The “good run” we had while we had it and what it means to have it “good.”
In short, you run a team hard.
No. It’s more than that.
You are fortunate enough to work with an incredible team – who wants to run hard – and, overall, you just let them. You clear obstacles, protect them from attacks, and urge them on when their confidence or their will wavers. You get a good feel for how much they want to be asked, and then you run them against that. You learn their level of love, and you press on when it falters.
And here’s a bit how that day to day looks:
They endure for the sake of the goal and you endure for them. You take blows. And doing so feels easy – obvious – because you are all – all of you are – in this and you want to see it through.
And here’s how that day to day ends:
Suddenly, things put on the team become too much. The truly impossible is asked of you – it is not a task that seems unsurmountable and yet challenges the team’s passion, but rather a wave of toxicity that washes out their passion altogether.
The team takes a hit you can’t protect them from, and suddenly you know within an instant that too much is being asked of them; too much is stripped away. And it’s obvious that it’s impossible to carry on.
And just like that it’s all over.
And in that moment – the moment of reaction, after the moment of realization – the only thing you do (the obvious thing in its “only-ness”) is to slow it all down and turn your attention inwards; to pull up, pull out, and salvage what’s left of their spirit.
It ended with a conference call.
We didn’t fully realize when we were on the call that that was where it would end.
Frankly, it had all “been ending” for a while and we all knew it – had all been watching the approaching horizon, the tiny traces of that far-off fuzzy place where, we could see, the rivers dried up and living things were strung out in the sun.
So although the call was a bad one – we had known that much, of course, while we were on it – it was, in and of itself at the time, arguably no worse than the usual. It was the same mixture of bullshit and toxicity and political power-play challenge we’d already faced more times than we bothered to count (never bothering to count not because we didn’t care, but because we cared too damn much to do so.)
And all that really needs to be said about it is: by the end of the day on the day that it happened, it was apparent that that call had been the end of it all.
It was by then – by the end of the day – obvious that it was much heavier than we had initially realized. And heavy enough that we didn’t have to let on. That it would always be the moment where things had come undone.
Those of us it mattered to were there; those of us who weren’t there could never understand.
And of those of who knew – who were there; the team at large – there were two of us who led it. There was a whole team in the trenches; two of us at the front line. All of us had endured that call, but it was only the two of us were in a real place to pull up following it.
To pull up: in horse racing, when the jockey makes the decision to withdraw the horse from the race during the race itself by deliberately slowing down. Most of the time, it is because of injury – when the jockey sees a critical problem and knows that allowing the horse to continue in the race would very well cause further injury; when pulling up is a precaution to prevent further hardship. The jockey slows and eventually stops the horse in the middle of the race and does not allow him/her to continue. It is always done in the best interest of the horse; done for the sake of horse’s wellbeing. And many horses have been saved because the jockey salvaged him in this way.
The aftermath of an ending.
So I think we woke up the next morning knowing.
I know both of us considered not going in. Both of us knew that we would.
“Good morning.” I’d messaged before leaving my place, though I rarely ever did.
“Morn’,” he’d replied.
And then I said nothing. It perhaps warranted a follow-up, but I didn’t offer one.
And he had said nothing in turn.
Both us knew what it was. And what to do.
We met each other there like any other day, and yet this day was different.
He walked in during our morning scrum call, as he so often did.
And before I could confirm our dispositions, I saw the sweater – something somber; something gray; something that all but matched my own – and messaged him, feigning play.
“Oh good.” I said. “You got the memo.”
It’s stupid, the sweater thing. It doesn’t mean anything.
All it was was that it was the first day that he had busted out the serious winter sweaters – a thick wool number, maybe cabled; I don’t recall – and, more importantly, the first day I had as well. Both of us wearing a dark shade of gray. Both of us also in dark pants. The first day for both of us, wearing these sweaters; these dark colors. Both of us on a day set to hit 70’s; a day when the morning commute alone had reached 62.
He read it – I saw him – but he didn’t reply. He only stood, leaning against the wall, neither looking at me nor looking away; looking ahead, at the room, focused but quiet, wearing an unfamiliar energy. Neither listless nor buoyant (those are him.) Just a solidity. A certainty.
And that was the moment that I knew for sure that he knew. Knew, just like that, that we had both seen the end on that call the day before. Knew we together would pull up the team. And be done.
We had had our discrepancies in focus over this era and had not always been aligned, but here at the end, we were on the same page again – knew without saying that this, right here, was a moment already beyond. And that we were here simply because we’d agreed without having to agree: One last time, we’d show up and see each other through to the end. This day was an acquiescence. And, more importantly: a mourning. All our own. For the end of our own good run. A forfeit for the sake of the team.
We didn’t mention it. Not at first. The day picked up as it typically does:
“I need to talk to so-and-so.”
“Yeah, I need to follow up on such-and-such.”
And we each went on about our morning.
And then, hours later:
He knew where. It was always the same, every day.
“The grocery store.”
And so we went. As we always do.
We eat in silence for a bit.
It’s him who says it. Suddenly. To an outsider, it would have seemed out of the blue.
“We’ll want to let them know.”
“I know.” I nod. “So-and-so is out. I’ll talk to everyone tomorrow.”
I message our account executive. Set down my phone. We continue eating.
And it was almost entirely that simple; that straightforward. We went on in silence, holding our palms pressed to the neck of the team, tapering speed, quietly evaluating the damage. We ease up; collect the energy and gather it up in a sling; ease off and take on the weight. There is an obvious paining here. I don’t think it will endure forever, but it’s enough to leave the track.
I know we’re both listening to the windedness; feeling the strain of each breath as our own. We’re leaving the track; our hands running down on the legs, desperate not to find signs of distress. There’s a pain in the chest mirroring the pain in the team; there’s nothing we can do now but hope for the best, our backs to the track.
“Remember that one time we bought a nice bottle of champagne right after we successfully delivered the first time?”
When we had delivered on the first big thing – the only big thing; the first and the last; the whole point of this whole thing and the thing that kept it all tied together this long – I had picked up a really nice bottle of champagne for the three of us that were there then – he and I and another – and we drank to our success at one of our apartments.
And now, this much later, in this context – sitting amidst the smoldering heap of what was once our domain, perched on some smoking remnants – I realize suddenly that I want to do it again – one more time – a bottle of too-nice champagne; a stoic and hearty toasting to this place that was once our own.
“I am in a mind to go buy a similarly ludicrously expensive bottle of champagne and toast to… all of this. Right now – at 12:15 pm. That’s my mindset.”
He says nothing.
“I want to go sit perched somewhere… some place overlooking all of this; a place to see it all but not be seen – a place that doesn’t really exist. A highway overpass… a parking lot would do.”
And we know without defining specifics that when we get back, we’ll both wrap up; pack up; head out. From there, I’ll grab the bottle; we’ll find each other in a parking lot, and I’ll pull the champagne from a paper bag; hand it to him to open; he will; and I’ll pull out two stacked paper cups from the grocery store coffee bar – they’re branded with the same grocery store name on the side. And he’ll pour them halfway full with champagne.
We each hold our cup into the air in between us. There’s no forcing this. It’s a thing without asking it to be a thing. We’re both present, in full.
An appropriate pause. And then I offer the obvious – the boastful; the benign:
“To all of this.” I pause, then add: “It was a good fucking run.”
We take a drink. Or maybe just I drink. I don’t watch to see if he does.
And we review it all a bit.
Lessons learned. Peaks. And then we bullshit; laugh a little. It’s appropriately retrospective; appropriately both heavy and light. We finish the first cups; refill them again; finish those.
“Finish up what’s left, okay?” I mean the project. I’m obligated to play PM to the end here.
Of course he knows. He’ll play his part, too, to the end. In the ashes.
“At least we have other things to go to.” He says, because he really is quite the optimist when he’s “on.”
I laugh. “You have other things to go to. I don’t.”
We both know that this is true – I am bound to this, lashed to it. And we both know that the captain will, in a way, go down with the ship here – at least until another project comes up. That I will stand in the rain replaying the race even long after the horse is safely put up in a stall; I will carry this on until it’s exhausted into the soil.
“I have to go.” He said. He has a call.
“Mm hm. I know.”
“You okay to ride?” He asks, as he pulls his keys from his pocket.
This. From the guy I had met on a steel-wired tight-rope, charged with an impossible timeline for getting across. The guy I had grown to know when we had done just that, leaning against and then away from each other, working our way across it only by taking each other’s wrists and making a commitment to trust – wholly trust – and lean back, away from the wire.
This, from the guy on the tightrope. This, after a year and a half. We had navigated ships through jutting rocks in pitch black together. We had moved boulders together; dislodged brick walls and buildings together; charged headfirst into fires together; traipsed through fields of barbed wire together, blood going unfelt and ignored at the fronts of our legs. And, hell yeah, we had led that team. Run the team. Protected the team. Done right by the team. Gave our all to the team. To the bitter end.
And here, now, at the end of it all, here is him asking me if I was okay to ride home.
“Yeah.” I said. “I’ll be okay.”
Okay. This was, of course, the word for it.
I used to tell the team that everything would be okay.
Now, I no longer will.
Not because everything isn’t or won’t be. “It” – the “it-ness” of a much bigger picture – it will, in a much different way.
But “everything” will no longer be okay in the way I once meant it (and I always, always meant it with all matter of sincerity, when I did) because there is no longer an “anything,” let alone a question of everything. Not in the way that “it” was.
We all know this.
And so, because there’s nothing more to say – nothing that has to be said – we say nothing.
Just the hug. The sincere one.
“We did good.” He says.
“Yeah. We did. Better than they’ll probably ever realize.”
He eyes my nearly-empty paper cup.
“You want me to take that?”
“I’ll finish it.”
And then he’s in his car, driving away.
And I’ll be riding away too, soon.
I look down at the rest of the Veuve in the bottom of the paper cup. And then I finish it.
Me, drinking the last of my champagne from my wilting paper cup; me looking at the remnants in the bottom before tilting back – I had expected to finish in two sips; I finished in one – as I look off at the bare brick facade of a building now gone in front of me.
And then there’s that familiar thing, at the corner of the eyes. Crying but not crying – a gathering of emotion without real display. I am only finishing the rest of this drink and here’s this reaction; a thing that simply happens, neither provoked nor pushed down.
Because I can feel the real pain coming up through the legs of a horse who ran hard. I can feel the heat and the damage of a team that gave it their all and perhaps gave too much, and through this pain, I want to believe that I let them run right; pushed against love right; willed for their will right; and, yeah, pulled up in time right. I want to believe I did right by them and our hardship. And that all of it was as worthwhile as it seemed.
I fold the cup – gently, conscientiously; this is not an act of crushing – and put it into my bag; take out my phone and tap out a message in closing:
It doesn’t even have to be said.
It could never be said enough.
“Ditto,” he replies, from the road.
[There’s more to the way things end, of course. There is the subsequent rationalization; the way that we can choose to interpret an ending with more understanding; and really, even more love. Read Part II – The Other Side of An Ending.]