By Marcy Schwab
Throwing a 40th anniversary party for my parents sounds like a great idea, right? Well, my mother had other ideas. My father was quite pleased with the thought and relished in his two daughters’ interest in celebrating the big milestone. “Why wait?” my dad said, “it’s terrific to rejoice in such a wonderful event. Don’t let the important days pass without celebrating.” He engaged in planning conversations and provided opinions. He was clearly excited. My mother, on the other hand, wanted absolutely nothing to do with it. “Wait until our 50th, what’s the big deal about doing it now?” she would say. “Don’t worry yourself with it; you are both so busy and there’s no need to make a fuss,” she continued. We joked that my father would be invited as “Mr. James F. Schwab and Guest.” My father could then decide with whom he would attend.
It was late 2007 when the discussions of the party started. My parents, both 61 then and in very good health, were married on a lovely day in the month of August, 1968 when they were just 22 years old. My father was born just one week after my mother. They met at State College, PA during their freshman year of college in 1964. They adored each other and shared a love that was enviable.
The party was planned for the beginning of September. Tents were rented, the caterer booked, the guests invited. More than 100 people, and even my mom, celebrated a most joyful occasion. We have beautiful memories and pictures of the day that just radiate with happiness. Our family and friends came from near and far to share in the moment.
Just a week after the party my parents went away for two weeks to Barcelona for a combined business trip and vacation. Upon their arrival home, Dad went right back to work for a few days before the two of them had another weekend trip on the calendar. They were off to State College, PA for his annual fraternity reunion. He called me on Friday while waiting for my mom to arrive to pick him up. He wasn’t feeling well, he said. “I’m achy, and I have a fever,” was how he described it. To me, it sounded like a mild flu. My dad, not a very effusive person by nature, spent an hour talking with me about little things here and there. It was highly enjoyable to get so much of his time on the phone. I said “I love you” and then “Good-bye” and we hung up.
Two days later, on Sunday morning, September 28th, 2008 at 10:28 a.m, while I was making a family recipe for the fast approaching Jewish holidays, I received a call from an unrecognized number in State College. My mom was on the phone, telling me that my dad had suffered a massive seizure that morning. It was the day before my 37th birthday.
We scrambled around, got the kids in the car for the unexpected trip and made our way to Central Pennsylvania. It turns out, after five days in Intensive Care and a bumpy ambulance ride to Johns Hopkins, that my dad was diagnosed with an incurable Glioblastoma, a stage IV brain cancer. It is the same type of brain cancer suffered by Ted Kennedy. While he eventually regained consciousness and lived another 8 months until June of the following year, that last conversation on the Friday before “the incident” was the last real conversation I ever had with my dad. He was exactly a month shy of his 63rd birthday on the day he died. More than 500 people attended his funeral.
My dad had always been a steadying force in my life. He was usually the voice of practical reason where my mother was more the voice of the heart. He had a unique way of looking at the world, helping me distill situations into simple questions yet never providing any answers. He helped me think through things and was well versed on many topics. We often talked about mundane subjects like how the Orioles were playing (often quite badly) and how my days at my job were going (usually pretty well). But when it came to the tough stuff, my dad was The Man. He was a person who lived in the here and now. He was very practical and sought the best outcome given that time and that place. What was I going to do without his wise ways?
While he was sick, in March 2008, I learned that my position at work was being eliminated as of September. I had the option to move internally and the option to “take a package.” I had been with the company for well over 11 years, since the age of 26. Here I was, dealing with probably the hardest professional situation I had ever faced, and my dad was not there to help me through it. On top of it all, I was in the midst of a lengthy grieving process as was most of my support network. My mother wanted to be helpful, but this topic was not historically her domain, nor did she have the mental bandwidth to engage very deeply. My husband was very helpful, of course, but I missed Dad. It had always been my dad who could ask me just the right questions so that I could figure it all out. So, I was grieving both his loss and the potential loss of my identity as a working professional.
Fortunately, I had a bit of time to make a decision. So, what was I to do? For a while I felt depressed and frustrated, which I recognized were all ordinary parts of both grieving processes. I wanted to change the situation rather than deal with it, but that was obviously not possible, in either case. I let myself wallow in indecision for a while, which was a huge step for me. I am an action-oriented person and not a wallower by nature. The mere act of letting myself *not make a decision* was a great move. It provided time for me to just let it be.
When I was ready to think about the decisions ahead, I looked to my dad. No, I could not talk to him, but he was the voice in my head. I thought to myself, “what questions would Dad ask me?” So, I asked them of myself. Essentially I played out the whole conversation, one question and answer at a time:
- “What are my priorities?”
- “What matters to me?”
- “What are my goals for the next year?”
- “What are my goals for the next 5 years?”
- “Am I really identified by the company for whom I work or am I ‘me’ wherever I go?”
- “How do I feel?”
Perhaps most importantly, I thought about the questions he would often ask that helped me remember that I’m confident, capable, and valuable.
- “Are you going to be okay wherever you are?” Yes.
- “Will you find a way, no matter the outcome?” Yes.
- “Do you know how to leverage your network and resources to get what you want?” Yes.
- “Have I taught you well?” YES.
After much thought and debate, I decided to leave the company in which I had worked for so long and take my time in looking for my next role. What a grand opportunity to focus on what matters: my family, my happiness, and really figuring out my goals for the future. Alas, a call from a headhunter sped up the process, and I started working again after only six weeks. I am quite happy with my new situation. Though the work is similar, my new company is rather different from my last. I work from home quite a lot now, giving me the opportunity to see my kids most days when they return from school. Though similarly intellectually rigorous, the environment is far friendlier and values my contributions in much kinder ways. I feel inspired and valuable. I have been able to play a role in multiple areas of the company, and I am able to use my skills and talents to make a difference.
I look at my situation today and celebrate where I am. The result was worth enduring the journey. Dad wanted to celebrate “the today” and not wait, and I have learned from him to do the same. The feeling of loss is still one of the toughest things in my life. But, I have conversations with Dad all of the time. He is the voice in my head.
Photo provided by Marcy Schwab.