff is moved, and we are relocated safely in Colorado. At that point, we will probably look back on this time and ask the same question.
But once this maelstrom has subsided, I will be left with another question. My career, the dream for which I had worked for so long has been taken from me. I can't blame anyone, or point a finger in any direction. My brain has betrayed me. I am unfortunately part of the male generation that was raised by watching our fathers and uncles, men for whom their careers defined them. It was who and what they were. Now, I will be forced to try to find a new identity, a new sense of purpose. True, I have two books to finish and try to get published, and Colorado is full of new hiking trails to explore. At some point, I will get another motorcycle, and spend some unforgettable days careening through the Rockies.
But after a career spent in counter-terrorism, I have to say even those things sound pedestrian and ordinary.
One of my keynote expressions is "The only consistent thing in life is change." It's not just a trite sentence. It is so very true. The best way to survive the journey of life is to be always ready for the divergent path. There is always an unsettling period involved until the traveler is set and comfortable on the new trail, but I know that eventually, I will face the future and embrace this new existence.
Doors open and close for us in this journey, none of which can be reopened. And whatever new experiences await us, there is always sadness in hearing the hollow boom of the door behind us as it closes with a sarcophagal finality. What I must do now is to see through the newly opened door and walk forward into the light of new experiences, new opportunities.
This is the end of a chapter. But the book goes on. This story, after all, has not yet ended.
Oh, by the way, in case you're wondering, my sled hit the ramp just right, and cleared the creek. I was bruised and sore from the impact, but I survived. My friends didn't follow.