The answer depends on how you define that term. When I was in elementary school in the 1960’s, the three "R's" was the short version of a term that defined the basic building blocks of education: Reading, Writing and Arithmetic. But in June of 2013 when I was putting the final touches on the end of my career, the three “R’s” began to be defined as: Retirement, Reflection, and hopefully, Rebirth.
Retirement: Other than packing up and cleaning my office (tedious), and saying goodbye to people I had known for years (bittersweet), retirement was easy. It wasn’t like I was going to take on any new tasks in the waning hours of my career. Going home at night was a breeze, because there were no crisis questions that I had to respond to or worry about. I had initially feared that I might be afraid to retire, afraid that I might get bored. But because I was still a bit tired – gee bring boredom on!
The best part of retiring was the wonderful retirement celebration that my colleagues held for me. I had worked in several offices in the agency throughout my career, and many people came by to wish me well. My sister and her husband came to the celebration, along with friends from outside my agency: my fitness center friend and our former building security guard; a friend from my church; and a group of close friends from our parent department. It was really nice to just relax and talk to people about something other than work. I saved the cards that people gave me. Sometimes when I reach a turn in the heart failure road where I need renewal, I look at these cards and read the special thoughts of those who cared enough to say something.
Imagine my surprise to learn from those who attended the celebration that I would be remembered for legacies other than my career accomplishments. For example, my sister told me that a woman who attended my retirement celebration said that she never worked in the same office as I worked, but that I would always make sure to talk to her when I saw her in the building. I had always thought of myself as an introvert. So I was surprised at this memory, and the recollections of others, who also seemed to remember me as being outgoing and kind.
So one of my most valuable legacies seemed to be who I was as a person. This fact has come to mean more to me than all the awards and professional recognition in the world. People remembered me because I made them feel better. I was remembered for a smile that would light up the room, a sense of humor, treating people with dignity, and just being someone who you would feel comfortable talking with.
Following that lovely celebration, I worked my final day on the job. It felt almost surreal. A good portion of the day seemed to be spent in the check-out process: turning in your property, making sure the paperwork has all been completed, and just tying up administrative loose ends. This was one of few days that I actually left the office at the end of an 8 hour day because there was no need to stay longer. I remember saying goodbye to the building security guards, who had been checking my ID to get into the building for about 15 years. I didn’t regret leaving the job, but it did put a lump in my throat to say goodbye to folks I had known on a daily basis for one last time. But not bad enough that I was going to turn around and rip up my retirement papers. It was time.
As you are finalizing your plans to retire, you wonder if you will wake up the Monday after with a burning desire to go into the office. First, I didn’t set the alarm clock on Sunday night, so there was no intention on my part to go anywhere other than where life was going to take me. I didn’t miss the routine, which was strange for someone who was so disciplined and fell into a rut very easily. Maybe fate was giving me a gift for so readily agreeing that it was time to turn in the work keys and call it a day. What I did on that Monday was start focusing on the next “R” - engaging in a series of reflections. I think those reflections eventually grew to the point that they became material that I wanted to share in a blog.
So what was my first reflection: I remembered the people who came to my celebration, and how they said they had really enjoyed our conversations. What was the reason for this? Perhaps people had realized that I was a person of faith, and someone they could trust. Of course, I worked in the Federal government, so I certainly did not talk about my specific religious beliefs. But I did talk about participating on my church board and in other church positions, and talking about the really generous, warm and wonderful people who attended the church with me.
I believe that my conversations demonstrated to those I interacted with at work that my faith was strong – stronger than the need for power, influence, wealth or fame. Perhaps my faith also made me seek out people and make a connection with them. To be clear, I was a manager in the workplace, so I couldn’t be the happy go-lucky pal. But I tried to be compassionate and fair, tolerant yet firm, kind but not a pushover, and an advocate for human dignity. So when people commented on the eve of my retirement in a way that made it seem that I had succeeded in making a connection, well it meant a lot to me. It made me feel that I really contributed something of value.
But I also wish I had done more to spread this gift to others. What should I have done? Well as much as people remember me as being someone who would seek them out to chat, I remember too many times when I was in a hurry. The jobs that I had were often stressful, with deadlines, and my bosses expected results. So when there was a deadline or expectation that had to be met, I would put on what I would call my “Melanie on a mission” look. It was very intense, because my mind was usually spinning like a top as I thought through all the tasks that had to be done. I am pretty sure that when I was on a mission, I probably looked right at people and did not even see them. I always thought it was good that I could concentrate exclusively on an important task. But wouldn’t it also have been nice if I had stopped to just smile and say hello even if I didn’t chat? So I apologize to anyone I may have neglected to greet along the way.
And as I finish that reflection, my advice is to take the time to figure out what you will be remembered for, and to figure out the legacy you want to leave behind. If you have already done this, be proud that you are thinking of more than just getting ahead, and be mindful that you are changing the world for the better. If you have not done this yet, but want to, well now is the time. Figure out what results you want to leave behind on this earth, and how you can achieve them. My advice is based on the hard-learned lesson that circumstances in your life can change in the blink of an eye. Take action while you still have the time and energy and resources.
And now for the final “R”: rebirth. Well, I guess I began working on that the day I walked out the door of my office and retired. As this blog continues to unfold, you will see how my heart health journey included times of gains and times of setbacks. This means that patient vigilance and gratitude for the blessings I have received are attitudes I am trying to learn and re-learn.
So rebirth is not necessarily something that comes easily, and requires continual work. I need to focus on rebuilding cells in my body, gaining strength in my heart and building bridges in my life to new adventures. I guess what I am trying to say is that for me, the heart has become much more than just an organ. It keeps my physical body functioning, but it also gives energy to a spirit that I hope will continual to light up the world for a while longer. But I could not have come to the rebirth part without the other 2 crucial "R's".
The next few posts will be a little different in that I will be taking a break from the chronology of my heart failure, and will be talking about some bigger picture things I have learned during this process.
Melanie discovered that she had heart failure in 2013. Since that time, she has been learning how to live with the condition, and how to achieve balance and personal growth.