The last nine months have been a series of goodbyes — family, friends, jobs, and the things that once meant something to us or to others we cared about.
This goodbye tour actually started in mid-December, when Jill’s aunt and my cousin died within days of each other — one at the end of a long life, the other at the end of a life hard lived.
My mom and I embarked on a multi-day road trip to Albany, Texas, so we could say goodbye to my cousin. It gave us a chance to visit small towns in Texas, the places off the beaten path. It also gave us time to talk, and mom the opportunity to reminisce about her childhood.
We drove past the house my great-grandfather and my grandfather built in Baird, another small town close to Albany, and visited the cemetery where they are buried with other family members. I saw cousins and kin I had not seen in 25 years, and revisited memories of my own childhood, both good and bad.
I returned home in time for the holidays, with Ben in Baltimore for “Billy Elliot” and Nicholas coming up from Elon. Thanks to a break in the tour schedule, we would have all four kids at home for Christmas.
On Christmas Eve, we went to a party hosted by friends from my work. Each year for the past several, Gene Broderson had invited us to come, but due to family obligations and travel commitments, we had never managed to fit it in.
Last year was different. Gene’s son, Jeff, works with Jill. Both Gene and his wife, Lynda, had survived cancer scares over the past two years. Because of what we had just been through, this year’s party meant something, Jill and I knew we needed to go, so all six of us headed south on the chilly evening.
Gene was, in the words of another of his friends, “a Jew who loved everything about Christmas.” And you could tell — the entire neighborhood, the Brodersons’ large, extended “family” was there. They were doing what you should during the holidays: celebrating life.
It was a beautiful evening. Little did we know that the hits would just kept coming.
On Martin Luther King weekend, Jill and I went to Boone to clean out her dad’s house, planning to return on President’s Day weekend to finish the job. But her father passed away in between the three-day weekends, and when we returned to Boone, it was for his funeral.
Before March ended, we had returned to Boone for the funeral of Jill’s beloved Uncle Glenn, the last sibling of her mom. Meanwhile, my Aunt Merry also had died following a long, agonizing struggle with dementia.
Having just been to Texas, I decided not to return for my aunt’s funeral, trying to protect the few precious vacation days I had left for the end of Ben’s run with the show and Emma’s dance recital week toward the end of June. My office was in budget mode, and my department was faced with some tough decisions, including having to change the magazine’s frequency from 12 to six issues a year along with its business plan.
Jill and her brother were in the midst of selling her father’s house, the place where they grew up, when we went to Las Vegas in mid-May. Ben was saying so long to “Billy Elliot,” the show he had been in for almost three years, and was facing an uncertain transition as he returned home.
Twelve days after we got back, I received some stunning news. The budget cuts we had made, in many respects, had also cut me out of a job.
The past 3½ months have been an unsettled time. On one hand, I have been able to spend more quality time with the kids, shlepping them back and forth even though Kate now drives. I also have worked on building my skills, especially in photography and social networking, while applying for positions and trying to develop a business on my own. And that has been incredibly invigorating, in part because I have tapped into a creative well that I worried was turning dry.
Unfortunately, it’s the job market that’s dry, especially in my field, where I am either overqualified, (formerly) overpaid, or considered not to have the skill set (especially in online media) that companies are advertising for these days. It has proven difficult to make it past the first cut with people who only see your life on a piece of paper or a computer screen.
Despite the stability you get from working in the same place for so long, what I’ve found (and what I knew, really) is that stability also can prevent you from maintaining the cutting edge skills you need to stay sharp, particularly when you are in a profession that is imploding around you.
That's a reason why I've been focusing so much on my skills. But over these past few months, I've learned a lot of other things — about how we handle transitions, about the people who care about you no matter what, about the people you thought cared more than they actually do.
I’ve also learned a lot about goodbyes.
Not long after I left NSBA, Jill told me some stunning news: Gene’s cancer, thought to be in remission, had come back. I called him at the office and we talked briefly. As usual, he was upbeat even in the face of what we knew were impossible odds.
We promised to get together for dinner, but that never happened. In the beginning he had chemo on Thursdays, and by Saturday — the night we were scheduled to go out — he was too wiped out from the chemo to consider it.
The last time we spoke was when he called and said he could not get together. I said my prayers continued to be with him and his family. He thanked me, and we left the time for our mutual dinner open for another evening.
During the summer, as I continued to look for jobs, Jill and I discovered that our schedules would not let us take a family vacation this year. Somehow, given everything that occurred, that seemed appropriate, even though it also stung.
Instead, Jill spent several days at home, which led to the inevitable spring/summer cleaning. She stacked up a number of boxes that belonged to me and asked me to do something with them, noting many had not been touched in years.
That was true. Several boxes were from my parents, who had inherited them from my grandparents and my dad’s sister. I knew I needed to go through them, and slowly I started to do so. Each slip of paper reminded me of where I had come from, and served to show me that these were spaces and places to which I would never return. (See the rest of the story here.)
As the summer moved on, my mom and I made arrangements for me to go back to Texas, in large part so I could help separate her from more of my dad’s things, which were languishing untouched in a storage facility six years after his death. We agreed on a time in early September, and I made arrangements to stay there for a week.
It was a good week. Much like we had during our visit nine months before, my mom and I talked about her family, filling in more of the gaps and blanks. Over the two visits, the one in December and the one just recently, I have learned more about her upbringing than I had accumulated in 48 years.
The day I left, Jill called, saying Gene’s son had told her that he was not likely to make it. Selfishly, I hoped he would live long enough for me to make it back to his funeral because, if I’ve learned anything, it’s that saying goodbye is important for everyone concerned.
The funeral occurred this past Friday, four days after I returned from Texas. I saw many of my former work colleagues there. Some had little to nothing to say; some gave me a hug and seemed genuinely concerned about the well being of our family. For others, the superficiality of the greetings was as if nothing had changed, just like we were bumping into each other again in the hallway at the office.
Goodbye, I thought. Goodbye.
The service was truly a celebration, a chance for many of us to gain insight into someone we cared about but didn’t truly get to know within the confines of the business setting. I left feeling fortunate to know Gene as well as I did, and even more thankful that we had celebrated the holiday with them just a short time before.
I also left safe in the knowledge that I’m tired of saying goodbye.