Life is full of snapshots and phases. Today I spotted a coworker walking down the hallway. I was sitting at a table wearing my headphones, and normally in that situation people will give a nod or a wave and continue on their way. In this case, though, when our eyes met this man walked directly over to me as if he had something pressing to say. I removed my headphones and sat up straight. He shook my hand and said “I’m retiring, Ben”. I’ll be honest, this news didn’t exactly surprise me. After all, this man had been working at my company for 24 years and had put in 20 years at another place of employment previously. What did capture my attention was his demeanor. While he was all smiles on the outside, I watched as he somewhat longingly took in his surroundings and expressed his appreciation for the people he’d met and the environment he’d spent so much time in. This was in stark contrast to his usual demeanor of rushing around to get something or other complete by the end of the day. He was now acutely aware that he was on the precipice of a new life phase, that this one was quickly moving into his past, and that soon it would exist only in memories. What was just another day at the office for me was his last opportunity to see certain people, to tell them how much impact they’d had on his life, and to enjoy their presence.
Life phases are funny. Things that can feel like such an elongated struggle while you’re going through them are just a wisp of ether upon reflection. My oldest son, who has been such a challenge at times with his strong personality, impulsiveness, inventiveness, and downright stinker-ness (is that a word?) will be entering high school in the fall. He has roughly four more years under my roof before he enters his own life phase of independence and self-sufficiency. Compare that to the fourteen we’ve already struggled through together and it seems like no time at all. While we’ve been busy shuttling kids around, attending board meetings, emptying the dishwasher, handing out chores and balancing holiday trips between extended families, he’s been growing up. Pretty soon we’ll be watching him drive off to whatever life has in store for him, and his childhood will exist only in our memories and a few digital pictures and videos that we happened to remember to capture. In transparency, there have been times raising him up when I’ve counted the years until graduation, as I’m sure he did as well. But now that the next phase is within spitting distance, I find myself remembering the good times. Sitting on the couch and reading yet another “Thomas the Tank Engine” story before bedtime. Watching his eyes light up when grandpa started the tractor. Listening to him surprise us with a historical fact that he read months ago and that any adult would have forgotten. Fourteen years that, with the benefit of the present, feels like only a few short weeks.
I remember when my dad turned 40. We lived on a busy state highway in Minnesota and my mom rented one of those signs where you could arrange the letters in any configuration. We opted for the “honk, Terry is 40 today” gag and placed the sign at the end of the driveway. I think my parents still have some photos of that sign somewhere. As a child, I didn’t understand the significance of the age of 40 other than what the “over the hill” greeting cards said. Now that I’m reaching that same milestone in a few days, the significance is somewhat clearer. Middle age has arrived. Not yet old enough to consider the phase of retirement an eventual reality, but no longer young enough to tackle life with the exuberance and zeal afforded by youth. My life is tempered by enough wisdom to understand that my days should be savored without including the available time to do so. It’s a new phase, in some ways, though one that’s been building over the past few years. What does it mean? What should I do? I guess I’ll keep shuttling kids around, attending board meetings, emptying the dishwasher, handing out chores and balancing holiday trips between extended families.
Three phases: one where a seasoned man has the understanding that everything will soon be completely different, and that he should savor the moments he has left. One where a young man is moving on to high school, but does so with reckless abandon in anticipation of the exciting future ahead. And one where a middle-aged man observes the quick passage of time but who doesn’t have time to savor the moments because life just keeps happening.