With great anticipation and relief, my father recently retired. Many times I heard him say, “When I retire….” as if life would begin anew at the end of the exhausting life-journey of work.
I remember growing up, him coming home from work day after day, year after year – exhausted. He often fell asleep in his leather chair while my mother cooked dinner. After dinner, he would sit in front of the TV and read a magazine – preferably undisturbed. “Turn the light off in the pantry, it makes a glare on the TV.” In my head, sometimes out loud if I was planning to make a quick exit, “Yes, I know, you tell me every night I get a snack. One minute. Will you grant me one minute?” I wished I could be invisible. Eventually he would fall asleep, his head fallen to the side, resting on his shoulder. My mother would tousle his hair around 10:30, “Come on sweetie, it’s time for bed.”
“If he hates his job so much, why isn’t he happy when he comes home to us?” I repeatedly asked my mother. “I don’t know,” she would respond, exhausted by the repetition of my questioning. “He uses up all his patience at work.”
I never understood. I never got over being disappointed. I could understand him not loving his job, but I couldn’t understand home not being his refuge if work was what made him unhappy. When I was in my young 20’s, I met another young women about my age at a wedding rehearsal; she had just finished an internship at my dad’s office. She raved about how patient and helpful he was, how much she had enjoyed working with him. “And who is this that you are talking about?” I thought, shocked. Maybe my mother was right, he had a limited reserve of nice and patience and he used it all up at work.
In my childhood naiveté, I attributed the root cause of what I perceived as his perpetual, all-consuming discontent – the discontent I observed in so many of my friends’ fathers – to his “office job.” I wasn’t sure what office culture was like and what went on there, but whatever it was made dads short-tempered and expunged all their energy beyond what was necessary to hold a fork at dinner and then position themselves in the chair in front of the tv.
My father went to that office job, hanging on through the downsizing of the 90s, at the same company for his entire working life. He fulfilled his responsibility as he saw it. I appreciated what he provided, though it was tempered by a child’s hurt feelings of not being enough to make him happy.
When I grew up, I vowed to myself I would be different. I would find some sort of career that didn’t take away, but added. I would be persistent in my search until I found it. I would not allow myself to get sucked in day after day, year after year, until I could finally begin anew, only when I got to the end.