Gone But Not Forgotten

“Life is a series of hellos and goodbyes. I’m afraid it’s time for goodbye again.”

Billy Joel—“Say Goodbye to Hollywood”

One of my assistants retired last week. She’s been with me for 20 years. We’ve seen a lot together. There have been a number of changes in the company and in our personal lives throughout those years. Changes in philosophies, direction, purpose; each phase had its merits and its liabilities. We laughed, we cried, we commiserated and celebrated through all those years. Children were born and they accomplished things; they let us down, too. We compared notes, found reason to encourage each other, and more than once reached out to each other’s spouses to let them know when the other was going through a particularly hard time at work. She is 10 years my senior, and her life is in a different stage than mine, but not a lot different. In our time together, we buried our fathers and welcomed extended family members into the gang; we’ve often admitted that you never know what life will hand you. “You want to make God laugh,” she often said. “Tell him your plans.”

When my office door is open (always), my desk faces hers, which is in the reception area right outside the door. I will miss her waiting glances as some craziness either wandered in or out most days, and that look that said, “What the heck was that?” It was always returned with a Johnny Carson-esque deadpan look that implied, “Heck, I don’t know,” which never failed to crack her up.

We quoted The Little Rascals, The Benny Hill Show, and The Three Stooges regularly and spent most mornings reviewing the previous evening’s news, always deciding that the old days were better and we were blessed to have lived through them. In the summer, she brought me tomatoes from her garden and cucumbers the size of small watermelons. When I made mistakes, she called me “Ronald,” and when I reminded her not to be so demanding of people who make mistakes, I addressed her as “Kind Lady,” to be subtle but clear.

Her husband had a cancer scare just a few years ago, and I had a bout of bad health the following year. And yes, somewhere in there, we also worked well together. She had an iron-clad work ethic that served my obsessive ways quite well. She was, indeed, my right hand. When she left that last day, we embraced wordlessly, both of us staring at the floor as we went our separate ways, our throats tight.

Well-Intentioned, Marginally Executed

In the movie Cocktail, Tom Cruise’s character says, “Everything ends badly; otherwise, it wouldn’t end.”

In some ways I take issue with that statement, but I have to admit I see the wisdom in it, too. Our relationship didn’t end badly. We parted on a high note, and I am happy for her to go and enjoy her retirement. But we are both sad to lose a friend who has become so much a part of our everyday lives. As a supervisor, I am keenly aware that most of us spend more time with our workmates than we do with our families, at least more of the “wide awake—ready-to-do-something” hours. As a result, I always felt that a supervisor needed to create a harmonious atmosphere at work. I’ve tried to ensure that policy whenever I have been assigned staff. A comfort zone at work leads to greater productivity, and so my assistant accepted and endorsed my “care about everyone” attitude. She was a solid partner.

As I wandered back to my desk having watched her husband load the last box of her possessions into his truck, I remembered when I graduated from college and said goodbye to so many people I knew I’d probably never see or hear from again. One I did hear from still lives in Helsinki, Finland. Because of the Internet, I now have seen pictures of his whole family, the place where he grew up, and everything through pictures he took and I catalogued in my mind. As you say goodbye to these four-year acquaintances, you make all kinds of promises that you know will probably never come true. “OK, a year from today we meet back here for an anniversary dinner, and then we’ll stay the night and catch a football game at the old stadium.” It’s sincerely talked about, but it rarely happens. We mean well, but somehow we can never truly recapture the magic of those days. Sure, it’s great to get together and see each other for old time’s sake, but it’s just not the same.

I recall taking similar pledges in high school. “We will be here again next year, same day, standing right outside the old school, and we’ll toast the good times!” Never happens. We come close. We call. We plan. We try. But we all have families and certain obligations, and that’s OK. Or maybe we can only go back so far.

Parting Ways, Not Hearts

So I find the Billy Joel lyric above to be dead on. Indeed, “Life is a series of hello and goodbyes,” and the part in between is where healthy relationships, fun, mutual appreciation, respect, and above all, memories, are grown. I’ve been in community-theater productions where saying goodbye on the closing night of a successful run is almost traumatic. Players on teams that had come through many challenges also held the same allure. We swelled with emotion when the season was over and that final banquet was held. Why do you think army buddies have such a solid, lifelong bond? They have been through so much together. No one could ever understand their mutual dependence. Imagine trying to say goodbye to someone who protected your life as you slept, and vice versa. There are some incredible emotions at play there.

Three days before Christmas, I got a call from one of my high school buddies. He and I and two other buds were called the Fantastic Four a mere 35 years ago. He told me that the other two were in town for the holidays and wanted to know if my wife and I could meet for dinner on the 23rd with the other three couples. We laughed and cried, and it was absolutely great to see them again. And just before we left, the four of us ambled into the men’s room. Brett stood on the toilet for old time’s sake and peered over the stall partition. He flushed with his foot and pretended he was being sucked down the drain, his 35-year comedy routine still intact. We roared with laughter. Mike took the marker that was made available on the wall for drink specials and drew a giant middle finger on the dry-erase board. Theo laughed uncontrollably while I—being a big, old softie—got tears in my eyes. It was great to be among the brothers again. No—it wasn’t the same. It never will be. And I guess I have learned it’s not supposed to be. But I have to tell you—it was close enough.

Ron Ciancutti has worked in the parks and recreation industry since he was 16 years old, covering everything from maintenance, operations, engineering, surveying, park management, design, planning, recreation, and finance. He holds a B.S. in Business from Bowling Green State University and an M.B.A from Baldwin Wallace University, and has held his current position as Director of Procurement since 1990. He is not on Facebook, but he can be reached at ron@northstarpubs.com.