Jerry waffled over his decision to retire for almost two years. We kidded him incessantly about it. At the end of the fourth unofficial retirement party held in his honor, he stuck a beer mug in his boot and walked out of the restaurant with it. He said he wanted a memento of the occasion. It may have been the only illegal thing he ever did. That’s when I knew he had made up his mind. The time had finally come.
In the department where I work there are almost 300 people. We are, all of us, a traveling band of gypsies, working from coast to coast, settling storm claims for a large insurance company. Of those 300 people, there were maybe six or ten whose company I enjoy well enough to seek them out. Jerry was one of those people.
In the weeks before he retired, Jerry invited a few of us to his home in Edmond for dinner. While the others were visiting inside, Jerry and I sat on his patio in the steamy Oklahoma heat and told war stories about our years on the job together. We talked about the things he would miss about working, and also about the things he wouldn’t miss. The second list was the longer of the two. We talked about his plans for the future. He said he wanted to have a small body shop, where he could work on cars at his leisure. He was well set financially, having earned three pensions: one from the Navy, another from the Wichita Police Department and a third from our employer. We kidded him a lot about that, too, but here Jerry had the last laugh. He was retiring in comfort on his own terms. He had won the game.
Just before we were called to dinner, we walked down to the creek that ran behind Jerry’s house. He showed me the stone path he had built along side it. He showed me the rose bushes he had planted. He showed me the Craftsman-style storage building he had made by hand, complete with single-hung windows and a shingled roof. We went in his garage, where he showed me the Firebird he had spent years restoring, and the motorcycle he loved to ride on weekends in the hills of central Oklahoma.
On Jerry’s first day of retirement, a friend and I drove to meet him and his wife for lunch. The restaurant was in Wichita, Kansas, which required a drive of three hours each way. Neither of us considered it an inconvenience. After lunch we stood beside the SUV that was piled to the ceiling with their stuff and said our goodbyes. We waved as they drove off toward Virginia and the next chapter of their lives.
That was about a year and a half ago. I talked to Jerry a few months later, after he had settled in to his new home. He said he was happy. He had the body shop he always wanted. He worked as much or as little as he liked. Life was good, he said. We promised to stay in touch.
The news that Jerry was dead came last week by company email. The message was short and offered no clues about what happened. I went on line and found his obituary, something I have become quite good at lately. The family requested memorials be sent to the local hospice center. To me that meant Jerry had lived his last days knowing there was no hope. I never knew he had been sick, and because of that I felt like I had let him down somehow.
There are studies which suggest that people, especially men, feel like they have no sense of purpose without work. They say it’s a form of depression that can be deadly. I don’t know if I believe it. But maybe Jerry did. Maybe that’s why he took so long to make up his mind to retire. He never talked about it, but he could have carried the thought around in his head. It’s something we’ll never know.
Rest in peace my friend.