by Ralph F. Couey
There are times in life when something huge is looming in our path, a life-changing moment the outcome of which is utterly unclear. In those moments of shaky anticipation, one can't spend too much time worrying about what may or may not happen. Such breathless foreboding only guarantees the sleepless nights and hollow eyes that pave the road to a nervous breakdown.
I have adopted the hiker's philosophy implemented at the foot of every long, steep ascent. One step at a time. Don't look up, don't look down. Have faith that, even on the Appalachian Trail, hills do eventually end. To others, this can be translated as "This too shall pass."
Retirement can be viewed in one of two ways. "I'm ready, it's time, let's do this." Or, "I have to do this because the alternative is even worse." I detailed in previous posts my struggles in recent months which led to that decision. That my bosses could not have been more compassionate and accommodating made things easier, but in the end, I still found myself on a cold, cloudy Virginia afternoon standing on the outside, looking in.
I'd rather put hot needles in my eyes than re-live the past two months. But now that I'm on the other side of those events, I can look at them with a bit more pragmatism. And understanding.
Every change in life involves some kind of personal trauma. I hated to leave behind...what I left behind. The exciting, challenging work, the wonderful and awesomely intelligent people I was privileged to work with. There was cachet in the organization and the mission which lent an air of the extraordinary to my days. As one of my friends put it, "After all this, it's hard to be ordinary again." There's a tinge of pain to that statement. Let me hasten to say that this was not about ego, but rather about the personal fulfillment engendered in not just doing work, but performing a mission. We were defending our country, a calling by any definition.
On my last day, there was a ceremony. People said some really nice things about me, and I gave a perhaps too lengthy speech out of the need to get those thoughts off my chest. My family was there and got a chance to meet some of those singular individuals. But after the ceremony, the pizza, and some final goodbyes, I went down to the security office. There, I sat across the table from a man who had me sign some non-disclosure forms written in very stiff language. I was read out of my clearances and programs. I surrendered my badges, and in the final moments, in the friendliest way, I was shown the door. Several of them in fact, as befits the multiple barriers of one of those undisclosed locations.
I went to my car, but before getting in, I turned and looked back at that building that had been so familiar for so long. I probably risked the fate of Lot's wife at that moment, but it is always a moment of disorientation to find yourself on the outside looking back at the forever unreturnable.
I drove to Tyson's Corner where my family awaited. We had dinner and spent some final heart aching moments with our grandchildren before saying goodbye to them for the last time.
The next morning, we squeezed all of our remaining belongings into our new used car (the old one would never have shouldered that load) and headed west. That first day I had intended to go as far as Dayton, Ohio. But we encountered a snowstorm in West Virginia that got heavier in a very short time. But the time we reached Pittsburgh, we decided to stop there for the night, where our dear friends there opened their home to us. I fretted about this event disrupting the schedule. Then, in a startling moment of epiphany, I asked myself, "Why?" I was not on vacation, so I wasn't burning leave days, nor was there any burning reason why we had to be anyplace by any certain time. For the first time in several weeks, I smiled.
We left the next day, but instead of a schedule-driven marathon, the drive became more of a desultory ramble. Each day, we went as far as we damn well pleased, and no farther. When we reached Kansas City, we stopped for two days to visit with my sister and her husband, as well as take the time to visit some old friends we hadn't seen in decades. It was a pleasant stay, and when we felt we were done there, we loaded up and headed west again.
Finally we arrived at our daughter's home in Aurora, Colorado. As good as it was to see them. it was hard to get my head around the idea that this wasn't a visit. It was a final destination.
That realization continues to be difficult. As many places as we've lived, Denver has not been one of them. Plus, thanks to their generosity, we will be living with them for a time until our financial situation sorts itself out. Because we are in someone else's house, I suspect it will feel like a visit for awhile.
Familiarity doesn't only breed contempt. It also helps the acquisition of ownership to a new place. Before long, we won't be totally GPS dependent as we drive around town. We will find our restaurants, our reliable car repair place, good doctors, grocery stores, theaters, barbers and salons, all the environmental accouterments that turn an alien place into a home town. Eventually, this will become our home, our way of life, and we will say without that momentary hesitation, "we're from Colorado."
The fictional Jean-Luc Picard once said,
"Someone once told me that time was a predator that stalked us all our lives.
But I rather think that time is a companion who travels with us on the journey,
reminding us to cherish every moment because they'll never come again.
What we leave behind is not as important as how we've lived."
At every stage of life, we leave something behind; a place and a time when our lives orbited a common center with others. Our hearts ache for what we have lost. But someday, that heartache will become a cherished memory. What we did and what we were will fade before the more pressing requirements of what we must do and the possibilities of what we will become as the present evolves into the future. The past will always be with us; after all, it helped shape us. Despite the struggles, I will remember those five years with great affection.
Age will pronounce it's own fate upon us as the calendar unwinds. I know that my memories will become indistinct and inexact. But there will be moments when something familiar drifts in on the breeze, and I will be momentarily transported back.
Despite the certainty of the coming infirmities, I know that what the mind may forget, the heart will always remember.