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Endings and Beginnings

This is the last leg of my journey. I will post tomorrow about my last few weeks and my last day. My personal blog, containing my Journey to Retirement series and other stories, is still “under construction” but will be shared soon.

Thank you to all who followed this posting and for all of the wonderful feedback. I do not have words for how happy it makes me to know that I made any one of you laugh or have a better day in any way. I consider it a high compliment that you found my words worthy of your time.

January of 2016 brought both extreme joy and devastating sadness to my family. We were overjoyed when Susan and Kelly adopted 17-month old twin girls. Jade and Deja, aside from being cute beyond belief, were living miracles. They were born at 26 weeks and not expected to live, but they beat the odds and found their way into our homes and our hearts. While rejoicing over this double blessing, we were heartbroken to see Stephen’s marriage end. In the process, we lost access to 20-month old Gwen, our first grandchild. We were devastated. I had the privilege of hearing Gwen’s first cry. We kept her several times a week and I was bonded to her as with my own children. A piece of my heart was ripped away. The last weekend I had Gwen with me, I had the three girls photographed together. I treasure the picture. I did not know at the time that it would be my first, last, and only picture of my three granddaughters.

In the sadness, I sought God’s peace. I looked for ways to receive joy through giving and to focus on something other than our loss. My friend asked me to join her “senior singers” choir group and I accepted. Sometimes, life serves up a little unexpected nugget of happy. One evening at practice, another member introduced herself and started a conversation. She asked if I was retired or still working and I told her that I worked for the Star-Telegram. She gave me a slow smile and, with a pensive look, told me that her mother, now deceased, had retired from the Star-Telegram. I asked her mother’s name and was joyfully surprised when she said “Hazel Bowen.” All those years ago in 1973, Hazel Bowen was the angel who looked past my inability to pass the typing test and gave me a chance at my first real job. I grabbed Carolyn’s hand and exclaimed “I can tell you something about your mother. I will always remember her.” I told her the story of how her mother changed my life by helping me and that so many doors opened for me because Hazel Bowen. Carolyn, misty-eyed, said “Thank you for that story. Today is mom’s birthday and I consider our encounter a gift. I will call my siblings and children tonight — they will be thrilled to hear this about mother.” I was happy to meet Hazel Bowen’s daughter and thanked her for the life of her beautiful mother. The encounter was a gift for me as well.

Early 2016 also brought more downsizing within the company. This time, the cut was deep. Debi’s job was eliminated, ending her Star-Telegram classified career of 43 years and 4 months. We gave her a retirement party on her last day. I knew that I would see Debi outside of work but the office felt empty without her. Carla Crow and Richard and I did not feel complete – it was like a piece out of a pie. In the parking garage, my car looked lonely resting beside the empty space that once held Debi’s car. As I watched everyone hugging her goodbye, I felt the wind shift in my career. Things were changing on a deep level. I realized that I was changing direction, nearing an end.

Amid the changes and personal loss, I found it difficult to maintain the upbeat, happy, sales persona. I felt that I needed to “escape” or my next trip to the escape room might be the last step leading to a padded room. Unexpectedly, our obituary editor announced her retirement. I applied for and was given the position. I laughed at the irony of ending my career writing obituaries. The position of obituary editor was a very busy job with a strong need for accuracy and sensitivity. Most of the obituaries came through funeral homes but there was a good bit of contact with the families of the departed. I considered this a ministry of sorts and worked hard to make encounters as painless as possible for the grieving families. The job was hard sometimes but also rewarding. I was glad to have my awareness level raised considering my own mortality, consequently raising my level of gratitude and appreciation for my much loved family and friends.

Though somber in tone most of the time, the job definitely had its interesting moments. I could not ignore the irony when writing the obituaries for Mr. Coffin and Mr. Croker. On a daily basis, I dealt with people of all cultures, income levels, and personality types. This diverse pool resulted in a broad variety of content presentation. There were those who wanted to be brief and to the point: “Jack on Jones St. died Monday.” I had to explain that, for sake of clarity to our readers, we needed to print a bit more information. There were those who wanted to say things that we would not print:
“He loved dogs and camping and he grew the best weed in Texas.”
“He was mean and we are glad he’s gone so we are not paying for a funeral.”
“She was survived by planned child, Jim, planned child, Mary, and big mistake, Billy.”
I questioned the following phrase, but we did allow it to print:
“Rather than choose which worthless candidate to vote for in the election, Mary chose to go to Glory.”

The telephone was busier than I expected. There were the usual calls for general information or for details concerning a specific person. I was surprised to learn that some people called with less than noble intentions. There were revenge seekers trying to print an obituary for a living person, “significant others” posing as the spouse of the deceased in order to place their own version of an obituary; and estranged family members attempting to place obituaries behind the back of the legal next of kin so that they could publish their idea of memories and survivor list. I wondered if some of the deceased were turning in their graves at the antics of those they left behind. Many of the callers I will remember for a long time because of the sadness of the situation but there are a few I will remember because, in spite of the nature of the business at hand, it was funny. Here is one of my favorites: I answered the phone one day to the tearful voice of a lady asking if her father’s obituary had printed. I told her that the funeral home should have that information. She explained to me that her family was mad at her and would not allow her at the funeral home. “I am so sorry,” I responded, “let me check for you.” She gave me her father’s name, I checked the list for the week, and found that her father’s obituary was in the paper that very day. I reported this to her. She was very happy. “Thank you,” she said “I didn’t have any way of finding out about my daddy’s obituary because my family is mad at me. Do you want to know why they are mad at me?” Before I could respond, she commenced to tell me. “Well, we were all up there in daddy’s room at the hospital when he died. We stayed with him a while and then they took us in this little room to talk about stuff and then we were gonna go home. We stopped in the hall to say a little bit more and I decided to sneak back into daddy’s room and get one more look at him. Nobody saw me go. I was telling him good-bye again and I just wanted to see his eyes one more time so I told him ‘Daddy, I just want to see your eyes’ then I took my fangers and I pried his eyes open. I told him goodbye one last time then I went back out in the hall with my family. I didn’t see her go, but I guess my sister decided to do the same thing I did because all of a sudden there was screaming and crying coming from daddy’s room and my sister came running out saying ‘My daddy wasn’t dead when we left him, we left him to die by himself, he opened his eyes and died by himself.’ The doctor and nurses went running back in there with my entire family right behind them. My sister started cussin’ the doctor and saying she was going to sue the hospital and everybody in it because her daddy died by himself. The doctor assured us that our daddy was gone when we left him and that the body sometimes has strange reflexes after death. My sister didn’t believe him and she got the whole family to screaming and cussin’ and threatening to sue ‘til they had the guards come and make us leave. I got in the car with my sister and brother and they were carried on about all of it all the way down the road. I finally said that I was the one who opened daddy’s eyes. They stopped right in the road and made me get out and told me that I had made fools of the whole family and now they won’t let me go to the funeral home.” I was speechless. “That’s why they’re mad at me” she finished. “Well,” I said, thinking to myself that I would never have confessed to the eye opening, “would you like for me to read your father’s obituary to you?” She said that she would like to hear it, I read it to her, I wished her well, and moved on. When it came to human drama, some cases were real eye openers.

As 2016 drew to a close, there were more staff reductions. On some days, I was the only obituary writer in the office and, on occasion, because obituaries and classified were under the same manager and in the same office area, I answered the incoming calls for classified as well as the obituary line. Multi-tasking was an understatement. There were times I would put a call on hold at my desk, stand up to pick up the ringing phone on the desk behind me and transfer the caller to my second line. I loved my job and my work family but I was getting tired. I missed Debi. Richard and Carla Crow were moved to another floor. Most of all, I wanted to spend more time with those granddaughters.

On Friday the 13th in January of 2017, the system we used to publish obituaries crashed never to run again. We had to quickly develop an alternative method of doing things. We lost the ability to produce a proof showing the picture of the deceased. The funeral homes were hurriedly introduced to a new, and much less appealing, way to submit obituaries. The resulting chaos caused us to work 10-hour days without a break, manually handling once automated tasks and dealing with the flood of phone calls from angry people regarding the increased error rate, complaints about the new method, demands for a “picture proof,” and demanding that things in general be handled differently. Our manager, Carla Crow, worked seven days a week and did the best she could to keep things afloat but there were not enough people to meet the demands of the situation within a normal 8 to 5, Monday through Friday, work schedule. It was grueling. I went home most days and went straight to bed.

Things settled down after a few weeks. A new method was developed for obituaries and work became quite manageable. Unfortunately, I was completely done in. I decided to retire after my 65th birthday on May 12, 2017.

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