A relatively new, senior leader where I work, at the pinnacle of her career, recently announced her unexpected and sudden retirement. Her husband had a degenerative disease which either had begun to unexpectedly and rapidly advance. She was the primary caregiver.
I happened to see her walking to the train after work on the day of her announcement. I was with a group of co-workers, laughing, talking, glad the day was over; she was by herself, so few of her rank with whom to casually talk and laugh after work. She saw us and smiled, the kind of acknowledgment you might show to a stranger in an elevator. I wondered if she knew we worked for the same organization and debated if I should speak with her. Will I be intruding, I wondered. She doesn’t even know who I am. Will she believe I am sincere, or trying to score points? We’re all human, I told myself, say something.
I jogged a few steps to catch up. “I was sorry to hear about your husband. My grandmother has the same condition. I know how hard it can be to watch a loved one experience it.”
“Thank you. With my schedule, especially traveling all the time, it’s gotten to be too much. I can’t leave him alone anymore.”
I felt guilt for ever having felt too busy, with no children and parents not yet to the age where they needed my care. I wondered if she ever felt this way when she was my age.
“I can’t imagine being in your position and having to be a caregiver on top of that. It must be like starting an entirely different job when you get home.”
“It’s exhausting, and he has started waking up in the middle of the night now. I can’t continue on working. It’s too much,” and as we approached the bottom of the escalator, she asked, “What train do you take?” I could tell she didn’t doubt my sincerity.
Sometimes, when I am overwhelmingly “in it” at work, or thinking about work, life, career, and how everything is going to play out, I try to pause and press the reality reset button. I try to remind myself how quickly events can turn – how so many things I take for granted are the most important.