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The Struggle to Learn An Old Family Secret: Put Loved Ones First

The Struggle to Learn An Old Family Secret: Put Loved Ones First
By Wendy Bounds
965 words
14 April 1999
The Wall Street Journal
(Copyright (c) 1999, Dow Jones & Company, Inc.)

I WAS inspecting my calendar, debating whether I could cancel a lunch meeting, when my mother phoned from down south with the news.
"Your father gave notice of his retirement plans," she said.

The words hung between Raleigh, N.C., and New York, not sinking in. He what? My father had been a veterinarian for three decades, but he was only 54. People don't retire in their 50s, I thought -- they get promoted or find new careers. In the media world I write about, some of the chairmen are my grandfather's age and still won't retire.

Gripping the phone tighter, I asked: "Is Dad sick?"

She laughed: "No, no, he's fine. It's just that . . . " She paused, clearing her throat. "We want more time together."

My parents met during high school in 1961. A school dance prompted my mother, a skinny, 5-foot-8-inch volunteer in the principal's office, to scour student records until she unearthed a boy who satisfied three criteria. Michael F. Bounds not only stood above her at 6-foot-1 and possessed a car, but his mother owned the local dance studio -- indicating he could bop with some success. She invited him, he didn't step on her feet, and they ended up married five years later.
Early on, my father knew he wanted to take care of animals, and my mother supported him, teaching Spanish to pay bills while he attended veterinary school.

Just before I was born, in 1971, he joined a practice in Raleigh, eventually becoming a partner. He never left. Today the solitary clinic in the back of a shopping center has grown into a 5,000-square-foot hospital with a satellite office.

MY FATHER was a promising romantic as far back as high school. He brought my mother a fresh corsage every day, and a birch tree in my grandmother's backyard bears their initials where he carved them so long ago. During their courtship, he created a symbol that spelled "I Love You," which they still scrawl in the sand or foggy mirrors.

How my father sustained his passion amid the demands of a budding and fast-moving career is something I'm still trying to understand. But I think it's about keeping perspective and knowing that sometimes a sandwich with his wife is as important as seeing an extra client. My father worked for a living and loved what he did, but he did not live for his work.

One lunch hour, he traded his white doctor's coat for a black leather jacket and rode his motorcycle from the hospital to the high school where my mother taught. Roaring up the ramp, he then strolled into my mother's class, kissed her in front of the gaping teenagers and left.

Never once did he forget an anniversary because things at the office got hectic. Each year, the bouquet of roses he sends my mother grew bigger by one, until last year it took two vases to hold the 33 stems. Dad always took all his vacation time, and together my parents became expert sailors, improved their fishing and picked up scuba diving. I can't ever recall him phoning the office when we traveled as a family.

It's a big difference from my generation, and this city in particular, where people rarely leave their desks for lunch and often struggle to squeeze social events and pleasure into a work schedule that takes priority.
The divorce rate has nearly doubled since my parents met, making their long marriage increasingly rare. Already my college roommate is separated from her first husband, and so far the longest I've settled down is six years -- and that's with this newspaper.

DESPITE MY father's example, I still pack my days too full and check my voice mail too often. Occasionally, though, I'll remember to sneak away from my desk for a bit just because the sun's out and I should be, too. And I've learned my career won't crumble if I leave an hour early one Friday to catch the sunset with a friend.

It's a start.

Retirement ages continue to decline in the U.S. and are expected to fall further come year 2000. During the next few years, my father will decrease his work hours dramatically, take a pay cut and begin readying the house and property for sale. Before my parents turn 60, he hopes to quit for good and, soon after that, pick up with my mother and sail to exotic ports until their bodies can no longer withstand the rigors of hoisting sails and anchors. Then, I suspect, they'll settle in a house on the water and secretly pray for some grandchildren. Maybe they'll explore part-time work, but there will be no big career change, no last grasp for the corporate brass ring. My father, he has no regrets.

"Family is first," he says simply. "That's the way it is. You work to support what you believe in. And then you enjoy that."

Several years ago, during a visit home, I copied a verse on our refrigerator that my mother had composed using a Magnetic Poetry Kit. After her recent call about my father, I dug it out, trying to understand his motives.
Mom had named it "Trip Vision":

Drunk from the sweet smell of spray
skin and hair
Languid in the shadow of the sun
hot and bare
Our essential symphony of summer
sea and sky
Chant music of the rainforest
you and I
Still together in love.