Ten thirty sharp he was up front. This was the last thing he was going to do before walking out the gate. A few minutes of exit paperwork and his retirement officially begins. He was like a giddy high school student on the last day of classes of the senior year. He was there, physically anyway, but his emotions were already elsewhere.
We walked into the conference room. “Well, I’m not sure what I expected it to feel like, but this isn’t it”, he said.
I asked what he meant.
He took off his hard-hat but kept his black welder hat with red chili peppers on. Before answering, he slowly ran his hand over his well-groomed gray and black beard, and as if perplexed, said, “I don’t know. I guess I thought I was going to feel different somehow. Somehow this doesn’t seem real.”
I bragged on his work, his character and told him the man taking his place had big shoes to fill. I shared there’s no one I know who doesn’t like him and anything he did work wise was spot on. His eyes were red now as he wiped moisture from the corner of his eye. Neither of us dared acknowledge it was a tear. He sat quietly for a minute, as if trying to decide if he was awake or dreaming.
We reminisced a few minutes before I asked about his future plans. He talked about staying busy and active in retirement. He will try to keep his same sleep patterns, except he’ll get up at 6 AM now instead of 4 AM like he’s done for 50 years, 20 of those with us.
When I pressed further about his plans, he wasn’t sure. There were certainly no specific plans, not even for tomorrow.
“I guess, anything I want to!” he blurted.
We laughed. He has a list of honey do jobs his wife wants done, but he has no plan. He’s planned out his finances. His Medicare starts next month. Social Security starts on his birthday. He’s rolling his 401(k) into an IRA. But plans of what to actually DO? None, really.
Don’t get me wrong. He’s a stand up guy — excellent work ethic, very dependable, great character and a good sense of humor to boot. Trouble is, he’s worked hard and planned so much for retirement financially, he’s really not sure what to do now. At one point, he and his wife used to want to travel, but now she is legally blind so they may just take a few close trips in Texas.
As if thinking out loud, he said, “Ya know, life sure does change a lot. When we were young, we used to love to go to Colorado. It just seems too far now. Then when the kids were younger, we used to want to get things, but the last couple years we’ve been trying to get rid of stuff. The more you have, the more you have to work on it. If the old house we live in falls in right after we’re gone, I’ll be perfectly fine with that. Now I just want to keep our health as long as we can.”
We finished the exit paperwork to close his personnel file, but he just sat in the chair with his fingers interlocked in his lap. He was reluctant to leave, but excited, or maybe nervous, at the same time. Everything was signed. It was all done. All he had to do was to walk out the gate one last time.
I took him around to a few of the office staff who lightheartedly wished him well.
His eyes lit up in appreciation when we told him to just stop by any time if he wants to catch up.
Rubbing his hand across his beard again, he said, “I just might do that!”
Just before he left he asked me, “Will you promise me one thing?”
“What’s that?” I asked.
“If I come back here for a job, promise me you won’t hire me again!”
Laughing, I assured him, “Heck no I won’t hire you again! I almost got fired for hiring you the first time!”
His laughter burst out as a welcome relief to his eyes as it cut through the lump in his throat.
One final handshake and he started walking slowly toward the gate. His steps were careful, calculated, as if savoring every step of his last hike from work.
As I watched him step through the gate into a new phase of life, it was oddly the same as a little boy getting on a school bus for his first day ever of kindergarten.
Good luck, little boy with the black and gray beard. Retirement starts now.