It was supposed to be a happy occasion, and for most of the attendees, it was. A colleague of mine was retiring after decades of productive contributions to the field. It seemed the whole department was there, taking a break from the day to wish Paul a happy retirement. There were catered meats, cheeses, fruits and punch. And a large cake with a big “401(C)” on the top. The department had a card, signed by all, and a bag of gifts to be used in retirement. Paul and his family were retiring to Canada, where it was supposed, Paul would be spending time fishing. Hence the gifts were fishing gear: a bag to hold lures and fish caught, a floppy hat, and the like. The department chair made a challenge to Paul, that in six months, he could catch more fish on a trip to Minnesota than Paul could catch in Canada. That brought chuckles all around.
Paul generally shies away from attention, and so the party had to be kept a secret. But he rose to the occasion, smiled and greeted his friends, making his way through the crowd.
Near the door were his wife, Donna and his 14-year-old daughter, Mikaela. While it was a nice gesture to have invited them here, it was clear that they were both uncomfortable in this environment. But it was more than that for them. I knew from conversations with Paul that the plan to retire and move to Canada was not a unanimous decision. Paul had run out of grant money, and so was sort of forced to retire. And the whole time Paul had been working here in the States, Donna had longed to be back in Canada, where they were when they first got married, where her parents live. Of course, I am not privy to all the discussions that might have gone on between Paul and Donna, but when Paul talked about moving to Canada and leaving his work, he displayed a strained and far-off look. He was clearly not looking forward to this next phase of life.
One of Paul’s colleagues tried to make small talk with his daughter, Mikaela. “Are you excited about the move to Canada?” she asked. Mikaela’s one word answer “No” spoke volumes. It ended the conversation. I looked over at Donna, and saw that she was holding back tears. Here she was finally getting what she wanted, but I had to wonder whether she was thinking of all she was asking of Mikaela, and of Paul. The only life and friends that Mikaela knew were from here. And now she was being asked to leave it all behind for an unknown life in a small, cold village in Canada.
I took a piece of cake, and milled about among the cheery people there, talking to the few I knew. Then I found Paul on my way out. I looked him in the eye, patted him on the shoulder, and told him to stay in touch. He nodded that he would.