As my clinical supervisor, Jim literally signed off on the papers that made me a therapist. I keep those papers in a folder at the bottom of my desk drawer—along with the program from his funeral, which I attended in January.
As a new therapist, I was required to consult with Jim for two hundred hours before applying for full licensure. What I loved about meetings with Jim was the sweeping career wisdom he’d share from his decades in the field, often in the form of memorable one-liners that would—and still do—rattle endlessly in my mind. This includes the infamous “Building a career isn’t about having plans—it’s about being prepared so that when a door opens, you’ll be ready to walk through it,” which I discussed at length here.
You get to know someone, over the course of two hundred hours. He’d tell me about the solo therapy practice he was opening on the side, and encourage me to do the same someday.
You get to become friends, in two hundred hours. He loved to sail, and took me and Doug out on his sailboat in the Apostle Islands the week we got engaged.
And when the higher-ups at our agency eventually insisted that I permanently extend my work hours—long after I was fully licensed and my official meetings with Jim had ended—he’s the one I called in a panic, worried this would leave me no time to write. He’d always been a big supporter of my writing, and this blog. So he’s the one who advised me to leave.
When I called him back a few weeks later to tell him about the new job offer I’d accepted—which I was extremely excited about at the time, but that I now see was a very raw deal—he paused and said, “Well, I just know you’ll work for yourself one day.”
It took the wind out of my sails, in the moment. I thought I’d found the answer to my problems, and I didn’t even want to work for myself. But a few more years of experience taught me exactly what he’d meant, and this past January—nine days after attending his funeral—I registered my own business.
While Jim and I sporadically exchanged messages after I left the agency, I only saw him one more time. It was the day of the solar eclipse, and he’d invited me and a couple other therapists to lunch downtown at the Bluebird Diner. Afterwards, as I made my way through groups of strangers staring up at the oddly darkened sky in their cardboard glasses as the sun passed behind the moon—it never occurred to me I’d just seen Jim for the very last time.
A little over a year ago, seemingly out of the blue, he sent me a rather reflective email about his plans to retire soon. He loved his career, he said, but his life had been defined by work for so long and it seemed like a good time to break old habits.
Ten months later, he was dead.
I first heard about his pancreatic cancer through the grapevine. When I finally reached out after that—far later than I should have, because I’m terrible at knowing what to do or say when people are dying—he responded by referencing our previous conversation and my old blog post: “I can’t say I was ready for this door to open, but I am learning every day how to adjust and find moments to love and celebrate what life has given me.”
We last texted in October, which is the month he was moved to hospice.
October was also the month I quietly decided to work for myself. I hadn’t been planning on it, but a series of events had recently unfolded to make it an appealing and obvious choice—everything from changes in insurance reimbursement rates to coming to terms with my own issues with authority to three of my best therapist friends making the same transition and renting offices in the same hallway over the same six-month period, encouraging me to join.
Building a career isn’t about having plans—it’s about being prepared so that when a door opens, you’ll be ready to walk through it.
I never told Jim about my decision. I don’t know why not. I really wish I had.
Just like I really, really wish I’d visited him when he was sick. But alas.
For a long time, the saddest thing to me about Jim’s illness and death was that he made it all the way to retirement and never got to enjoy it.
But after attending the funeral he’d planned himself—complete with musical performances, anecdotes from friends, his drum set on display, and a slideshow of sailboats—I let that particular sadness go.
I don’t think it was true, what he wrote in that email, about his life being defined by work.
Because as his friends and family got up to share stories, what struck me most was the breadth of his life. In addition to being a therapist and a mentor to new therapists, he’d also traveled the world. And sailed extensively. And long been the drummer in his band. And raised kids. And been an active, lifelong father figure to his stepson whose mother he’d been married to only briefly. And stayed in touch with all his childhood and college friends.
If I had to boil down all my fears in life to just one thing, it’s that there won’t be enough of it. Not that I won’t live long enough, necessarily, but more that I won’t be able to hold onto all the things that are important to me. That I can’t possibly maintain a therapy career while also being a writer while traveling the world and owning a business and raising children, all while keeping in touch with everybody I love along the way. That there will never be enough time or energy for all of it. That life will demand that I trade things in.
But as I sat in the room with the big open windows listening to strangers tell stories from his life, it felt as though Jim was sharing with me his last bit of wisdom.
Life is full of open doors. Who says you can only choose one or two at a time? Walk through all of them, if you like, all at once. Nobody will stop you but yourself.
Earlier this month, I picked up the key to my new office. In addition to my three good friends, it’s also on the same hallway as Jim’s old practice. If events had shaken out slightly differently along the space-time continuum, we’d be neighbors.
But it wasn’t until I went through our old correspondence to write this that I even noticed he’d ended one of his final emails with, “My hallway is filling up fast. But there’s still room for another therapist.”
So I guess I took his last piece of advice without even realizing it.
I wish he knew that.
But I think he does.
Thank you for everything, Jim. If you and I ever meet again—in another dimension, or another life—I have a feeling we’re going to have a lot to catch up on.
In the meantime, I’ll be thinking of you every time life opens a new door.