I have mentioned several times that I am a person of faith. A number of times in my life, I knew that I was getting a message from God and I needed to listen. Thankfully, one of those times came during the third month of the search for a cause to my blackouts. So I paid attention and made an important decision.
This life-changing moment came, of all places, while I was inside an MRI scanner tube. Right before the MRI began, the technician offered me a set of headphones so I could listen to music while the test was being performed. While I do not believe I am claustrophobic, I certainly would be bored and maybe a little anxious. I took the headphones and put them on. I cannot recall if the music was a CD or a radio station. But I do remember clearly the moment when the song “I Hope You Dance” came on. I had heard that song many times before. But this time, I really paid attention to the lyrics: “Time is a wheel in constant motion always rolling us along. Tell me who wants to look back on their years and wonder where those years have gone.”
Those words really resonated with me. Suddenly the wheels that kept the overachiever in motion came to a grinding halt. I realized that if I continued to abuse my body and spirit, and continued to ignore my health and rest, I might not have many fulfilling years left at all. I also realized that I could have retired the year before. Having worked at the same federal agency for 30 years, and with the federal government for 34 years, I had a good potential retirement income. What was I waiting for, especially when I had my health, a higher priority, to address?
I need to pause here and explain a very important lesson I was just starting to learn that also occurred to me in that MRI tube. There was an executive in my chain of command who noted on several occasions that I was burning the candle at both ends. He was very concerned about my health. But by the same token, when a problem surfaced, he expected his team, including me, to take care of it no matter how much time and energy it took. I want to be clear that I am not criticizing him for his expectation, as it was reasonable and appropriate. He had a business to run and I was one of the managers reporting to him in that business. It was his, and mine, and every other manager’s job, to work diligently with our staff members to achieve the mission of the business.
I began to realize that we have "free will" and we have to apply it thoughtfully. Otherwise, despite that freedom to make our own decisions, we may not make the best choices for ourselves. We may instead be guided by: fear, or by wanting to please others, or by wanting to achieve some type of praise, or by a compulsion to be the best. We may follow these sometimes unfavorable influences, rather than following what would be healthiest for us at the time.
I finally understood that the executive in my chain of command was concerned about me and was showing his concern by telling me what he observed. But it was not his job to make decisions for me about what I needed to do to maintain my health. It was my job to weigh the choices and determine what took priority under the circumstances: the mission of the organization or Melanie’s well-being. Looking around the organization, there would always be other people who could step in and take over the role that Melanie played. But there was no one on this earth who had the unique capabilities to be Melanie. So I chose Melanie and hopefully her bright future.
I talked to the retirement counselor where I worked, and I started the process to file my application to retire in late June of 2013. I didn’t know where I was going, and I didn’t know what was wrong with me. But I had a much better chance of fixing the problem, once we found it, if I could focus on me and me alone.
Looking back now at the whole series of events since late 2012, it seems obvious to me what my course of action needed to be. So why did it take a lengthy time and what I perceived to be a message from God to get me on the right track? In some respects, it was how I lived my entire career, which was reflected in the advice I gave employees new to the government. You need to work hard, learn the ropes, and build your reputation for achievement before you can move further up the ladder. But in the spring of 2013 in the MRI tube, I thought “what else do I need to prove on the job?" I had held a number of different jobs in my 30 years with the same agency, and I had learned a lot and hopefully passed that on to the next generation. If I retired and got my health back on track, I could find new challenges to master, whether as a paid employee or as a volunteer.
I also realized that I was holding onto the perception that doing less and declining to look for more promotions and achievements on the job might be viewed as failure. But the reality that I was living involved a continual loss of strength and confidence with each day. The new concept of failure that I now faced was cutting my life short before my time. What a scary thought!
So I felt an incredible sense of peace going forward, and I never regretted my decision to retire. My family and my friends were all thrilled, having known for a while that something was really wrong with my health. They had seen the light of my spirit extinguished inch by inch. They wanted Melanie to focus on Melanie. They wanted the old Melanie who had a sense of humor and a sound perspective to return.
While I regret that I did not keep a watch on the impact on my health and take action sooner, I will never regret the job that I performed for years. I will treasure all that I learned from the people I was privileged to work with and the fulfillment of a career in public service. But there is a season and time for everything. The time was for other people fresher and younger than me to take the reins in the career world. I heard God loud and clear. The time had come for me to make sure I was not leaving this earth too soon.
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.