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What You Don’t Know Until It’s Over

Courtney Lynch, October 24, 2016


Keep Ithaka always in your mind.
Arriving there is what you are destined for.
But do not hurry the journey at all.
Better if it lasts for years,
so you are old by the time you reach the island,
wealthy with all you have gained on the way,
not expecting Ithaka to make you rich.

I first read C.P. Cavafy’s poem Ithaka during my early 20’s. Not a student of poetry, I came across it by chance in a magazine feature piece. While I found it meaningful, I didn’t quite grasp its full essence. Yet, for some reason it stayed with me. Here’s more:

Ithaka gave you the marvelous journey.
Without her you would not have set out.
She has nothing left to give you now.

As leaders, we embark on many journeys. In spite of nerves and fear, we push forward and make bold decisions and commitments. Some of the choices we make have an instant impact. Others shape us over years or decades. Most of the decisions I made early on in my adult life were about achievement. I went to college. I joined the Marine Corps. I took a job at a software company. I enrolled in law school. I started Lead Star. Every step I took was full of promise, challenge and opportunity. Each new professional endeavor contributed to my growth as a leader. Yet the one choice I made that has shaped me more than any other had nothing to do with achievement. It was all about love.

At 25, I became the primary caregiver for my then 88-year-old grandmother. For the next eight years, I would take a journey so profound that I am still just beginning to understand how much it shaped me. When I started taking care of Nana, it was a temporary arrangement. I planned to live with her for a year and help her transition to assisted living. Well, Nana had other plans. She wanted no part of assisted living. In a matter of months, I knew Nana and I were a team. While I didn’t know how it would work out, I knew I had to find a way forward.

We had fun. I learned to love applesauce and Nana never missed an episode of “Friends.” Oh, how she loved that Rachel and never quite thought Ross was good enough for her. There was challenge. Aging is dynamic. Unlike raising my children, who are becoming progressively more independent, aging only creates more dependence and need. It seemed as if every month something new would happen and I would have to rely on my instincts, my heart, and the kindness of doctors, nurses, mentors and my family to navigate a way forward. When the end came, it was exactly as Nana wanted. She died peacefully at home.

I think of Nana often and I am so grateful for all she gave me. I was recently talking with a friend who is completely overwhelmed. Life for her at work is exhausting, her youngest child is sick, and her husband is vying for a promotion that might mean a move. She is really in the thick of it. As I was listening to her clear and present challenges, it reminded me of how utterly and completely overwhelmed I had felt when caring for my grandmother while at the same time building my career and starting my family. Yet with one big difference. I’m no longer in the thick of it.

Taking care of Nana is over for me. As Paul Harvey used to say, I know “the rest of the story.” Every moment of fear, anxiety, stress and wondering if I was doing the right thing was worth it. So much of the joy of our lives is truly found in the journey. The most difficult part is that in our moments of max effort and sacrifice, we don’t have the peace of knowing it will all be okay. Instead, we are captivated by the struggle; the stress of trying so hard to make it all work.

Let me share with you the gift of Nana’s legacy and the full value of Ithaka: All will be okay. Just keep leading. Stay credible, be accountable, serve others, strive to make good decisions (knowing when you discover a mistake you get a new chance to choose your response) and stay true to who you are.

And if you find her poor, Ithaka won’t have fooled you.
Wise as you will have become, so full of experience,
you will have understood by then what these Ithakas mean.

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