I have a fascination with moments and it’s been my experience that the significance of even our biggest moments in life dwindles greatly with the passage of time. And in the context of moments, I recently found myself contemplating whether last days are really that much different than first days.
My eleven year-old son started middle school last month. An unnerving proposition at best. He didn’t know anybody at the new school and he’d already heard countless times how much more intense middle school would be than elementary school. For the first time, he’d be leaving the confines of a single classroom and learning to navigate a much larger campus as he moved from class to class.
I couldn’t shoulder the anxiety for him so I did the only other thing I could; I wrote him a letter. Go figure. My sole intent was to give him one final blast from his dad, trying to impart that everything would work out fine, despite the alone-ness of Day 1. I told him he’d make new friends and that they’ll be lucky to find one in him, too. I even shared a few anecdotes of my own, from a few of my unnerving “first days.” I wasn’t trying to bore the poor kid to death, I just wanted him to know that some monsters aren’t nearly as big as they seem.
Mostly though, I wanted him to realize that despite the nerves, it was his first day and he needed to experience it for himself or else it wouldn’t be worth much, and in an effort to quell his nerves, I joked that if there were no such things as “first days,” then they’d all just be called days. I don’t remember which, but I think the attempt at humor was met with an eye roll or a pursed-lip polite smile. Mission accomplished. Fast-forward to the present, he’s survived, made new friends, enjoys the freedom of moving between classes on his own, and is now able to focus on the day-to-day, mundane chores of schoolwork…until the next big first day comes along.
At the outset I mentioned last days because I also know a guy who’s lately been contemplating his last day. I’ve known him for a while so I think it’ll be a bit of a challenge for him, but in the end, I’m sure he’ll adapt. After all, some monsters aren’t as big as they seem. As I thought back to my son’s recent experience, I started wondering if last days are any less stressful than first days. A bit abstract, maybe, but I can’t help myself.
Nowadays, it’s a fairly common sight among retiring professional athletes; a bank of microphones sitting atop a podium, a few of the management staff, and the lone retiree possibly accompanied by family members, addressing a gaggle of media types. There are often tears, I’ve noticed, but that seems natural when the day finally comes to bid a formal farewell to something that they’re so passionate about, something in which a significant piece of their identity has been rooted for so long.
This guy who I know, the one who’s hanging it up, so to speak, began his business with an anchor client, on a shoestring budget, then proceeded to outgrow his office space on more than one occasion. I spent a little time around his office back in those early days, watching him gain traction. Over the years, he’s also been a mentor and a friend to me, so I’ve picked his brain often about business and about life, and I can safely say, it was never about the money for him. He loved the work and probably more importantly, truly enjoyed providing a service to people who saw value in that work. He’s just a guy who showed up every day and tended to his business like any true professional would. As a result, the business grew successfully over a span of thirty years. Pretty simple theory I suppose: Offering good service at a fair price, which creates additional work, which provides jobs. Not nearly as simple to execute, though. Reminds me a little of hitting a baseball. Seems simple enough, but the best in the world only do it successfully three out of every ten times.
Granted, none of these things I’ve mentioned carry the notoriety of a 9th inning homerun to win the World Series or a game winning touchdown in the Super Bowl, so of course there wouldn’t be any outside interest in run-of-the-mill retirements. What’s the common thread, then? Why keep up with the analogy? Because notoriety isn’t the key. Even the greatest athletic feats are simply milestones along the way to that individual reaching their last day. As great as they may be, each accomplishment inadvertently ensures that the transition from one’s passion to, well…something else, will be made that much more difficult. I’m not sure if that’s irony or just self-fulfilling prophecy, but it seems that the more success one achieves as a result of persistent efforts, the longer they want to stick around to achieve more.
Clearly, passion that results in success over a sustained period of time, becomes part of one’s identity. Notice I didn’t say it becomes one’s entire identity. Only a part. So maybe it’s possible that there hasn’t been enough free time to uncover (or discover) the lesser known parts. After all, life happens in such a big arena that I have to think hitting the refresh button now and then leads to fulfillment in places we haven’t yet considered.
My friend and mentor who officially punched out today, wouldn’t want any fanfare over his transition. In fact, my writing about it may be pushing the envelope, by his minimalist horn-tooting standards. But I’ll risk it anyway. He’s worked hard, done things the right way, taken care of those who trusted him, and all along the way, provided for his family in countless ways. It’s been insightful to watch him conduct himself in a manner that I often fall short of. I know last days can be difficult, but by definition, it means a first day at something else.
If we existed in some alternate universe where last day press conferences were the norm, and he was standing behind a microphone-filled podium addressing my commentary, I’m guessing he’d probably just shrug and say, “Yeah, I suppose I did that. No different than most people.”
In a roundabout way, I guess I’ve proved my own hypothesis: First and last days are pretty similar; uncertainty, nerves, finding a place to fit in, wishing we could maintain the status quo for just a while longer. As I said earlier, my experience is that the significance of most major events wanes over time, and that has forced me to conclude that whether you’re dealing with first or last is irrelevant. They’re all just moments on whatever timeline we’ve been dealt. We choose to participate in, perhaps even embrace them, or we don’t. As big as a lot of moments seem, the world isn’t watching to see how we handle them or waiting around to provide moral support.
Having said that, I’m completely incapable of not attaching a bit of sentimentality to these so-called moments. And if we don’t acknowledge them for one another, aren’t we just occupying space? So, in recognition of my friend and mentor who’s retired today, I say with immeasurable pride, “Job well done, Dad. Thank you for all the hard work, late nights, bland cheese sandwiches eaten at your desk, and the lessons you probably didn’t know you were teaching me. Now, go enjoy your first day of something new and completely different – after you fill out your time sheet, of course.”