Eleven years ago, the world I knew came to an end. In 1995, I might have been gearing up for my fortieth birthday, and all the changes, real or imaginary, that would take place in my life when I exited my thirties—the last decade during which I could be credibly called a "young" anything. Looking back, I sincerely wish that were all I had to worry about. Because my fortieth birthday in July of that year faded into the background of upheaval and grief that was the final desperate illness and death of my big sister. And my misguided notion that I needed to sink every ounce of strength I possessed into comforting and binding the wounds of her bereft family.
Another thing that got buried under that load of sorrow was the demise of my "dream job." After spending fifteen years bouncing around like a pinball on the game board of my chosen profession, in 1986 I fell, quite by accident, into the best job situation I had ever encountered. Possibly the best anyone could hope for. In the next eight years, I accomplished more than I ever thought I could, grew more and in more directions than I had ever thought possible, mentored and guided and taught, spoke my mind and worked my butt off. But I was good at what I did, I was successful at what I did, and for the first time in my life, I felt like I was fulfilling some kind of real purpose. I never realized how much employment success affected every aspect of life. I was happy at work, happy at home, outgoing and magnanimous and on top of the world.
Then the roof caved in. As it often does in the restaurant industry. Times change, fads fade, concepts come and go. When the corporation I worked for started to fall apart, the first guys to take the hit were we managers who had carried it to the top by the sweat of our brows and had been able, for a couple of years, to enjoy the fruits of our labors. All at once, we became an overpaid liability and were targeted for "redundancy," as the Brits so aptly put it. But it was not a quick and merciful severance. It was a traumatic, year-long pummeling process that felt like being beaten to death with a tack hammer. By the end of 1994, I was unemployed, exhausted, and emotionally trashed. And for a little extra added excitement, I was scheduled for major surgery.
I was still recovering from my own health disaster when my sister began her abrupt slide toward death in the early days of 1995. It could be argued that my sister’s illness "saved" me from going down into the pit of depression my own pack of troubles had been pushing me toward. I needed to rouse myself, stiffen my spine and "be there" for her and her family. That mission, that determination to be strong for someone else, actually kept me going for several years. I put my own trauma on the back burner, stepped up for the people who "needed me," and never looked back.
But my relationship to the working world never recovered. Still wounded and shell-shocked from the demise of my once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, I could never quite muster the confidence or the courage to get back on the horse and just…ride. I’d scramble up, but I’d jump off at the first sign of a rocky road. I changed horses so many times over the next several years that it got to the point where they would lock up the stables when they saw me coming. Eventually, the other half of my life began to fall apart, the part where I was supposed to be this rock of support for my sister’s husband and kids. Then, in 1999, my dad passed away, and my remaining sisters and I went through the tortures of the damned trying to deal with that loss.
As my relationship to my family took a nosedive, I realized that in the course of less than five years, I had lost virtually everything I believed I’d gained during that halcyon time when I felt like Queen of the World. I thought I had "arrived," but the place I’d arrived to had crumbled and faded before my very eyes. I was living the darker reality of the old cliché, "Life is a journey, not a destination." I tried to run away from my troubles with my family by running full-tilt back into the world of work. It was then that I found that I had no "world of work" to return to. I was pushing fifty, my resume was crap, and the doors of opportunity in the restaurant world, that I had always slipped through in the past, were only open to younger, happier people who weren’t afraid of their own shadows. Restaurant work is not for the faint of heart.
I tried office work for awhile, attracted by the nine-to-fiveness of it all, but found I absolutely hated it—from the enforced physical stagnation, to the back-stabbing, credit-grabbing, passive aggressive nature of office politics. The more I tried to put my restaurant past behind me, the more it rose up before me as the luminous icon of the only thing I had ever put my hand to that made me happy.
So in 2002 I started my own business. Something I probably should have done a decade or two earlier. But the time was never right, the money was never available. Once again, death changed my life. This time, it was the deaths of my husband’s parents…which provided us with the few extra dollars that made it possible to scrape together my concession business. Scared to death, but with no other real options open, I sallied forth into the world of the small business owner. It’s been a frustrating, enlightening, back-breaking four years. I’ve been able to pick up and dust off some of the scraps of myself that I had thought were irretrievably lost. It’s been a proving ground for me…showing me that I still can do this and I’m still damned good at it.
But the seasonal nature of the business has been at once a godsend and a handicap. Where it’s allowed me to creep forward at the snail’s pace that seems to be all that I can handle, it has also allowed me to be picky and half-assed about the challenges I want to take on. I can back away when I become intimidated by what the next move forward might mean, hit the brakes when I get frightened of putting my heart into yet another doomed effort. I love my little business, but I’ve come to realize that my complete healing lies in the direction of something much larger, much more engaging, and much more challenging.
And there it is, creeping up over the horizon like a late-autumn sunrise. A real restaurant. A roof over my head, a floor under my feet, a full-sized three-compartment sink in the kitchen. A place to go every day, to scheme, to strive, to formulate and refine. Every day. It’s been years since I’ve allowed myself to want anything this much. I want it so bad it hurts. But it’s a good pain…a pain of promise. Not unlike labor pains, I would imagine. This may be the closest I’ll ever come to the privilege of that pain. The pain of wrestling something new and vital into the world.
A snarky whisper in the back of my head mocks me about this. It taunts that what I am actually doing is preparing to lay out what amounts to three years of my dream job’s wages to…buy myself a job. That over the years, I have so trashed myself that I am not fit to be employed by anyone else. That little voice had me going there, for a minute. But I managed to put a sack over its head and conk it with a sledge hammer. Now I’m on my way to drown it in the creek. Because no stinking negative little demon is going to rob me of this opportunity, or tarnish the promise and anticipation. And I refuse to entertain fears that I’m too old, or too rusty, or too timid, or too anything to make this happen. This is my time, for the first time in a long time. And I am going to rise.