Unfinished Business

After losing his job, a baby boomer devotes a year to trying to do the right things

By Lee Kravitz

[photo bookcover align=right]This essay is adapted from the new book Unfinished Business by Lee Kravitz (Bloomsbury), in which the former editor-in-chief of Parade magazine spent an extraordinary year trying to make amends and "do the right things" after the loss of his job.

For over a year, things had been going downhill at work. I loved my job and I had assumed that I would be working there the rest of my life, but a rift had opened up between me and my boss. It was hard to pinpoint what had gone wrong, but unless things changed, either he would fire me or I would need to quit.

On the last Sunday in September, my wife Elizabeth and I were looking out across the lake, watching a flock of Canada geese lift from the water and set their sights south.

I said, "I'm dreading going to work tomorrow."

"I know," she said, putting her hand over mine. "Maybe it's time to leave."

The next morning, an executive of the company told me that I no longer had a job. I thought he was joking. But it wasn't a joke; I had been fired. I felt humiliated. My father had lost his job when I was a teenager and no one in our family got any closer, wiser, or more giving as a result of his being unemployed. Instead, the loss of his job ushered in years of worry and fear. Now I was the one who had failed my family. How could I explain to my three young children that their father who worked all the time didn't work anymore? How could I protect them from everything that had confused and scared me when my own dad lost his job?

"I know how badly you're feeling," Elizabeth told me. "But in a few days you'll realize that this is the best thing that could have happened to you." I hoped she was right.

At first I tried to make up for lost time. I took the kids to school, saw all of their ball games, and helped them with their homework. I made plans to work out, lose weight, and lower my blood pressure.

Within weeks, though, I began feeling nervous and self-conscious about not working. I thought about it constantly. Because I had never anticipated being in this position, I had given no thought to what I might do next in my life.

What Comes Next?

For years Elizabeth had been telling me, "You're never there for me," and I wasn't. Even when I was home, I was thinking about work. Did I appreciate the fact that Elizabeth did 80 percent of the childrearing and even more of the chores? Of course not. I had too much work to do.

The worst part of being so focused on my work was the relationship it kept me from having with my children. Benjamin said he was afraid to approach me, and his twin sister Caroline told the babysitter, "Daddy never smiles." They were almost 11 and beginning to pull away.

[bluebox BUSINESS]In my 20 years in corporate America, I was seldom told to work less. You did not get promoted for being a good husband, father, or friend, for volunteering for the local school board, or for taking time off, even when you had earned it. You got ahead by being an employee who worked day and night and put his job first.

Now I was a 54-year-old magazine editor in an industry that was hemorrhaging jobs. With Elizabeth's income and my severance pay, we could get by for maybe a year. I could spend that year learning new skills with which to reenter the job market. Or I could spend it making myself a happier person, with richer friendships and a far better sense of who I was and what genuinely mattered to me. That's what I really wanted to do, but how and where would I begin?

A Life, in 10 Boxes

The answer came by accident in the form of 10 cardboard boxes that had been sent to our country house from my old workplace. The boxes had spent the last 13 years in a closet there, and they contained everything I had saved from the previous four decades of my life.

I gave myself a week in the country to sort through the boxes and organize the accumulated stuff of my life. Elizabeth and the kids were in the city, so I had the run of the house and room to spread things out. It would be a considerable undertaking but not without its own pleasures.

After opening the first few boxes, I realized how impatient I must have been when I packed them: Files of notes and essays from college shared the same box as a giant map of Central America and my bronzed baby shoes. My letter jacket from high school covered memorabilia I had collected at the 1992 Republican and Democratic conventions.

But what struck me most was how the different objects reflected parts of myself I had suppressed or forgotten. The machete I used when I harvested bananas on a kibbutz in Israel reminded me of the thirst I once had for adventure. A barely decipherable dream journal brought back a year when I was so poor and scared for my future that I couldn't sleep at night but got by with a little help from my friends.

Life goes fast. Click. You are 15. Click, click. You are 55. Click, click. You are gone. And so are the people who loved and nurtured you.

I found a photo of one of the few times in 25 years that my brothers and I gathered at the same place at the same time with our wives and children. Why didn't we get together more often? Busy working, the family disease.

Encountering the past this way — all at once and out of chronology and context — disrupted my everyday sense of things and even of my self. When I closed my eyes, I found myself re-experiencing a footrace I'd almost won, my Bar Mitzvah speech, and the summer of 1969, when I helped pitch my sandlot team to the state championship.

That game had taken place on a hot summer day before a crowd that included major league scouts, small-time gamblers, and sun-tanned teenage girls. As I lay awake, I thought about Andre, our right fielder, who was a superb athlete and an even better human being. Although I hadn't seen him since that long-ago summer, I had recently seen a photo of his daughter in the New York Times. She had been ambushed and killed on a peace mission to Iraq. Putting myself in Andre's place, I had cried and cried. Somehow, I still hadn't written my old teammate to tell him how sorry I was for his loss.

Other realizations of what I should have done, but didn't, came to mind and kept me from finding sleep.

Earlier, I had listened to an interview with my nana Shirley in the late 1970s. Hearing my grandmother tell her old stories in her familiar Yiddish made me smile and miss her terribly. But now I remembered that I had skipped her funeral because I had so much work to do the week she died.

The moonlight streamed through the curtains and lit up my bedroom. I remembered a trip I had once made to a refugee camp in northern Kenya. The camp was hot and dusty and housed more than 32,000 children who had been uprooted from their homes by the tribal wars in neighboring Somali. Most of those children would never see their parents again, and yet they clung to the idea of a better life. I met one boy who wanted me to tell him everything I could about America because he dreamed of going there someday. He showed me a musty textbook he'd been reading to improve his English. It was from the days when Kenya was still a colony of the British Empire. I told him that I would fill the camp's library with new books, ones he would like.

"That's what everyone says," he said, shrugging his shoulders as if to indicate that I probably wouldn't.

I hadn't, and I hadn't let it trouble me for years.

A Plan Takes Shape

The boxes contained evidence of my unfinished business. For a variety of reasons – my self-involvement, my hurry to get ahead, a sense that I would get to them later – I had neglected matters of great consequence. In the process, I had hurt the people closest to me and fed the fear and compulsion that had kept me chained to my job.

[poll]Yet no one could prosecute me for missing my grandmother's funeral or failing to keep a promise to a child — no one, except me.

I made a plan: Instead of rushing out to find a job, I would devote an entire year to tying up my loose emotional ends. One of the biggest urges I felt was to make amends. It was the most human of impulses and one that most religions put at the center of their promises of forgiveness and heaven.

Did I have that much courage and discipline? That was what I wondered as I compiled my list of unfinished business.

I should have made a condolence call to Andre and gone to my grandmother's funeral and kept my promise to the boy in Kenya and done a thousand other things that I failed to do. As I compiled my list, I knew why each of these items was important to me. But it took months for me to understand the underlying patterns that had made each of them so difficult for me to address.

If I had gone to my grandmother's funeral, I would have had to face the reality of my messed-up family. Writing the condolence card to Andre brought fears of my own daughter's death. The boy in the refugee camp represented the suffering of all the world's children to me, and my limited ability to help.

The items on my list of unfinished business were linked to my deepest feelings of helplessness, disappointment, and fear. It's ironic: We consign our most essential business to the bottom of our to-do-list because we lack the time and energy to do the things that matter most in our lives well. It makes sense: The most important things take the most time and energy and we have only so much time and energy in a day. You let things slide. But I would also discover the corollary to this in the coming months: that, if one can attend to these things, great rewards will follow. Having jumped in, I would find myself in a place of rich, exuberant humanity.

Read more extraordinary memoirs from Roger Rosenblatt, Anne RoipheMike Wallace, and Naomi Judd.

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