Don’t walk behind me, I may not lead.
Don’t walk in front of me, I may not follow.
Just walk beside me, and be my friend.
– Attributed to Albert Camus*
Twenty-nine years ago, on May 28th, I incorporated the above quote into my wedding vows. I was an older bride committed to my career. The traditional mantra of honor and obey did not appeal to either my husband or me.
My husband and I met at work, a few years after the GE acquisition of RCA in a course called Acquisition Management. The course was an attempt to merge employees of two different corporate cultures which had been long time rivals in the defense industry. The curriculum was developed by RCA and taught to all employees who would be working with customers in the new organization, GE Aerospace. I was a relatively new, younger employee in a heritage RCA business. My work location was the birthplace of RCA. My office was located on the Camden, NJ waterfront in the same building where its rumored the company mascot, Nipper, the dog, heard his Master’s Voice through a Victrola.
I empathized with my long time RCA loyalists, colleagues who were stepped in a rich technological corporate history and mourned the culture changes brought about by the Jack Welch era acquisition. I was part of a new generation. I didn’t understand enough about either company to favor one culture over another. The new GE favored younger, diverse employees. Being female with international business experience was a career attribute.
I saw opportunity where many of my former RCA colleagues did not. I wanted to grow with a globally focused company. Despite my enthusiasm for opportunity, I recall the trepidation, I felt as I walked into that classroom. My former RCA colleagues, had warned me that GE employees were cut throats.
With the caution of my colleagues ringing in my ears, I was intrigued by the handsome, jovial guy who sat next to me in that class. I learned he shared my global interests. He was a long time loyal GE systems engineer, who graduated from the company’s prestigious Advanced Course program. His next step on his career path was an overseas assignment. Little did I know then, that he was to become my husband in less than two years time. It was in this clash of corporate cultures and individual ambitions where I unexpectedly met my best friend.
Flash forward to Fall 2017, my best friend is critically ill. After being by his side, over the past several months, I have reflected deeply and often on our life together over the past 29 years. There have been good times and bad times. In many ways, we are very different people. We can both be extremely stubborn and unyielding at times. Our backgrounds and upbringing are very different. Perhaps it was the early organizational conflict around us that brought us together. No, it was deeper than that. We had an inexplicable connection that was hard to put in words. We both felt it.
Overtime in married life, we may forget about the connection that brought us together. I know, there were times, when I did. There were days when I doubted the strength of our connection. At the end of last year, as I pondered the various outcomes of my husband’s illness, I realized that I sometimes took our connection for granted. My husband was my best advocate and ally. Although he often didn’t understand my quests, he supported all of my self discovery journeys, whether it was to further my career, personal growth, or retirement aspirations. Over the years, we would joke about who acquired who in that Acquisition Management course several decades ago. As I sat beside his hospital bedside, I realized that all too often, I expected my friend to walk beside me. When did I consciously walk beside him?
Back to our early years, our relationship grew from deep conversations, long distance over phone lines. Through most of our engagement, my husband was working on a project in Australia. I was traveling extensively for my job as well. As an older, non-religious couple, we both wanted a party, not a formal church wedding. A family friend would officiate the ceremony, we would write our own vows and our wedding party would be our immediate family members. The Grange, a historic estate in Havertown, PA, was the perfect setting for an outdoor exchange of vows and celebration with family and close friends. A twenty foot high hedge of blooming lavender, pink and white rhododendron served as our altar. After a week of rain, the sun shone on a lovely May afternoon as my husband and I recited our vows. As we kissed and exchanged rings, my brother-in-law’s clear, triumphant trumpet hailed the waiters to bring the champagne so all could toast the celebration that followed. This year, I restate my vow with a commitment to walk beside my best friend for as many years as we are gifted together.
* I recently learned that this quote attributed to Albert Camus, actually surfaced for the first time in English in 1971, eleven years after his death. There was no French equivalent in his published works. Camus was a one of my favorite authors in high school and college. A poster with this quote hung in my room in the early 70s. Whoever, the author, I’m grateful to have found these words as it shaped my friendship formed over 29 years ago.