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On September 29, my best friend worked his last day as a tech executive. Twenty or thirty years ago, his retirement would have been celebrated by a luncheon or dinner with rehearsed speeches, or by a cake in the break room with less rehearsed speeches. But in today’s highly impersonal digital business model, there are no such crowning events. In fact, his final week was punctuated by a series of system-generated emails informing him of company policy concerning voluntary separation, and the delivery (to his home) of a pre-paid FedEx box into which he put his PC, phone, company-issued credit card, and badge. At 5 p.m. Friday, he sealed the box, drove it to a drop box, slid it in, and drove away. It was done. No fanfare. No celebration. No hugs. No handshakes.
That his exit was treated both transactionally and antiseptically is both troubling and deflating to me. (By the way, his isn’t the exception — today, it’s the rule. People are fired via email … laid off with a text. It’s unconscionable.)
With this in mind, I believed it important we took time to mark the occasion and reflect on a work-life well-lived. So, on Sunday, my wife and I hosted a dinner for him, his adult kids, their partners, and their children at a local steak house. Cloistered in a little corner of the restaurant, I shared the following as they ate…
I vaguely remember our first meeting – an interview. I had a small interior office (in a terrible, early 1970s-styled office building) with no windows. It had burnt orange carpeting, dark wood trim, yellowed Plexiglas covering four fluorescent lights, and stained, sagging ceiling tiles.
What would have made a young, bright Englishman want to work at a place like this? It still puzzles me, but I’m glad you did.
We became fast friends almost from that moment. You began working there within a week and we quickly collaborated to bring the office one of its most important wins – Motorola. The relationship with Motorola would have ramifications well beyond our intentions: it gave us legitimacy in the tech and manufacturing sector … from it, Teradata recruited its head of manufacturing who, in turn, made the company a bona fide tech manufacturer.
(Why is this important? Because it reminds us that even when a small pebble is tossed into the water, its effects can be broad and enduring. Too often, when we look back at our careers, humble men minimize what they did and the effect they had.)
Upon discovering we both loved squash, we began playing most mornings. To be at work by 8:45 a.m. showered and shaved, we’d schedule court time at 6:30 or 6:45 a.m. To make it there from Palos Hills or Palos Park or whichever Palos you inhabited meant you’d have to be out of the house by 5:30 a.m.
Gosh, those were fun times.
Through our less-than-scientific recruiting, we built an office of rag-tag misfits. The two that stick out most in my mind were Vic Balouskas and Len Zlatnikiv. Vic was at that time already 62. He was a field engineer. I remember traveling with him once to Sioux Falls for a three-day onsite health check of their [computer]. When I met him at the gate, he had a briefcase and no bag. So I asked, “Did you check your suitcase?” He grinned and said, “No.” Tapping on his briefcase, he said, “Everything I need is in here.” He flipped it open: it had a small tool kit, a spare memory board, a toothbrush, a razor, and a comb.
If Vic was a study in stylistic minimalism, Len was the opposite. He wore elegant suits and hand-painted ties – never the same one twice. His Russian accent was thick to the point I had a hard time understanding him. He was incorrigible.
If we ever dared step out for lunch on a Thursday or Friday with him, we’d invariably end up at a pool parlor, drunk off our butts. Two o’clock would turn to three. Three to four. Four to five. Usually, around 5 p.m., I’d ring Lori from a payphone and explain my situation. She’d make her way to wherever we were to ensure that I at least had a safe ride home.
On one occasion, Len had so loosened his tie that its end was down past his groin. After visiting the men’s room, he staggered over to us, looked down, gasped, and declared, “I peed on my tie!”
Gosh, those were silly times.
You recall I ended up leaving the company as the result of a crippling political coup. After doing so much for what had been an 80-person start-up (when I joined), I was gutted that so many friends turned their backs during my undoing.
But you stood with me. You were the only one. You were and are the most loyal man I’ve ever met.
My next 20 years were punctuated by a ton of false-start jobs. (In retrospect, maybe a couple of them were reasonable roles in reasonable places. But viewed against the halcyon times at Teradata, they seemed dull and impotent. Maybe yours, too?) Anyway, I endured a spate of no-nothing jobs. And you and I lost touch. Or should I say, we allowed our friendship to settle into a rhythm where meeting for lunch once a year was adequate?
Fast forward to 2016. I don’t remember if I told you before I left or emailed you once I established myself in London for my two-year contract. In either case, we began emailing with some regularity.
We somehow pieced together that my flat was a brisk walk from the Dickens Inn – where your brother formerly would, with some frequency, stop in for a meal or a pint. That I was able to eat there a couple of years after he died and share a couple of selfies with you was special for both of us.
It was through those emails that I learned of [your daughter’s] pregnancy and of [your wife’s] absolute joy in becoming a grandma. From my vantage point 2,000 miles away, everything paled – for her – compared to [those grandbabies].
It’s funny … I don’t remember your emails ever discussing your work in detail but I do remember them speaking about [your son, your daughter] and the grandbabies in detail. Lots of detail.
(Maybe it’s worth noting that when we think about the most fantastic times in our lives, they seldom focus on our work, rather on our kids.)
You always adored your kids. I remember flying home with you after a multi-day trip many years ago. There were a couple of us. Once we got through security, I made a beeline for the bar. You – on the other hand – paced up and down the concourse searching the shops for gifts that you could get for [the kids].
You struck out – the departure airport had nothing and you fretted the whole way home, worried that by the time we landed at O’Hare, all the shops would be closed. To your relief, they weren’t. As we marched to our respective cars (in the parking garage), your arms were loaded with your garment bag, your briefcase, and a shopping bag with toys in it).
From our earliest days as friends – you’d often say to me, “[My wife’s] not well.” Truly, I remember it as far back as the late ’80s and early ’90s. Because I didn’t see a lot of her, I largely ignored your words – or maybe better said, I set them aside because I didn’t understand them. You never qualified them … you never provided details.
But in our correspondence – beginning in 2015 – your references to her health became far more frequent, specific, and urgent. You shared details of her heart and breathing capacity. Both were worrisome.
The last nine months of my contract over there were terrible – I was desperate to come home and reunite with Lori and my boys. Through God’s grace, I was given a path home, and in a flash, I was back in Chicago. But for whatever reason, I didn’t look you up. (Setting aside our correspondences, I hadn’t seen you in the flesh since Feb. 1, 2014.)
It was now late November 2016. I was in O’Hare. It was early morning and I spied a man from behind maybe 50 paces away. It was you. I called out and you turned. You hurried to me. And as we shook hands and hugged, you told me [your wife] had died. I didn’t – and still don’t – know what to say.
Pressed to make our respective flights, we sadly and awkwardly said goodbye and promised to see each other again.
It was some time before we made the call. And I probably have the timelines and dates screwed up, but we got together some months later. We met at Rocco’s in the afternoon – just the two of us at the bar. You told me that you needed to have surgery on your groin and your heart. You were pasty white, and your eyes, dark. Your spirit seemed broken.
I looked at you hoping to see a glimmer of the warrior who had stood by my side 25 years earlier, but all I saw was sadness and brokenness … the kind of brokenness that comes from losing one’s best friend and life partner.
I didn’t know whether it was out of friendship or duty – I think, the latter – but I decided then and there that I’d make a concerted effort to walk through the next months and years with you … to the degree any friend who lives an hour and 15 minutes away can walk with someone … and the degree to which an Englishman will allow a friend to walk with him.
What I at the time thought was duty, I now see was the active hand of God.
And it’s here this story really begins. It’s the story of you teaching me about faith. Genuine faith. An active faith in which the Father doesn’t simply intercede in the most difficult times in our lives, rather always and forever in the most banal times in our lives. The big times, for sure. But also the little times. That He cares about us. That He will and does provide everything He knows we need . . . though in His time.
Oh, how you and I have spilled some wine and whiskey talking about faith. Lori, ever-present.
I’m grateful to you for your directness … your unguardedness … and your unabashedness. Through your example, I’ve endeavored to become unguarded and direct and unashamed in talking about my faith.
I must confess: when you were at your lowest – after [your wife] died and while you were convalescing from your surgeries – I arrogantly thought I had been sent to carry you. I now see that you were sent to carry me in my faith journey, and for that, I’m forever grateful.
In closing, I’m sure 50-plus years have flown by. It’s a funny thing this thing we call “our career.” We bound it by time … I got my first job when I was 19 and finished when I was 72. We define our lives (and worth) by what we did and possibly how much we earned during those years.
But what if this is wrong? What if these years aren’t the years that matter? What if it’s what we do after that defines us? What if you’re actually standing at the beginning and not the end?
In James, chapter 1, verse 2, we read “Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters whenever you face trials of many kinds, 3 because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance. 4 Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be[come] mature and complete, not lacking anything.”
Maybe what James is telling us is that from where you stand today – this glorious day – everything behind you has been for your refinement … for the perfection of your spirit. And now, your real work on earth begins?
* * *
I pray, [my friend], you are at peace. I pray that until the day you see [your wife] again and rest in the glow of our Heavenly Father, you have joy, contentment, and purpose.Published in