Our Father’s Retirement And The Shared Fear Of Uselessness
It is not uncommon for boys, earlier in their life, to look at the man who bore them as a tyrant, a dictator, and, for some of us, an enemy. It is, likewise, not uncommon for boys, later in their life, to find the good in their fathers and hold it dear.
I suppose then that it’s no surprise I’m about to do just that.
My father is a man bound by usefulness. His self worth is directly proportional to how much he can do for you. He and my mother share that trait. Maybe everyone does after a certain age.
Nevertheless, in that line of duty, my father derided his boys at every turn. My brother and I were made to feel useless at the expense of our father’s need to feel useful. “You guys will just mess it up,” the echoes of the past ring. “Let me warm up the car. Let me fix that. Let me do it.”
As a result of this tutelage, or lack there of, our entire lives have been defined by the pursuit of a similar purpose — a pursuit which, for both of us, has been characterized by the need to help people.
The irony of my father’s “teachings” was that we would develop the same behaviour, born by a need to be useful, due to a birthright of fostered uselessness.
Of course, it was his attitude which, in my youth, made my father my enemy. And, likely, it was my resulting, unknowingly-imitative attitude that made me my brother’s enemy.
So, in pursuit of usefulness, my brother and I went separate ways, both in opposing trajectories towards different gaps in my father’s domains.
My brother sought to close my father’s academic gap and to help, as our father rarely did, others learn. He’s a teacher, a studied one, and he has both the artistic, linguistic, and literary acumen and context which my father and I lack.
I opted for the trades of business and technology, the confluence of which has become my home: product management—a home wherein I find my value in helping others add value efficiently and effectively. I closed the business and tech gap of my father and brother.
And yet, for our pursuits, my brother and I end up remarkably as our father has.
I have built my career on running around trying to do things for others. Find a little hacky code-shop work-around to enable a stakeholder without dev. Get this favour from one stakeholder to buy us time to build a better product for another. Convince leadership to give us time to buy air cover for tech debt to curry dev favour.
I’m the handyman of software development. But I’m not the architect. I’m not the electrician, nor the plumber, nor the foreman, nor the financer. I am a band-aid covering a healing wound growing resilient to future tears and tears, as my father was.
And so, I fear for my father a future I envision for myself which my father faces before me but not for me: retirement; irrelevance.
On The Eve Of Uselessness
I provide the above context for a reason, as it informs why the events of last Friday gave birth to such fearful introspection.
My father, after 40+ years of working and nearly 30 in a single employ, has finally retired—that, the escarpment before him. He spent this lifetime working for Piedmont-Hawthorne, the primary private airport in the country’s biggest city.
For a man who spent his life in manual labour, “Pa” has had gilded career full of hard-working nights and celebrity-tipping days. His luck in landing at the private airport afforded him years of celebrity meetings which he cherished and looked on fondly.
He has spoken and will gladly speak on chatting with Robin Williams, Chris Rock, Mel Gibson, George Clooney, Tiger Woods. He will speak fonder still of being tipped by Mario Lemieux and Wayne Gretzky. And yet, fonder still will he speak of unloading the Montreal Canadiens and loading their plane back up after a Toronto-afforded victory against his local hatred.
But above all he’d remind me, and tell you, year after year that I’d played with Melanie Griffith’s daughter one “Take Your Kids To Work” day. I still don’t know who she even is.
And my father was lauded in his work by his peers. He was the consummate handyman of the office. He had a lot of answers and helped everyone with everything every day.
Indeed, we grew up with that being our father’s privilege in a life otherwise wrought with cold winters on the unforgiving tarmac, euphemistically called “the ramp”.
But it is only now, later in life, that I see the weary behind the wow that we’d tell others of when they asked “what does your father do”.
30+ years of coming home blistered, bruised, beaten up, bent over backwards, busted, and broken only to feel his children’s ignorant indifference as they whined about bad internet, bad driveway shovelling, bad toys and games and irrelevancies.
30+ years in a marriage that surely started with more passion than it will end with but within which a mutual set of principles kept the bad days from boiling over and a matching set of priorities encouraged the good ones.
30+ years working Christmas and Thanksgiving and Easter and holidays to afford a lifestyle for his children which he couldn’t.
30+ years doing what his two sons have vowed never to do: raise a family.
30+ years of being the handyman but not the pilot nor the mechanical engineer nor the celebrity.
And so when two fire trucks appeared on the ramp to send him off with a cascade of firehose water, and when the C-level suite from Raleigh and Texas and Florida personally called him to wish him luck, and when his work passed a hat to accrue $1000, and his boss bought him a fabled pair of tickets to a Leafs v. Canadiens game in a year when the former is likely to be decimated by the latter, you might understand why all of our family grew teary-eyed.
This is the man’s swan song before our collective fear is realized.
And it is a small porthole into our collective feared future where we will, as he now does, face an immediate, well-founded fear of uselessness.
I’m scared. I’m scared of him feeling useless. I’m scared of him becoming useless. I’m scared of him being useless. I’m scared of my feeling useless, and my brother’s eventual uselessness; I’m scared of our becoming useless.
I’m full of genuine fear — an unquestionably privileged fear, but fear nonetheless—for a future which I can neither prevent, nor control, nor avoid.
He has no idea how to retire. We have no idea how to help him. We have no idea how to retire. And we have no idea how to survive in the world thereafter, neither his now nor ours later.