chrysalis, noun: a preparatory or transitional state.
Halfway through 2016, I’ve finally decided what this year represents for me: transition. But not just one. Indeed; the first few months could be looked back upon as nothing other than a transition to hell, a waking nightmare that I always feared — or even knew with certainty — would one day come true. Since hitting that rock bottom, I’ve found a new transition underway: a transition to a new phase of life, a new and hopefully healthier outlook. But God has it been a hard road getting here.
It’s been eons since I actually posted anything on this site. For the most part, I had no idea what to say. The other problem was that I didn’t have any time, or at least, no time I actually wanted to spend writing blog posts. I needed just about every spare minute to do things that eased me back from the precipice of wanting to cut and run, throw down and walk away from large parts of my life. So I lost myself in games, my favorite hobby, both the video and tabletop variety. I didn’t want to actually confront anything difficult, or produce anything meaningful like art or the written word, because I was eternally exhausted and my inspiration was suppressed to the point where I was little more than a robot, or the walking dead.
This had been going on for months. Almost two years, actually. As a creative person, I find value in expressing creativity not only in artistic ventures, but in technical ones too — for instance, at my job where I am development manager for a customer’s enterprise software suite. Exploring new ideas or technologies through experimentation is critical to my learning process. But for these past two years, I was in a situation where the customer to whom I reported was absolutely intolerant of experimentation. Breaking anything by accident was a surefire way to get lectured, called up at 5 AM or forced to sit up long into the night to fix any issue, no matter how mundane, that managed to get in front of the end-user. I was scared to death of ordering development on anything unless it was specifically requested. My team ended up taking the fall for all kinds of bullshit that was never within our control, like the multiple occasions on which the customer’s infrastructure failed, their web server’s system drive filled up, or whatever else.
In this atmosphere, I felt completely repressed professionally and had the constant impression that I was actually talentless and useless beyond my role as a cog in a machine. It was infuriating. It also heavily stoked the fires of my Impostor Syndrome, and pretty much convinced me that I really was a worthless hack who had somehow lucked his way into a position of authority and wasn’t fit to make decisions.
In the midst of all this, in March of 2016, my maternal grandmother passed away. As bad as I’ve made my professional life sound, the loss of my grandma was the true nightmare scenario. I’ve had problems coping with shit from time to time in life as we all do, and had a particularly bad experience in high school. Through that time, she was always the one constant: the person who kept me grounded to reality, who helped me work through problems, and kept me from succumbing completely to the worst-case-scenario reality I often created. And now, just as I felt trapped in another of those dark times, she was gone.
Looking back, I knew in the depths of my heart that the day was approaching. Last summer when we stayed with my family during our traditional August vacation, we spent one of several evenings at my grandmother’s house, having a dinner picnic on her back patio, enjoying the warm weather and the wide open expanse of her generous green backyard. When it came time for us to go, we hugged and she shared some encouraging words with me. She knew I had been going through hell at work and, just as she had always done even when I was little, she wanted me to know — and believe — that I would get through it, just as I always ultimately find the strength to push through dark times and into the light. As we drove away from her house, I could barely hold back the tears. Somehow I was struck with the sensation that it would be the last time I would see her there in my rear view mirror, waving at me from the garage door I’d left so many times, in so many different cars, on so many different missions over the past thirty years.
It didn’t happen without warning. When we would talk on the phone, she would sometimes confess that she felt more ill than she’d ever felt in her life. She stopped going out, and soon she stopped seeing even my mother. When my mom finally convinced her to go to the hospital, she — and the rest of us, I think — knew that it was the last time she would leave the home she’d lived in for decades, indeed for as long as I’ve been on this earth.
Although I lived far away from her, I am thankful beyond measure that I was able to make the time to go and be with her before she passed. And I’m also thankful for the fact that she did not spend her final days in a hospital — spending them instead in a lovely hospice care center that, as subtlely depressing as its very purpose is, truly had to be one of the nicest such facilities in existence. Through it all, I was amazed and humbled by how she took everything in stride and was as kind as could be to all of her caregivers, and how she worried primarily about us instead of herself, as she had altruistically done her whole life.
I’m practically embarrassed, because none of us could ever hope to live up to the gold standard of humanity that she embodied. The world is by far a lesser place for not having her in it. You hear people say things like “she was one of the greats.” I’m telling you, that doesn’t even come close.
My mom and I have both been hit incredibly hard by her loss. I don’t really know how to describe it, because it’s an experience that defies being put into words. When you’re the only child of two only children, the loss of a single family member is a huge percentage of the already-miniscule segment of humanity that you feel you can intrinsically trust and know will always be there for you. For years I’ve known this moment would inevitably come, but the mere thought of it would still wake me at night in a cold sweat, or give me a pang of fear every time I’d see an incoming phone call from my mom at an unusual time of day. Is this it? Is it happening? I would wonder. This past winter it finally did.
As often happens, tragedy can often be a catalyst. Sometimes, it catalyzes a fall into despair and further loss. Other times, it can galvanize us, give us the strength to make decisions or implement changes that better our lives. For some weeks after my grandma’s passing, I definitely fell further into disrepair. Having to go back to work for that insufferable customer — whose only condolence for what they knew I was going through was “Sorry for your loss” at the top of an otherwise-ordinary email filled with more orders for me to carry out — was beyond exasperating.
Then came the day when the customer threw away two months’ worth of design, planning and even onsite meetings that I’d flown to attend, saying with a sweep of the pen that we needed to toss all of it and start over, and oh by the way, the deadline was being accelerated. I snapped. I just barely managed to hold my tongue for the rest of the call, then I angrily told my dev lead that I was done, packed up my stuff, got in the car and laid down a pair of molten rubber streaks that led from from my parking spot to the street. At that particular moment, I had no intention of ever going back to that office.
This was the catalyzing moment. It was the moment I realized that I had to change things or I was going to destroy myself. My initial reaction was to quit my job on the spot, because surely living in the gutter couldn’t be worse. Thankfully I didn’t do that — relative thinking while you’re too incensed to even focus your vision is rarely straight thinking. But I was cognizant enough to realize that I needed to take some action, make some positive change.
To make a long story short, I’ve spent the intervening months making that change a priority, and the rewards are already staggering. Not only do I have a new outlook and approach to my work, but to my personal and family life as well. Poetically, my customer’s managing director — the iron fist I had to work under for all these years — resigned without warning just recently, and the transformation since she left has been staggering. Now I actually feel like a contributing member of a team, someone whose ideas might actually hold value. I’m making proactive changes and moving things forward much more quickly than before, because experimentation is no longer suppressed or punished. It feels like my old job again, the job I got into this industry to do. And it’s amazing how two incompatible personalities can totally fuck everything up when they’re forced to work together.
Now I am looking toward the future not with despair — When the hell is this ever going to get better? I used to wonder — but with hope. And I realize that I am in control of a great many of the things I strive for: not my employer, not pure chance. While fate can kick your feet out from under you, I’ve decided I’m no longer going to spend my whole life curled up in a corner to try and lessen the impact of such an event. Instead, I’m going to take things, things I’ve worked hard for and that I damn well deserve, because I’ve gotten a very close look at what happens when life comes to an end. One of the most horrible things I can imagine is arriving at that point and suddenly realizing in a panic that you left so much undone and unsaid, because there is no time left to fix it anymore.
This newfound confidence will undoubtedly make me better at my job, but it will also bring me better times in other aspect of my life as well. I’m through convincing myself that I’m deservedly downtrodden and that my dreams don’t matter. I’m old enough now to realize that it’s a colossal waste of time and effort trying to make sure the whole world is happy with you. You’re never going to be able to please everyone, so it’s time to stop giving a fuck about those you can’t. Focus on the people who really matter to you, and to whom you really matter. They’re the ones who count, because they’re the ones who will be sitting by your side when the time comes to say your goodbyes.
We’ll be going back home to see my parents again this August, just as we’ve always done, except this time there will be a gaping hole in my family, one that can never be filled. If my grandmother’s house hasn’t yet been sold by then, perhaps I might have one last opportunity to go and stand in the backyard, look out on that half-acre of lush grass and trees through which I once drove my little Honda FourTrax 70, on which sat generations of sports cars that my mom, dad and grandfather all washed and waxed together, before which we enjoyed so many home-cooked meals the likes of which we’ll never taste again. But we have our memories, and we’re lucky as hell that almost all of them are such fond ones. My grandmother’s house was always a place of refuge for me, a place where I knew there was somebody who would understand what I was going through and know exactly what to say to me at any given moment — usually accompanied by a piece of homemade pie or something else comforting. It sounds incredibly like white picket fence tripe to say this, but damned if it wasn’t true. It was always true.
I’ve always tried to avoid boasting or showing off the fact that my grandma and grandpa had a fair bit of money back in the day, largely owing to his business and deft trades of stock. Since we all grew up in Detroit, car culture was steeped in all of us, and both of my grandparents had a long history of buying cool cars for their descendants (which is less difficult when your family is as small as mine). Everything from my mom’s first car — a Mulsanne Blue Chevy Nova — to the matching ’98 Trans Am WS6es that my dad and I got when I graduated high school, was provided with love from either my maternal grandfather or grandmother. As if by tradition, during one of our last conversations while she was in the hospital, my grandma expressed her desire to buy me another car, one last time, so my dad and I could once more having matching muscle cars (he recently leased a 2016 Charger Scat Pack). Although by this time she no longer had the cash available to make such a purchase, I nearly wept at the gesture alone. As I said: to the end, she thought only of those she loved, almost to a fault.
She’ll never see my next car, whatever it may be, but although she can’t pick up the tab the way she would have wanted, I’m at a point in my life now where I can afford to buy that car. And although I’ll have to take out a loan for it like most people would, in my mind that doesn’t in any way prevent me from honoring her legacy with one more awesome ride: a Mopar muscle machine that matches my dad’s. As it happens, my dad’s health hasn’t been great in the last few years either, and God knows how much time even he and I have left to get our cars together, go to car cruises or even hang out together. As I alluded to before, the loss of a loved one has a way of putting everything in perspective, even things you’ve taken for granted since the day you were born. Nothing in life is certain.
Cherishing the memory of a loved one with a car of all things probably sounds like very base tripe to some. I guess if you didn’t grow up in America, in the shadow of the Motor City itself, then you may not understand. I don’t expect you to. But everyone in my family — the women included — live and breathe cars. They’re not just transportation appliances and never will be, even if tech companies and governments want to get us out of the business of driving and into self-propelled computer conveyances as soon as possible. On the cusp as we are of such sweeping changes in our mobility in the United States, and fast approaching the end of the second and possibly final coming of the American muscle car, I see before me a whole lot of paths intersecting in one giant dead-end sign. With my 2006 GTO getting long in the tooth, model year 2017 will be my last opportunity to purchase new the kind of pure-blood American V8 that for my entire life has been my pinnacle of automotive perfection.
The moment is soon approaching when I’ll live that dream again, perhaps for the final time. When my dad and I will bring our cars together, nose to nose, as we did in 1998 and again in 2013, each time shooting photos worthy of time capsules, snapshots of history that come only once in a lifetime. And this time we’ll gather in memory of my grandmother, the one person in the world whose love and grace truly knew no bounds. We are all flawed in comparison, just people trying our best to live up to her example.
Above all else — at times, even her own health and sanity — she only ever wanted us to be happy. Through her gentle encouragement, she reminded us that we were responsible for that happiness. And while she could (and often did) help us achieve it, it was ultimately up to us to reach for those times, places, things and experiences that would get us there.
I’m going to get myself there this time, Grandma. I’m sorry I won’t be able to share my successes with you in person as I have always done before, but I’ll be thinking of you — and thanking you for everything — the whole way, for as long as I have left to live.
My transition continues, but this time, for the first time in a long while, I can see the light at the end of the tunnel.