The Last Day

There are events in our life that stay at the edge of the horizon until we clumsily bump into them.  We neglect to pay attention to them because we’ve got too much to do before they arrive.  It’s as if we remain the young child who wants to be a Super Hero when asked “What do you want to be when you grow up?”  Our options are fueled by future dreams and our imagination.  The world in front of us is vast and limitless.  Who can blame us for not wanting to introduce the concept of aging.  It’s the Kryptonite to our Super Hero lives.

For Polly she was colliding with a Kryptonite called retirement.  It had been a hazy and indistinct point on her horizon until a month ago when her company made her an offer she couldn’t refuse.  When they came to her offering a golden handshake she was surprised and a bit overwhelmed.  Retirement was for old people she thought and she definitely wasn’t old.  Their offer was extremely generous. How could she turn down salary continuation for 18 months and then a full pension?  Everyone she had spoken with suggested she’d be crazy to turn it down.  “What do you mean you aren’t ready?” her best friend Amy asked.  “They’re paying you to stay home for 18 months.  That means no fighting traffic, the weather or how you feel.  That’s a long time to figure out what you want to do when you retire” she suggested.    When put that way, Polly knew she only had one decision.

The moment she made the decision she felt as if she had been airlifted into the front car of a roller-coaster that was momentarily balancing at its apex before plummeting to the finish at breakneck speed.

Over the next two weeks the g-force of this roller-coaster ride held her in a vice like grip where she was unable to look anywhere but straight ahead.  In her path was a whirlwind of meetings, paperwork, conversations and hastily planned celebrations.

Once the announcement about her retirement was made public she started seeing people she hadn’t spoken to for years.  After about the 10th conversation about her retirement she decided there were two distinct camps.  The first group were those coworkers younger than forty.  Their conversations were a choir of “I can’t even imagine what it would be like, or who even knows if I’ll be able to retire when the time comes.  After a while, all she heard was a politically correct version of “I’m glad I’m not as old as you”.   Then there was the group of “almost there malcontents” who had started their countdown.  You knew they were serious when their countdown was in months not years.  They seemed focused on what they wouldn’t have to do anymore when they retired.  “Just think you don’t have to get up early.  You don’t have to put up with the bull shit, the bureaucracy, the changes, and the SOB’s.”  Most of these conversations became a personal therapy session for the other person leaving Polly feeling drained.  What made it worse was that they started fuelling an overwhelming sense of uncertainty gnawing at Polly as she wondered about what she would do for the next 25 to 30 years.

At 56, Polly had worked for the same company for half of her life.  In comparison, she had only been married two years longer.  In those 28 years, she had two children, raised them, saw them graduate from university, start their own careers and get married.  Her work had become a safe haven when life’s changes came at her fast and furious.   Like a lot of people who spent their working careers with one employer it was hard to separate her life into two worlds.  So many people at work were part of her extended family.  Together they celebrated life’s joys and survived its sorrows.  It was a comfortable rhythm whose beat was about to expire. What if removing work from her world left her only a shell of her former self? Would it be enough?

This morning, her hand instinctively reached over to hit the alarm button before it was set to go off at 5:00 am. While she hadn’t expected a restful sleep she had hoped for some rest instead of the noise that had infiltrated her thoughts.  Deep inside she knew the messages that clung below the surface, afraid to give them a voice in case it gave life to her fears.   She willed herself to sit upright, gently placing her feet on the ground by the side of the bed as an overwhelming sense of uncertainty held her tight.  She made her way to the bathroom hoping a hot shower might bring her some relief.

As she emerged from the shower and stood naked in front of the steam covered mirror she took stock of her reflection.  To the naked eye she felt she could pass for someone in her 40’s, however her decaying eyesight called for greater magnification that might alter that opinion.

Hair:   a bit longer than her perfect length but the colour looked good.  She hated when that line of dark roots mysteriously showed up without warning.

Face:  a bit puffy, no doubt due to the extra glass of wine last night and lack of rest.

She proceeded to check her eyebrows for any rogue white hairs that occasionally sprouted overnight.  She was pleased that all looked balanced and harmoniously auburn in colour.

As she wiped away the steam revealing more of her reflection she raised both arms out to the side.  “Oh my God, when did I get my mother’s arms?” she screamed.  Her steamy reflection could not camouflage the flap of flesh that fell from the underside of her arms.  As she purposely jiggled them back and forth in an exaggerated movement her underarm flesh moved like a pendulum reminding her that time was ticking.

“What if retirement hastens my evolution into my mother” she worried.  Just then her husband walked in and noticed the expression on her face.  “What’s wrong?” he asked.  “What if I start acting like my mother once I retire?” she asked.  “DNA is a pretty potent force and predictor of my future.  You know the other day I spent a few minutes in a craft store.  It’s only a matter of time before a macramé owl shows up on the living room wall and every Kleenex box has a knitted handmade cover”.

“You’re not your mother”, Bill emphasized,  ”not even close.  You’re going to be just fine.   I’m looking forward to having you home more” he said.

“Don’t get any ideas that I’m going to become your sex slave” she smiled back at him as he leaned in to give her a hug. “I wouldn’t even consider that”, he replied.   “I’m happy continuing as your sex slave” he countered while flexing his muscles in an Adonis pose.

After finishing her hair and applying her makeup she walked back into the bedroom and was greeted by three wardrobe choices Bill had placed on the bed.  The first was a classic black dress.  Hers had a plunging neckline that when paired with the right piece of jewelry always made her feel special.  The second option was her navy blue business suit.  She wore this whenever she needed to be in a position of power and the final choice was her Halloween costume from 2008.  A sleek white polyester body suit with a stand up collar loaded with glittery sequins and baubles, the ultimate salute to Abba.  Bill knew when she needed a laugh and this was one of those moments.    She ultimately chose a classic pair of black slacks and sweater set that felt extremely comfortable on a day when her mind struggled between wanting to disappear or stand out in the crowd.

She arrived at work at 6:45 am.   She was generally one of the first people in the building and always made a point of getting her coffee and a bagel at the shop downstairs.  Each morning she would greet one of the owners with a smile and place her regular order.  She wondered if they would miss her when she stopped showing up each morning.

As the elevator opened on her floor she stepped out for the last time following a path that had been carved into her subconscious. This was her favourite part of the day.  She’d take a few sips of coffee and eat her bagel before people started coming in and the phones began to ring.  She could be alone with her thoughts and prepare for what lay ahead.  She wasn’t sure what today would bring but she’d get through it the way she always did.

It’s funny so much of life’s events up to this point were celebrated with others, creating a common experience.  The first day of school, high school graduation, and university commencement all stood out in her mind.  They were filled with rules and protocols on how to behave and expectations for what life held next.   There were common conversations with friends whose thoughts and feelings mirrored her own.  This was different.  Retirement was a solitary event, faced alone with no rule books.  She wondered whether she’d like who she would become in retirement and whether it would be enough to make her happy.

A week ago she had found a great website that provided a day by day breakdown of what to do before your last day.    She had checked off most of the boxes and had just a few things remaining.  She felt confident that she had given updates to everyone on her projects so there would be no glitches after she was gone.   She had packed up all her personal belongings and brought them home yesterday.   It was just after her department’s send off and she was feeling a bit emotional as she carried a box onto the elevator to bring to her car.  Another woman from a different company got on the elevator a few floors after her and saw the sadness in Polly’s eyes.  She whispered “lose your job?” “Yes” Polly whispered back.  “I slept with three of the five chiefs in our organization”.  The shocked woman responded “That’s definitely cause for termination”.  “It wasn’t the three I slept with that got me fired it’s the two I didn’t sleep with” suggested Polly as a big smile widened on her face just as the elevator doors opened and she stepped out.  The woman’s look was priceless and just the boost that Polly needed.

Today she had booked lunch with three of her closest friends.  They had started work together 28 years ago, four strangers trying to find their way.    Their conversation was exactly what she had craved, normalcy.  No topic was off limits, so when Anna started extolling the virtues of a new laxative the laughter started and continued until their cheeks hurt.

When she returned to her desk after lunch she felt ready to start shutting down.  She started with her voice mail and out of office email notification.  She had crafted the perfect one for internal staff.  “Effective today I have retired from the organization.  There are more than a dozen people who will likely be able to help you now that I’m gone.  For their own protection, and the security of the organization, I have deliberately only shared pieces of information with each of them.  Consider your quest to find the right person part of this year’s personal development plan.  My last gift to you.  Good luck.” She laughed to herself wondering how long her employer would keep the message before pulling the plug.

The afternoon ushered in a quiet seclusion for Polly as the impromptu visits stopped.  Perhaps she was already transforming into the organization’s history.  She wondered what the protocol for time of departure was as she looked at her watch.  Would it matter?  At 2:30  she decided the time had come.  The rest of her team were in a planning meeting and she had said those goodbyes at yesterday’s celebration.  Most everyone else had just gotten into the flow of their afternoon work and were unlikely to notice her departure.  She looked around her cubicle at the two mementos she was leaving behind,  a Yo-Yo with a note to remind the next person of the ups and downs in life that are always in your control and a laminated $2.00 bill with the saying “Just because I’m not around anymore, doesn’t mean I wasn’t valuable”.  Both had served her well during her career and she hoped the next person understood the message she was leaving behind.

She slowly stood up taking in a deep breath and letting it out.   With two steps she was at the opening of her cubicle.  She pirouetted to centre herself in the aisle way that lead to the exit, a mere 50 feet away.   She briefly closed her eyes and thought of one of her favourite gymnasts, Ludmilla Tourischeva, from the Soviet Union and the powerful tumbling runs she performed in the 70’s.  It took incredible momentum, force and grace to achieve perfection.  Polly imagined herself poised at the corner of the tumbling mat ready for her final run.  She raised her right arm and launched into a run, three steps then a cartwheel, followed by 1 ½ flips transitioning into a back flip.   That set up a ½ turn in midair into a double Arabian front flip and finishing with a front layout.  The landing was perfect.  She opened her eyes and channeled the momentum and grace of Ludmilla and began her walk to the double doors 50 feet away.  It was a quiet, undisturbed walk with her gazed fixed directly in front of her.  As she got closer she felt her breathing settle into a calm rhythm.   She reached for the handle and pulled it open taking a last step to the other side.  She didn’t look behind her but listened for the sound of the magnetic locks signalling closure.  As she stood there waiting for the elevator she pulled out her ipod and found the song that captured her feeling.  She put her earbuds in and cranked up the volume as Mick Jagger belted out “Start Me Up”.   For Polly, the rollercoaster had pulled up to the platform and she confidently stepped off.  Without the g-force holding her gaze in one direction she was now able to survey the landscape.  Dozens of new rides came into view beckoning for her to get on and take a slow ride to the top.

This article was submitted to the Toronto Star by Patti Sproat, MA, ACC