Bigger than the ocean

He walked into the restaurant looking older than when I had seen him last. He glanced across the room and when he saw me his face lit up. I was happy to see him too. As he approached, I could see the lines on his forehead had become more prominent with each line like a roadmap of what life had challenged him with. And he had his fair share of adversity.

I had seen him when he was winning and I’d seen him defeated. I’d seen him in moments when he seemed invincible. Bigger than the ocean.

And I never saw him use his success as a license to use others, to objectify others, to humiliate others, or to do as he pleased. He understood the importance of being humble and the principle that with great success comes great responsibility.

We both always agreed on one thing. Anything good is hard. Everything else is easy. Cutting corners, ineptitude, and mediocrity are easy. Bad relationships are easy. Everything else is hard.

He told me once if I learned to just stay away from anything easy, I could accomplish great things. He wasn’t totally mistaken.

I guess you could also argue that success is hard and failure is easy. But, both are a part of life and neither are permanent. Someone successful is bound to fail, and someone failing is likely to succeed if they’re willing to do what’s hard. And both success and failure are relative and mean different things to different people.

But, both of us had come to know that success in our line of work was always temporary and mostly illusive. I’ve seen so many successful people lose their ambition, their winner takes all attitude, their desire to always finish first. Doing the hard stuff all the time is unsustainable. As the saying goes, it’s only when a man has nothing left to prove does he become King.

But, my friend was always much more driven than me. And people with that kind of drive aren’t like you and me. They’re on a mission. They’re like researchers trying to discover something without the intention of winning a prize. It is the joy of discovering something no one knew before that drives them. They do what’s truly hard and they can spend a life time of discovery and in the end come up with nothing. And when you hit that dead end you’ve understood your limits. The finite nature of your abilities is in itself a form of discovery.

As my friend sat down, and before a word was spoken, I wondered to myself what a man like this would do at the end of his professional career. After all, that wasn’t so far away now.

With his standard mode of politeness, he immediately asked me how I was and listened intently as to signal he really cared. The waitress came over to ask us if we wanted drinks and all the time focused on him. He has that effect on people. He is someone you notice.

When everything we discussed concerning work was over with, which took hours, I asked him about his family and his wife. He paused. And for the first time I could see some vulnerability in his eyes. I knew his wife and child and wanted to reaffirm that everything was OK.

But, it wasn’t. He explained he had a health scare and it was serious. The more he told me about what he had to contend with the more I could feel his pain.

He told me he had mostly been keeping his wife in the dark about his condition and what challenges they would have to face together. When the truth did come out, he said she seemed to pause when he used the word “together”. He said she rambled about his health for a short period attempting to show concern, but he could sense it wasn’t genuine. Ultimately, he said he asked her if she loved him, if she still loved him. He said, she hesitated and uttered the words, “I don’t know”. He asked her the same question two more times, and her answer repeatedly was, “I don’t know”. I guess maintaining this relationship proved harder than he thought.

He said he’d never known her to be so cruel, wondered if it was something he did, or didn’t do. If there was someone else. But, she was giving nothing away.

And the three words she used, “I don’t know”, for him were devastating. If words could kill, this was proof. She could never find a way to walk these words back either. For years she said that she loved him like no one else and he believed her. Now she “didn’t know”, with the reality being there’s always some knowledge behind those words.

He talked to me thereafter about all the years he’d spent with her, and how ultimately, he was always feeling alone. I asked him if he still loved her, and he said,“yes”. But, the words, “I don’t know”, had shattered everything, they had shattered him.

As for their child, he wasn’t worried about her. His wife was a good mother, he said, it was just him that had become expendable.

Then came the words I thought he would never say. He was tired. Maybe, he said, this was the time to give up on everything and to focus on getting well. He said he just wasn’t interested in boarding one more plane, getting one more promotion, or closing one more deal. A small university town some where far away was likely next for him, and I could see how serious he was about starting over.

He talked to me about exactly what he would be giving up if he changed careers, and how close he is to yet another major career milestone in his current job. He said he knew so many people who gave up just when they were about to achieve the success they had worked for a life time. They quit on the one yard line. They gave up at the last minute of the game when winning was just one deep breath away. Now, he knew why. This was him now. There was nothing he could win in comparison to what he lost.

As he fiddled with his phone, I could see that the picture he kept of his wife and daughter that adorned his screen saver was now gone. Replaced by nothing more than a black display that showed the time. Maybe seeing their pictures, her picture, was replicating the hurt over and over again.

Life had moved so fast, he said, and so quickly. And, when I asked him about how he would feel walking away from the empire he built that he called a career, his answer was muted and somewhat feeble. All he could say was, “I don’t know”, and with those words there was nothing else left for either of us to say.

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© Khaled F. Sherif, 2020

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