My husband had just been strongly encouraged to resign from his CEO position of the largest employer in our city. Local TV cameras captured our attempts to maintain a normal family life, despite the public curiosity and our gracious explanations that it was “time to move on”. No, we weren’t ready to disclose our plans for the future (there were no plans for the future) and yes, we would be staying in the area.
The perks were gone. No more televised weekly business updates by the former football-playing media darling CEO. Our close friends offered encouragement, listened to the incredulous rantings of my now unemployed husband and wondered how we planned to continue paying for the private schools and universities our 6 children were attending.
Eventually, the shock, denial and anger melted into the realization that we were now in the “Have Not” category of society. We still had a large home but the luxurious company car had been transferred to the new CEO. The former CEO purchased a hideous burgundy something that was derisively named “The Stag Beetle”. Days spent at home job searching for another high-paying CEO position were tense and fruitless. We watched our dwindling savings and knowing that we had to immediately adjust our lifestyle, decided to spend our weekly “date night” visiting Senior Citizen centers and long-term care facilities.
It was in a hospice facility where I met George. He was robust, out-going, talkative and had a great sense of humor. I thought that he was another visitor – certainly not a terminally ill patient! George explained that the doctors had found an inoperable brain tumor, but that he felt just fine. He invited me to play Checkers and that invitation evolved into a standing Wednesday afternoon Checkers date with George.
As the months wore on and I continued winning the weekly Checkers games, I always expressed gratitude for his brain tumor which we both blamed for his loss and my weekly victory. Finally, we no longer played Checkers, but sat in the hallway – he wanted the other residents to see his pretty date – and made small talk. Eventually, we didn’t talk at all. His personality had changed dramatically as the tumor overtook his brain and within less than 5 months, his death was imminent.
On a dreary, frigid January afternoon, his daughter called to tell me that George was expected to pass away within a few hours and that he would appreciate a last visit from me. Upon entering his unlit room, I noticed that every picture of grandchildren and family gatherings had been removed. There were no more notes, calendars, hand-drawn pictures nor any memorabilia collected over 72 years of life, remaining in his room. Just cold, Sage-colored cinder blocks and one slipper partially visible from beneath his bed.
His breathing was labored, with the tell-tale rattle of one whose death is imminent and it appeared that he was sleeping. I quietly sat by his bed, and wondered at the stark walls – the removal of all evidence of his family and life – and then I received understanding that would carry me through many tough times still to come in my life.
I realized that at that moment, the room in which I was sitting could be filled to the ceiling with the precious treasures of the earth – gold, gems, currency, art, collectibles – and would be useless and meaningless to George. In fact, his passing would be easier that those earthly reminders were not there to give him regrets of leaving them behind. Nothing of a material nature mattered any more; only relationships springing from conversations, shared meals, service and traveling alongside others through life, would be the singular luggage admissible at his death.
My tears flowed freely at the relief that I no longer had to obsess about all that I no longer had because of my husband’s job loss. I wrongly catagorized myself in the “have-not” column, yet I was abundantly blessed with 6 brilliant, beautiful, talented, loving children. And I could go on about the aspects of my life at the time, the importance of which I had diminished because of the income loss.
In a raspy voice, George startled me by asking if I was crying for him. I slid the chair closer to his bed, and taking his rough hand in mine, said that, indeed I was. He smiled, told me thanks, and breathed his last breath. . . .
I sat, still holding his hand in mine, and wept with gratitude for the lessons learned from George, at his passing, and knew that I would never forget him nor the lesson learned.