I was the last in the company to know that the axe was about to fall. Everyone had been briefed, except me. All plans were tentatively in place. Conversations suddenly stopped when I walked into a huddled gathering of my colleagues. Even the small talk became, well, small. Eye contact, now a rare commodity, was replaced by wistful looks, often misinterpreted. Had I been more astute, more honest, I would have picked up the warning signs months before. I would have seen the sympathy in the looks, more importantly I would have understood that many were living in fear. Fear for their own circumstances.
When you have surrendered more than two decades of your working life to corporate comfort and safety, it is all too frightening to face the truth. More than simple security, I was about to lose all my ambitions, my hopes and all I wanted from a working life.
The board meeting had gone well. We had planned strategies, the chairman made notes, nodding and smiling throughout. Lunch was ordered in, and all through the afternoon we plotted and planned around the boardroom table. We saw the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, all we had to do was go and get it. We knew what we wanted, and this was a meeting of strategy. No blue-sky gazing.
Afterwards the chairman folded his notes and said he had an important announcement. It was a warm summer’s afternoon. Our offices were in a garden park, and one could hear the birds busying themselves as they put themselves and their families to bed. The evening was setting in and a warm breeze blew through the window and carried with it the evening scents of the Highveld.
It was suddenly quiet, and I watched the chairman compose himself for the big moment. “There will have to be a general retrenchment. As from Monday everybody in the company will have to go. We are closing you down. I am sorry.”
The silence that followed could have lasted a second, a minute … an hour. I am not sure. One thing that did remain were the feelings. My back went cold; my thoughts went into neutral, and time stood still. I do not remember what the chairman said next. I do remember driving home in a daze. Peak-hour traffic, but I might as well have been driving on an empty road. My life had shrunk and closed up into a cocoon, about the size of the car.
I was dazed. During the next two days I swept my driveway. I somehow had to tell my family. I needed their support. I had the weekend, but what was I to do on Monday morning? Pretend that I was going to work? Not an option. How was I going to explain this to my young children, not yet in their teens?
I chose dinnertime to break the news. How do I explain that all I have ever worked for and all of my ambitions have been taken away? How do I explain hardship? We may lose our house, and a life we have become accustomed to.
I wanted to tell them of my anger, and I wanted them to understand my fear. How to do this? I feared the loss of their respect, even their love. I felt that I had failed them. I drew a deep breath and began. I had to deal with my dwindling self-esteem. I had been rejected by the corporate pile. I looked into expectant faces: “I hope that you won’t reject me too.”
I told them in the simplest and most truthful way. All listened quietly. For the first time, this young family, my family, found new dimensions. There was silence when I needed to pause and reflect. I was still afraid, but I knew that we had a future because of the love and unity at that table.
My youngest daughter, Bronwyn, broke that silence. “Dad, I was at the shopping centre today, and outside Smiley Blue there was a sign on the window that said they wanted a shop assistant. I know you could do that job, Dad. Go down tomorrow and ask them for the job.”
I reflected on what Bronwyn had said. Something powerful was beginning to stir within me. I could not articulate it then, but I knew she was right about something. At four the next morning Kay was pacing the floor and fretting. “What are we going to do? We have two children to educate, a huge bond on this house, and our cars are not even paid for. What will happen to us?” I lay awake too, but I knew a way forward.
I drew on the power that my youngest daughter had displayed at the dinner table. “Sit down, Kay. Stop your worrying, it’s futile.”
Easy words to be sure, but for the next hour I explained what was going on in my mind. “Worry is the enemy, worry is debilitating. We can consume ourselves, expend energy and yet, sadly, nothing will have changed. Worry is wasteful. You can spend ten percent of your time on worry, for that is normal and natural. The rest of the time, the ninety percent, you work with me here. We will build a future and we will survive, that is my promise to you.”
We held each other in that cool dawn, and watched the sun rise. I felt afraid of the future, which was the honest truth. But I would proceed with the mind of a distance runner. One step at a time, I would run this race