I’ve grown accustomed to the tune that
She whistles night and noon.
Her smiles, her frowns,
Her ups, her downs
Are second nature to me now;
Like breathing out and breathing in.
“My Fair Lady”
The popularity of TV shows like “The Office” are easy to understand when you spend much of your life in the office. Offices are mini communities, except you see largely the same faces every day. Most of us spend much more time with coworkers than with our spouses, our children or even our pets. Unlike the latter, you don’t usually choose your coworkers. You can’t vote them off the island. You just make the best of them and hope they are not too toxic.
Occasionally you are blessed with someone singularly unique to hang around with for a decade or so. For nine years I have been blessed to have my boss Susan three doors down the hall. Today we said nice things about her, ate cake, drank punch, gave her presents and plaques, and basically said goodbye. For Susan is out the door tomorrow. She is retiring from the federal government after a career of thirty years, ten of them in her demanding managerial position. Like Captain Hornblower she has been directing our ship adroitly. But unlike the taciturn Hornblower, she has done it with smiles, intelligence, wit, laughter, great dedication, tenacity and millions of emails and text messages. How she made it that long without psychiatric assistance is a mystery; how she bore up so well under the stress of it all an even larger one. Unsurprisingly, she had more than her fill of it. Like others I have known with her responsibilities, the moment they are eligible for retirement they are out the door. I cannot blame her.
Susan is (was) an awesome boss, human being, manager and general person. This would not be obvious to anyone unless you observe him or her day after day. You see the crap they are given, the politics they are embroiled in, the money they must adroitly manage and the thousands of regulations they must adhere to and you wonder how anyone could possibly do it successfully. Her GS-15 salary was very good, but not nearly enough to adequately compensate her for the multidimensional problems thrown at her by the complexity of her job.
People at her level that I observed in the past had certain attributes. First, they were generally promoted to their optimized level of incompetence. Second, they came burdened with inflated egos. In short, power tended to corrupt them and make them ineffectual. It was just the opposite with Susan. Her competence was beyond dispute. As for an ego, she had none that I could detect. She was grounded, realistic, pragmatic and empowering. She saw herself as one of the guys. She rarely issued orders. Rather she spent most of her time closely listening. She saw her job as giving people like me the resources we needed to excel. She fought for those resources tenaciously day after day. How could we not give her our best in return? I certainly gave her mine, or aspired to do so when my human limitations encroached.
She is all this and just delightfully fun to be around. I am one of many of people in the office who frequently go home to difficult family situations. Susan was almost always sunny. She hummed in part to let you know she was coming to see you. She laughed a lot. She drew you into intimacy by sharing juicy bits of gossip.
She is also incredibly brilliant and incredibly perceptive. I don’t know how I know since I keep my cards pretty close to my chest for the most part. But somehow I know that she knows who I am inside better than any person I know, including my spouse. And it’s all cool. She sees the warts and pimples but chooses to focus only on someone’s positive aspects. Mostly, she is filled with honest mirth. She is someone who in spite of her stressful job has this ability to be happy almost all the time.
She also hired me, for which I am eternally grateful, in part because I got to know her as a result. She brought me into an organization that let me use my talents to their fullest extent. She allowed me to make major changes to the system that I manage, and take it into whole new directions that have proven very successful. She cajoled her management to support me and played a sophisticated ground game to make sure the resources I needed were there. She saw me through a few personal crises and coached me through various issues with people on my team. She channeled not just excellence on the job but modeled how to live a happy and successful life.
Come Monday when I return to work though her office will be vacant, her pictures off the walls, her name off the door, her email accounts removed and her electronic accesses taken away. There will be no daily sunny presence with a smile on her face humming in the hallways. There will be no one with quite her wit and style to banter with. Work will feel more like work and less like fun.
I’m sure we’ll keep in touch, send each other the occasional personal email, see each other at sporadic functions like holiday parties, but of course it won’t be the same. She has moved on and so must I. All relationships must end, or at least change to be a shadow of their former self. But god, I will miss having her around. Like Professor Henry Higgins with Eliza Doolittle, I find that I’ve grown accustomed to her face.