By TERRY AHNER

tahner@tnonline.com

Early retirement.

For many, those words are nothing more than a pipe dream.

That's especially true nowadays, with health insurance premiums on the rise, and a job market mired in steep decline.

Yet, when the opportunity for Linda to call it quits came calling, we were all ears.

And a bundle of nerves.

A member of the workforce since the age of 16, it was her job as a unit clerk in the original Behavioral Health Unit at the Gnaden Huetten Memorial Hospital in Lehighton where Linda began to hit her stride.

Over the years, she helped treat many an ill patient, impacting their lives in a positive manner. To this day, she still hears kind words from former patients whom she encounters every so often.

I soon came to understand what she meant when she would say that the hospital had become her 'home away from home'.

Then, in 2006, Linda's world as she knew it came crashing down when Blue Mountain Health System decided to shut the unit down completely. (On a side note, BMHS opened a new psychiatric unit in Lehighton in 2009 in the same space as the former unit).

To say Linda was devastated would be putting it mildly. In one fell swoop, she found herself at a career crossroads.

In what proved to be a most fortunate situation, BMHS was gracious enough to offer Linda a position as a receptionist at its Palmerton campus almost instantaneously.

With some hesitancy, she decided to accept the position and take the foray into the great unknown.

As with any change, along came the unnerving prospect of learning a different skill set, new responsibilities, and last, but certainly not least, how to coexist with a different blend of co-workers.

At first, we spent many nights discussing whether the decision to accept her new job was the right choice.

Over these past few years, what began as a huge question mark blossomed into a sustainable way for Linda to continue to make a living and extend her tenure.

All the while, she was able to forge new friendships and create lasting memories that will forever be a part of her.

After 30 years of devoted service to the hospital, Linda decided this past fall to take an early retirement.

Now all that was left was to inform her co-workers of her decision.

To their credit, they handled the news like champions, and even went as far as to plan a full-fledged retirement party on her next to last week.

As tears of joy poured down her cheeks, deep down inside, Linda was proud as a peacock.

The level of generosity her unit displayed was off the charts, a real feel-good moment if ever there were.

Not to be outdone, I decided to stage my own surprise retirement party for Linda at a local eatery, which consisted of just family members on both of our sides.

Little did I know there would be several obstacles that would have to be overcome, both leading up to the party, and then afterward.

It started right from the get-go, when, from out of nowhere, water began leaking from underneath the bathroom sink. That was just the start, however, as the water proceeded to trickle down through the ceiling and onto the living room carpeting.

Once that episode was taken care of, we left to get a move on our day, and stopped at a local convenient store to play a $5 lottery ticket.

Her modest winnings prompted Linda to ask in her most sincere way to spend the day at a local casino.

As hard as it was, I found myself shrugging off a barrage of requests as politely as I could under the circumstances.

Keep in mind that I already had the day all mapped out, with plans to take in a matinee at a local cinema, followed by the retirement party, where all our family members anxiously awaited our arrival.

Somehow, I was able to convince her to "just trust me", and the day went on as planned.

When we entered the restaurant, the look of sheer awe on Linda's face as we walked through the door was priceless.

All at once, both our families shouted out the traditional "surprise", and once again, tears began to engulf her eyes.

After she realized she was surrounded by loved ones, a sense of contentment and fulfillment resonated from her eyes.

The meal was quite excellent, and the company, perhaps even better.

Later on that evening, we arrived back at our home, where I planned to unveil her retirement gift. Unbeknownst to her, I had arranged for my neighbor to pick up and deliver a reclining chair while we were away.

Upon first glance at her gift, a blank stare came across Linda's face, and for good reason.

The chair was lopsided. As in crooked. As in broke.

Despite the fact that it was boxed, the chair was already broke before delivery.

Since I'm on a roll, I might as well mention that on Linda's first day of retirement, I took her to Chili's for one of her favorite meals: a rack of Memphis dry rub baby-back ribs.

As luck would have it, we were informed that the restaurant was out of power, and that it was undetermined when it would reopen.

Suffice it to say, the restaurant re-opened a short while later, and wound up to be but only a blip on the radar.

It turns out the ends clearly justified the means, as Linda expressed to me how much she enjoyed her big day.

Full of energy, I have no doubt that Linda will continue to flourish as she begins this new chapter in her life.

It's a privilege that she earned through her years of hard work and dedication.

Here's hoping she knows just how proud each and every one of us are of her.

Even if we are all probably just a little bit envious.