It has been three years since I left The Sun, since I started on a journey for which there was no defined path. It has led to BaltimoreBaseball.com and Athletes Serving Athletes, but first it led to a friendship that was a gift. I wanted to share that gift, and a story I wrote about it, as we approach a new year. It reminded me that we’re not in control and that we should pursue our passions while striving to encourage and to serve because that is when we find meaning and purpose.
The separation packages weren’t new. They had been coming on a regular basis as the company tried to offset declining revenues with buyout offers attractive enough to reduce the expense of employees. In the past, they had merely provoked wishful thinking on my part. But this one was different. The year’s salary and benefits would take me to 65. My wife, Barb, suggested we take a closer look with the help of a financial adviser. He told me what I was hoping to hear: Retirement would begin the day before Christmas Eve.
What shape it would take, however, was unclear. That was still true after my next-door neighbor, Derek, told me that his father, Bob, would be staying with him and his wife, Carrie, while receiving cancer treatment at Johns Hopkins. I didn’t see how the two events would dovetail.
I also lacked a plan for retirement. After it started, my brother-in-law Chuck playfully asked, “Have you done anything yet?” It felt good to say I hadn’t, but it also made me wonder about my purpose in retirement. In 46 years of work, the daily road map was clearly defined. Now I would be the one creating it. Or at least I thought I would be.
Bob left his home in Massena, New York, and moved in next-door about a month later. Our friendship started with light conversation over morning coffee and grew deeper as winter gave way to spring, followed by the heat of summer. Running parallel was a diagnosis of Stage-4 lung cancer that yielded to signs of hope, followed by a grim reality. The cancer might have served as symbolism for how some see retirement, as a time when our days are growing shorter. But Bob was all about living, and still wanting to help others.
He shared a story about how he once helped an elderly woman whose car wouldn’t start. He told her he was going to go underneath the car to give a tap to the starter, and made her promise not to move the car if it started because he would still be under it. He got it to start, and she followed his order — not moving the car until he had climbed out from underneath. “Then, she just drove away,” he said, smiling at the memory. “She never said a word.”
Bob had been a mechanic, but he was unable to prevent his once-powerful body from breaking down. He realized something was wrong when he started to get short of breath on daily walks. Now, as Memorial Day approached, he was having trouble breathing and eating, and his back hurt because of a crack in it.
Still, he wanted to go to Home Depot to buy a power washer for Derek and Carrie to express his gratitude. Barb and I took Bob to the Cockeysville store so he could purchase the gift. Once we found the one he wanted, I told him we weren’t finished, that Barb always wanted to look at just one more thing. She didn’t disappoint, using those words as she pulled out her list. Later, Barb suggested that we buy Bob a Columbo T-shirt, one with the TV detective’s signature phrase, “Just One More Thing.”
Bob and I did many things together before the cancer got worse. On a visit to Beaumont Pottery, it didn’t take long for Jerry Beaumont and Bob to discover that they had spent part of their youth in the same Long Island town. It was as if two old friends were getting together as they discussed names and places. On a return visit, Bob was drawn to the sound of chimes outside their store. When he asked their cost, Jerry said they weren’t for sale because they were a gift to his wife, Janet, after her mom died. Janet overheard the conversation and told Bob she wanted him to have the chimes. The next time I visited their shop, to tell them Bob’s condition was grave, Janet asked me to wait while she got something from her house. She came back with a framed cross-stitch picture with the words, “It Is Well With My Soul.”
Bob said he didn’t consider himself religious but that it had been good to be around “spiritual people.” It occurred to me that Bob could see the effect others were having on him but not the effect he was having on them.
That became more evident on a Sunday in late July, when Derek called to say his dad was in a better place. I knew Bob’s pain was over and that now we would be the ones hurting. Barb, our daughter Karalin and I talked about the last trip we took with Bob, to Frisky’s animal rescue with two ailing fawns we heard crying for help in the woods near our house. There was the guidance he had given my sister, Colleen, and her husband, Chuck, when they were searching for a new car. And the suggestion to Prigel creamery that it add some padded chairs because Bob’s natural padding had disappeared with the weight he had lost.
I’m still finding my way in retirement, but so far it hasn’t been primarily about me. Starting with Bob, or maybe because of Bob, it has been more about others. And recognizing how precious each day is. That might have something to do with the realization that there are fewer chapters to go in my story, but I think it’s about something more. I think it’s about learning to have joy amid the sorrow, and being grateful for all we encounter along the journey.
I have a picture of Bob sitting on a bench at Home Depot. He is smiling beneath his thick mustache and is wearing a baseball cap, shades, jeans and his Columbo T-shirt. If I could tell him just one more thing, it would be — thank you for helping me see how to live, and how to die.
Jack Gibbons spent 46 years in sports journalism, including a chunk of that time as sports editor of The Baltimore Sun. Now retired from full-time work, Jack serves as the lead editor and writer for BaltimoreBaseball.com’s “Calling the Pen,” a periodic feature that highlights baseball essays written by the community. If you would like to contribute to ‘Calling the Pen,” send a 750-1,200-word, original piece via email to [email protected] for consideration.