The Rule of Three

Just as life appears darkest in the moment before things turn around, the opposite holds true as well. Life appears brightest in the moment before all hell breaks loose. Such was the case in the fall of 2012. I’d been back from China for about two years, and despite the undercurrent of dissatisfaction with my job that I had felt since returning from China, I had no right to complain. My job was good, if not dull, and Tiffany and I enjoyed being back in the Pacific Northwest where we relished the clean air and the endless outdoor activities.

Tiffany and I also celebrated our tenth wedding anniversary that fall, and we did so in style leaving the kids behind with her parents to take a trip to Las Vegas just like the good old days when we were childless and had a lot more energy. Although I’d been back to Vegas in the intervening years, Tiffany hadn’t been back in over seven years, so it was fun rediscovering Sin City with her again. For the first time in six years, we had a vacation all by ourselves. Flying out to keep the kids was by far the best anniversary gift that her parents could have given us.

Despite all that had gone well that year, I was itching to move into a different role at work. I wanted something more akin to my China role, but nothing like that existed at Microsoft’s headquarters at least not at my level. Every role at the HQ was a small link in a long chain. I felt underutilized and disappointed that senior management didn’t see the wealth of experience I had earned in China.

I started searching for another role within the company in earnest that fall and found a potential suitor in one group that desperately needed my skill sets. The group, which had a terrible reputation because of inept leadership, had recently grown in prominence in the company based on the emerging strategic importance of hardware. Close friends at the company had warned me to stay away from this group, but I had successfully waded into unwelcome waters many times before and had come out fine. How could this be any different?

Boy, was it different. It was a complete fiasco, a cluster-fuck of exponential proportions. By three months in, I regretted the change and realized that I had experienced an epic fail in my own judgment. My manager, a clueless, arrogant scat-brain whose own career was failing in slow-motion, was determined to find someone to scapegoat for his own incompetence. He found a willing accomplice in a Machiavellian sidekick, a snotty Brit with a cockney accent that sounded more pernicious than knowledgeable. I hadn’t even been in the role a year before my manager was replaced, but I ended up reporting to the Brit rather than one of the intelligent members of the leadership team.

I felt no sympathy for the prick manager, but I also knew my days would be numbered reporting to the no-good Brit. At that point, I decided that it was time to move on from Microsoft. Not only had the company failed miserably in integrating me back into headquarters, but it had failed to capitalize on the investment it had made in me in China like it had many of its other expatriates who had returned and subsequently left the company. Me, being a fool, had stayed at Microsoft out of a misplaced sense of loyalty, while many of my expatriate colleagues left for much greener pastures. I should have followed them out the door soon after I checked my passport at border control on the final return trip to the U.S.

The disappointing stalemate in my career at Microsoft was but the first of three not-so-good things to happen after that brief high point the previous fall. The old saw proclaims that things come in threes, and in this case, they did, a bunch of no-good, no-how events that would make for the first significant rough period in my life since high school.

As I jousted in the Battle of the Incompetents at Microsoft, a medical checkup on Dad revealed a spot on his pancreas. After weeks of waiting, we received the most unfortunate diagnosis – pancreatic cancer. A biopsy later confirmed that it was malignant, which meant Dad had to begin chemotherapy immediately to halt its progress. Already suffering from ill health due to smoking and his stubborn refusal to do much beyond walking between his bed and the couch, the diagnosis seemed to be the death knell for him.

I was beside myself, perpetually worried that Dad wouldn’t wake up one day. Every time my phone rang and the display showed Danny’s number, I steeled myself for the worst, and for a time, the news seemed to lean the worst possible way, but Dad caught a temporary break when his doctor informed him that he was a candidate for the Whipple procedure, which is an invasive surgery that involves removing a large part of the pancreas and surrounding tissue to eradicate the cancer.

I flew down to Atlanta to be with him when he had the surgery leaving behind the job that I fully loathed. I had already been looking for a job outside Microsoft and decided to target Atlanta in hopes of spending more time with Dad while he battled the cancer. He looked terrible. The chemo had done more harm than good, outwardly-speaking. He looked all of his 71 years and more, hunched over and bedraggled. In order to have the procedure he had to give up smoking, something he’d done for fifty plus years, which made him jumpy and irritable. He barely tolerated being confined to a hospital bed despite the fact that he had confined himself to his own home for much of his retirement.

I felt a sadness in it all. My father’s mortality put my own in sharp relief. This was how it ended, a limp into the final days neither enjoyable or welcome but more time desired in the worst possible way. As I watched him struggle to stay awake in the hospital bed while I sat next to him, I couldn’t help but feel sad for him. His was a life of perpetual struggle, a tragic battle against demons seen and unseen. I wanted him to live longer to make it better. I wanted him to know that he was loved and that he had many things to be thankful for in spite of it all. He said as much, in his own way, in a moment of clarity when we talked and I could see the fear (or was it resignation?) of death in his eyes.

In between his wakeful moments, I reflected on our lives, searching for those treasured moments that meant the most to me, but I couldn’t help but return to the less-than-charitable years when our lives were chaotic and uncertain. I had resented him for those years. I had been relentlessly critical of him for the flaws that made him human, like everyone else, but age and the realization that life can break people in ways I had never imagined had rendered me silent. The most important thing was that I loved my dad, and I didn’t want him to die.

After much painful waiting following the surgery, Dad received good news that the procedure had been largely effective in extracting the cancer, and while he had to continue the chemo for a while to ensure it didn’t come back, he received a clean bill of health for the moment, but the storm clouds had simply moved to the furthest reaches of the horizon. They’d come roaring back later.

Meanwhile, I returned home to Seattle, hopeful but carefully so. My job limped along as I continued my half-hearted search for another role. I had a few interviews, but like dating, I found it difficult to find a good match, so I remained at Microsoft for another year before the third terrible thing came along – a layoff.

Microsoft had fumbled around for the greater part of a decade and lost its way. The Board appointed a new CEO and he proceeded to undo the years of disastrous rambling that had plagued his predecessor including wiping out much of my hapless group. Tens of thousands of people lost their jobs including me. I had other options within the company, but neither were appealing to me, so I decided to take the severance package and walk away in my frustration with the company. I landed another job within a few weeks.

Despite finding another job quickly, the layoff triggered memories of 1979 when Dad had been laid off from his job. The trauma of those years had stuck with me my entire life and will likely follow me to my grave. Those years had broken Dad, destroyed his confidence and clouded his already pessimistic view of life. He had never fully recovered from those years, but I was determined to not let that happen to me. However, for the first time, I understood. I understood how it must have felt for him. I gained an empathy that had been lost on me up until that moment. I could clearly see how life could drag him down from behind and devour him much like a hungry lion poaches a weakened zebra from a fleeing herd. I wanted to tell him that I understood, but why drag up the past when the present was so precious.

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