Thursday, December 23, 2010

The End of an Era

Today we bid good-bye to a colleague of ours. She had been with the company for more than 35 years.  Considering how much I know I have slowed down since I started there 20 years ago, at age 23,  I was always amazed at her continuing commitment and drive at the office.  You see, the Doctor (as we called her since she is a PhD in Archaeology), turned 86 years young this year.

I wish I could say that this was a celebration moment.  I wish I could say that she was heading off to new adventures and a life of well-earned leisure.  Instead, it was a difficult business decision that we as a management team had to make.  With the MERGER in full gear, and the pressures mounting on reorganization, we had to look at our little family with a clear business-only view.  No longer could we have discussions about how to provide the Doctor with work suited to her intellect AND age.  No longer could we use phrases like, "But she's been here forever, it doesn't cost much to keep her on..." We had always hoped someday she would come in and say...."I'm done.  I'm satisfied.  Life here has been good, now it's time to move on to the next phase of life."

Instead we had to give her the boot.

It was all done with grace and dignity, a nice comfortable departure package, some advanced notice, and with as little attention as possible, as was her wish.  She insists she will be looking for a new job in the new year.  She will not rest easily with idle hands.  I wondered as I listened to her if we are all destined to make that mind shift.  When do you think we change from the people we are most of our working lives - dreading getting up in the morning and stressing over the day, wishing for that one big lottery ticket win - into the person who doesn't want it to end.  I see it happen so often.   And yet I can't imagine wanting to stay at my job one minute past the absolute necessary time I need to see the financial road clear.

In the end, she didn't want a lot of sentiment.  She didn't want a party.  She barely wanted to say good-bye.  And those of us she did talk to, privately and quietly as is her way, understood.  We understood as we held her hand and cried a little ourselves as if we were hearing the news for the first time.

And in her typical fashion of laughter and charm, she gave me a hug today and said, "Onward"....I've heard her say that so many times with a jaunty fist punch in the air and her 4' 10" trim body bounding down the aisle, it seemed almost like any other day.


I watched her walk up the aisle of cubicles today toward the door - for the last time as one of us.  She was bundled against the cold and pulling her shopping cart on wheels filled with some of the last items from her desk.  It was just about the saddest thing I've ever seen.  And even though I was 100% behind the business decision...the pure human side of me - the side that saw my longtime colleague and friend departing not only her place of work, but her place of community - that side of me cried.

We all swore today that we would stay in touch.  We'll have lunch.  We'll visit.  We'll call.  And I hope we will.   But we all knew that something shifted today and it will be all too easy to just let go.

I stopped at her desk before leaving tonight and touched the books she left behind.  A gargantuan old dictionary that she had zealously guarded for the last 20 years, swearing the newer dictionaries we got for her were simply not as accurate or complete.  The books on technical translation for English to Spanish and Spanish to English that helped her get through multi-lingual documents written and read by engineers and scientists.  The rule books on grammar and style that she could probably recite by heart.  I smiled a little to see the ream of paper that she used to raise the height of her monitor.  That ream looked like it was the same one she must have plucked out of the supply closet 15 years ago - wrinkled and stained - but it would be unlike her to find a reason to replace it with a formal stand or even a fresh ream.  It was still doing the job.  Still just the right height.  Why would she need anything else?

Then I stepped outside her cube and pulled her nameplate from the wall.  No one else had done it.  No one else would want to.  But I needed it to be an empty cube now.  Not the space the Doctor was supposed to occupy.

On Monday we start again.  And we'll be a little less because she is gone.  The end of an era.


Jenn @ Juggling Life said...

Wow. It is hard to imagine staying until 86. I would not have wanted to be the person who had to tell her to go.

I do think our society is a little less for only having the bottom line figure into our equations.

AmyBow said...

this is so enormously sad.

i am so glad i was not there to see it.

Chelle said...

ouch! We had a similar situation, we let go a 62 year old lady with so much spunk, it broke my heart, haven't talked to her since, but thought I would. I hope she is hanging in there!