The call came yesterday afternoon.
“You ready to start?” Jan the HR director asked.
“Yes I am.”
That puts a lid on 6 months, 1 week, 6 hours and 34 minutes of the most incredible gift I have ever been given; time.
I’ve had time to think, time to breathe, time to seek new frontiers and new challenges, and time to find out who I am.
It began with an alcohol-soaked afternoon the day of the layoff, starting at The Cheesecake Factory in Union Square in San Francisco, including 5 stops on foot on the way back home. I technically lost 4 jobs (or positions) that day – four jobs I loved and worked my tail off at. I was far from perfect, but I cared… in an environment where virtually no one above me did. Apathy and condescension were the two enemies I battled for 10 hours a day, trying to figure out how to not let on to the team I was trying to protect them from the tsunami of negativity coming from those whose help and respect I begged for, but never received.
The next month began the grieving process: Anger, Denial, Depression, and Acceptance.
I went with Emily to a movie one day, an afternoon distraction I had initially welcomed, but the day we were going to go I learned that my severance had been delayed, and I had run out of liquidity. I had 6 cents in my checking account. I discovered I had bought the tickets with my last 10 dollars.
We sat in the theatre, alone. Because we could, we kept our phones on, talking through the film. I was unable to hide my mood, the bluest blue. My phone rang; I picked up – a job interview!
I went to the empty lobby and talked with the HR director, and set up a time for a phone screen later in the week. But that day, even that morsel of good news was not enough to lift me. The movie was about as sad as you could imagine; A Single Man, starring Colin Firth and Julianna Moore. I couldn’t hold it in. When the credits rolled, in this otherwise empty room, I leaned into Emily, sobbing, inconsolable. She held my head against her chest, silently comforting me.
The next few months became routine; get up, go on a hike, go home and try and do the work of getting work. I had good days and bad days, glimmers of hope, then hope dashed by this awful economic reality. I enjoyed the incredible support of friends, their kind words and many job links keeping me hopeful. I was positive and upbeat, yet resigned to my fate; this was going to take awhile.
“If something happened to me, would you speak at my memorial service?”
Emily and I were in the car, on our way to Point Reyes. A sublime Saturday morning in April, we had the winding rural road to ourselves. Riding shotgun, I thought about that big question from her for a minute.
“Sure I would. I’d want you to speak at mine.”
“Would it be weird, standing in front of all those people I don’t know..? Her voice trailed off.
“It’d be weird if I had to do it too!”
We laughed, amused that these two strangers had shared this moment of intimacy. We felt familiar, even though we didn’t know each other very well. She is a gifted writer; I figured she’d represent well. I could churn out a few words on her behalf with ease as well, if …..
It happened on July 1.
My eyes opened slowly that morning. It was 3am. I sat up in bed, soaked with sweat, the sheets damp. I looked around the apartment, to confirm I was there, to get my bearings. It was one of those moments when you say to yourself “It was only a dream, only a dream…”
I had a vision that night the plane crashed.
I remember seeing the radio towers on the mountain, the vast expanse of the valley below, the shaking of the plane, the flight attendant barking instructions…..and me, watching out the window as the Canada Air regional jet plummeted toward the desert floor.
The vision ended with an image of the wreckage, as if I was a cameraman, filming the disaster from 300 feet away.
There were no survivors.
We all have nightmares, these vivid dreams concocted in our heads, caused by too much spicy food or a few too many cocktails; this one stuck with me. I remembered the entire sequence, frame by frame, second by second. It seemed real in a way that I could not get out of my mind. I wondered if it could be true.
I wondered if God and just given me a heads up on what was going to happen the evening of July 4, 2010.
I told most people my flight was at 6am that Sunday morning. It was actually 6PM. I wanted to have the day to myself to think as clearly as I could, to process what I was feeling. This seems odd, I’m sure, but I wanted everyone to think I had left the Bay Area, to be as alone with my thoughts as possible.
I headed out early, over to Highway 1 at Pacifica, and down the coast. It was a clear morning with no fog. I slowly drove south, virtually solitary on the highway, stopping at various beaches along the way to savor the surf, and consider the magnitude of what was churning in my head.
I drove into a parking lot at a beach just north of Davenport, a tiny town about half way between San Francisco and Santa Cruz. I had been listening to Morning Edition on the NPR affiliate, KQED; now out of range of the signal, the sound in the car as I pulled up to park, alone in the lot, was FM white noise, and the ocean.
I got scared that instant in a way I will never forget. This feeling of finality, of reaching the finish line, was extraordinary. Why was this in my head? I’m not ready to go, I’m telling myself; I have stuff to do, things to accomplish; why did this vision put this weight on me?
I went home, sat down, and wrote out my will, and my wishes. I wrote a second letter; the words that Emily promised she would read for me at the service; a succinct series of goodbyes to family members, my best friends and my people.
The note closed with
Enough words for now. I have to go catch a plane. I’ll be seeing you, on the Other Side…JS
My song request: Friends, Elton John.
I attached a thank you note to Emily, completely, wholly inadequate. What can you possibly say?
A tear ran down my face. I folded the letter up, put it in an envelope, and put it on the refrigerator door. I sent a text to my friend:
Here is my parent’s phone number; Remind me about the refrigerator. Very important.
I boarded the plane that night at peace. Takeoff was perfect; the flight of two hours was uneventful. I read a book and listened to my iPod, calm.
We were on approach. I looked out my window and saw the radio towers, the mountain, exactly as I had pictured it. I set my book down and closed my eyes.
The plane hit the runway with a perfect, gentle touch.
My friend was waiting to pick me up. She said “Are you alright? You have this look on your face…”
I said, “Take me to a bar.”
Why did I board the plane? I’m not crazy. I don’t make decisions on my life based on voices inside my head. A part of me knew that it was only a dream, albeit a very, very vivid one. I thought IF it was going to happen, I had an extraordinary opportunity to say goodbye, to get in The Last Word. The letter that would have been read at my memorial got put away, sealed.
If you are someone I hang out with from time to time, I’d ask your forgiveness if I insist that a fun moment be captured in a photo, or if I seem a bit over appreciative that it’s a beautiful, starry night. That will be my way of telling you what I wrote to you in that letter, without saying the actual words.
Overheard on the Jetway, as I got off the plane after The Flight:
Ground Crew Guy: “Well, how ya feelin’?”
Ground Crew Guy: “What do you mean, lucky?”
Pilot: “I had a warning light go off when we were on approach….”
Then it began – The Clarity.
I knew I would probably not have this time again to do anything I wanted, so I decided to get moving; my backpack and little prayer book my constant companions.
I spent July and part of August on the road; home for a class reunion, Arizona, Los Angeles, then 2 weeks in Bodega Bay house-sitting, an experience I will never forget. I worked, wrote, and chilled. It was perfect. A book was written there, a memior of the events transpiring post-layoff to the present. Back to the bay area, I hid out in the east bay suburb of Walnut Creek, watching a home…more writing, more working, and a lot of hiking.
I sold my condominium in San Francisco, weighted down by nightmarish property values, an HOA under siege with lawsuits, and the collapse of one of the anchor tenants in the commercial space at street-level. I changed addresses, moving to the Oakland village of Montclair, a precious but charming enclave nestled in the hills of the city.
I kept working on work, and working on me, the gym adjacent to my new spot becoming the perfect remedy for mind and spirit. The pounds started to drop. My head was clear, my attitude positive.
One Sunday a couple of weeks ago, a chance meeting at an Irish pub turned into a job interview, and resulted in that joyous phone call yesterday; landing the most perfect position I could imagine; free of stress, free of politics, devoid of drama.
What a summer this has been! I appreciate what I went through; it’s made me stronger and more self-assured.
As for that book I wrote in Bodega Bay? There are chapters yet to be written. This story isn’t over, but I’m pretty sure it has a happy ending.