An a-typical day
I was seated in my reserved “flex space” desk surrounded by a sea of bland-looking cubicles when the ever-present Skype message lit up. I glanced down at the pop-up box cursing yet another interruption of my already packed schedule and silently chided myself for failing to use the “do not disturb” option. Sigh.
It was a former colleague from another department whom I love dearly. My scowl quickly disappeared as I happily typed back a greeting while thinking, “there’s always time for you!”
“Hey, did you hear about what happened to Tina?”
Full stop, my heart sank. I don’t know about you, but anytime someone starts a conversation with “did you hear what happened to…?” “hey got a minute” or “we need to talk,” it’s not going to be good and sure isn’t going to take one minute.
Casually (and filled with dread), I answered back. “No, what happened?”
“Tina has stage 4 pancreatic cancer and liver cancer. She was diagnosed 3 weeks ago and decided against chemo.”
I felt like a Mack-truck came barreling through the office at that very moment and sucked the life from the room. My colleague, whom I’d known for over 6 years, had just been handed a death sentence.
My thoughts were racing at that point. Why her? What can I do to help? She doesn’t deserve this. She has a family and she’s worked too hard in her life for it to end now. It’s not fair.
With my head still swirling, my colleague continued.
“Tina’s mother died of pancreatic cancer at 67. Tina is only 56. She told me she feels cheated.”
I could feel the heartbreak in those words and I couldn’t help but agree. As unfair as it was, cancer doesn’t care if you feel cheated. It doesn’t care if you worked hard your whole life or that you were a good person. It doesn’t care what sacrifices you made, that you waited until the perfect time to retire, or that you were finally ready to live your dreams. It is unapologetic and destroys without warning.
I started to think about my last interaction with Tina (several months before) and how happy she was. She had cheerfully suggested we needed to get coffee soon (we haven’t) and we went our separate ways.
I wrote my colleague back. “I don’t know what to say or do.”
She responded: “Neither do I.”
I closed the chat window and sat back reflecting on the devastating news. It occurred to me this wasn’t the first colleague I would lose.
It would not be the last.
Gone too soon
The first happened over 11 years ago. A kind man that I did some excel projects for once upon a time. He was in his late fifties when he was diagnosed with cancer. The office manager at the time insisted he stay on in a “transition period” to help ease the strain on the clients. He agreed and spent the next 2 out of 3 of his last remaining months on earth at work. I still cringe to this day thinking about it. I suppose you could argue he needed to take his mind off his impending death and that he felt like he was making a difference. I never got to ask him as I didn’t find out until months after he passed.
If I am ever diagnosed with something that gives me a few months to live, the LAST place I am going to spend it is sitting in a cubicle.
The next colleague I would lose was killed by a tree falling on his car while acting as a volunteer firefighter during Hurricane Sandy. He was a much-beloved figure in his community. To make it worse, he had survived a bout of cancer years before and maintained a positive attitude throughout all his hardships. He didn’t’ deserve his ending and was gone too soon.
Years later, I would get a call on a late Friday afternoon. Jack was gone. Everyone was shocked. We found out later that he was riddled with cancer for months but didn’t want anyone to know. He continued to come to work as long as he could and made up generic excuses in his sporadic absences. I can’t imagine how his family felt with him wanting to keep working. Maybe he needed the money, I’ll never know.
Two more happened in short succession not long after. The first was hit by a car while he was out riding his bicycle. He had been retired for 6 months. The next one was hit by an oncoming car in the early morning hours while commuting to work. She only had a few years left before it was time to stop her working career for good.
The most recent one was somewhat of an enigma. This man made my life a living hell. In theory, I would never wish ill (or death) upon anyone, but this man was rude, sexist, ageist and unwilling to listen to any logic.
Yet, my negative feelings about our interactions aside, it is somewhat puzzling that he too had an impact on my life. He was finally driven to “retire” when he turned 71. He would die less than two years later (after continuing to do freelance work for others). The man essentially worked until his dying breath.
I can’t say I mourned for him when I found out, though I did feel for his family. Ultimately, he still left his mark on me. To this day, he is a great reminder of our impending mortality and proof of “what not to do” (ie be a smug, ageist, rude a-hole) in life. One thing I won’t do is criticize him for choosing to work until his dying day (though you won’t catch me doing that). Why? Because we should all get to choose what makes us happy in life and if working is it…well who am I to say different?
As my thoughts strayed back to Tina, I contemplated what to do next. What would I say? Would she want me to contact her? Would I want someone to reach out to me if I were in that situation? I was at a loss.
It’s strange to reflect on all the people that come and go in our lives and how individuals can have a major impact on our life choices with such a small interaction. Many of these colleagues I rarely interacted with, but they left a meaningful mark and they all had something in common: a reminder. A cold and hard reminder that is never more real than in moments like these.
Our days on this planet are limited.
Like it or not, we only get a finite amount of time in this life and we don’t know when or how it will end. And while the pain of losing a colleague is nothing compared to losing a family member, a spouse, or a child, it still hurts.
So I will take days like today, learn from them, pay my respects, and carry on living every day like it could be the last. Financial security will help give me the freedom to live my best life.
So what is my why for financial security? It’s freedom.
It’s the option to leave behind the bland cubicle walls, the endless conference calls, the politics, and the posturing. My husband, my family, and my life are far too important to waste it sitting in a cubicle and complete meaningless tasks. Ultimately, my career doesn’t need to define my life and I don’t want to end up like the colleagues that were taken too soon after working too hard for too long.
For me, there’s more to life than a career.