My grandfather was a wise man, and growing up I learned a lot of my lessons about life from hours of conversations at my grandparents’ kitchen table. We talked about everything from music, work and investing, to relationships and life in general. In many ways I was closer to my grandparents than my parents, because they loved and appreciated me for who I was, and they didn’t carry the burden of trying to raise me and to make sure I “came out right.”
Grandpa had lots of sayings, phrases and colloquialisms that he liked to use. One of his favorite “good-bye’s” was the admonishment to “keep your head clear and your bowels open.” I always thought that was rather silly, but I knew what he meant. As I’ve gotten older I’ve realized even more what he meant.
Our numerous conversations often revolved around things that troubled me as well as things that made me happy. When I started to second guess my choice of major in my first year of college, we talked about the pros and cons. He supported my decision to change to a business major and helped me get my first job in banking. I didn’t talk a lot about relationships with him, but we shared the occasional tear over a lost love or a missed opportunity. We talked about the good things and the bad. When my grandparents experienced health issues we talked about aging. When my parents were experiencing what were ultimately terminal health issues we spent a lot of time talking about life.
I always joked that it was because he was an avid golfer that he was able to withstand “the thrill of victory, and the agony of defeat.” Nothing was more exhilarating and at the same time frustrating as the game of golf (exhilarating for him and frustrating for me). He was always good at golf, and despite my best efforts I always sucked at it. But he applied his philosophy of golf to the way he looked at life. Whenever we talked about things that were especially wonderful or especially troubling, he would look off into the distance and exclaim, “Ah, the Vicissitudes of Life.”
Nothing has epitomized the Vicissitudes of Life as much as the last several years. In 2009 I spent 9 months out of work, but late in the year found a job doing what I’ve done for 30+ years. In 2010 Scott – our oldest son – was engaged, we took a cruise with Scott & Kristin and our best friends Bill & Cathy. In 2011 Kevin – our youngest son – graduated from college after a longer than anticipated effort, Scott & Kristin got married and we gained a daughter.
This past year showed us the other side of the pendulum. Kathy lost both of her parents in a three month period, after a rather abrupt turn for the worse early in the year. I lost four friends and co-workers – three of whom had retired over the last several years – in the last year. All four well before their time. Few things are harder than that, but through it all we’ve managed a few bright spots. Both of our kids spent another year paying their own bills, we had a few great vacations, made some new friends and re-connected with some old ones. We’ve inched a few steps closer to our eventual retirement and are making some great plans for 2013.
Kathy told me the other night that, despite how tough this year has been, that she is thankful that relatively speaking, her burden has been light. She knows that despite all that happened, things could have gone differently. It’s unlikely that they would have gone better for her parents, since the forces that took them were irreversible. But it’s not hard to think about what things could have been like. And she’s right. There are many people carrying much heavier burdens than those we have been carrying. To the extent we can help we certainly will, and to the extent we can be thankful for our own, we’ll do our best.
For me, the Vicissitudes of Life means being open to the things that life brings us, and understanding that with the good sometimes must come the bad. It means not living in fear of the future or of the unknown, but it also means not ignoring the realities. It means finding a balance between enjoying today while planning for tomorrow. It means being there when a friend needs us, and not being afraid to ask for help when we need it. It means supporting others when things are tough, and celebrating with them when things go well. It means recognizing what’s important and focusing our energies on those things, and being mindful of all the things that are not as deserving of our time and attention.
For our Christmas gifts this year, Kathy & I bought new luggage. But we’re convinced that the true gift is not the luggage itself but is the privilege, and perhaps the responsibility, to put as many miles on it as possible. So off we go!