Keeping up More than Appearances: Shadows of our Former Selves
Rick and I celebrate Christmas more quietly than we did as a young couple with children. In our hearts, we keep
Christmas all year long. We never take the trees down in the shop, using them as backdrops for Rick’s wooden ornaments and now my sewing notions. The manger in our living room stays up all year long, and the nutcrackers and angels are always in their places on the mantel. Each year we hang a large wreath on the street side of our house, and one on the front door. The candles stay in the windows, though they are not lit until the day after Thanksgiving, and are not lit again after New Year’s Day.
But this year, while all of that did continue, we never set up the Christmas tree in the parlor. We didn’t hang the garland and red bows on the white picket fence, and we didn’t wrap the post lantern with colored lights. We didn’t replace the window frame lights on the front of the shop, and we didn’t play Christmas music in the shop. Still, we greeted friends and customers with “Merry Christmas” and “Happy New Year.”
It’s not that Christmas slipped past us; rather, we slipped past Christmas. The weather was all wrong … sixty degrees on Christmas Eve, no snow to reflect outdoor lights hung on the fence … We did go to Maine for the day itself, and enjoyed the company there of our grandchildren and daughter. But we didn’t go to my sister’s house Christmas night as we usually do. And there were some other gatherings in the family to which we weren’t invited … most likely because they occurred on Christmas Eve when we would normally be in Maine but weren’t this year. The grandkids were elsewhere with the other half of their family until noon on Christmas, when we arrived and they arrived almost simultaneously.
Families without young children behave differently on holidays … families without elders also behave differently on holidays. And holidays that occur on weekends seem a bit more rushed than those that cause days to be observed in the middle of a work week. Holidays that occur after retirement are also somewhat less remarkable as a day off in retirement is like any other day off in retirement. Social circles are smaller, as there are no colleagues and work mates with whom to anticipate the release and celebrate the season.
For Rick and me, our circles are changing. We have a close circle of friends that have become our local family, and we celebrated New Years’ Eve with some of them. We talked that evening of what retirement has brought to our lives. We talked about preferred ages or life stages. We talked about the constant struggles of our younger years, and the sudden loss of responsibilities to others that retirement brings. Some of us spoke of our favorite ages … or our most comfortable ‘inner’ age. I thought of having always felt forty – as a child I felt the responsibilities of getting myself to school safely on the buses or trains of the city; of being a parent just a year after being a bride, of spending years of energy, time and money becoming a teacher, of feeling confident and valued in my forties as a functioning adult.
My late forties and early fifties were consumed by elder care, teaching, and eventually my own diagnoses. My late fifties and early sixties have continued the diagnoses and treatments, medications, surgeries and seemingly endless scheduling of medical appointments. My long-sought career of teaching ended at the beginning of my sixties, bringing on depression and self doubt. I entered retirement reluctantly, and somewhat resentfully, having experienced serious cognitive limitations and sudden loss of professional confidence.
Rebelliously, I set out to re-establish my identity in the only way I could; I wrote several books in the first two years, and published them. I opened a quilt shop and learned how to use social media to publicize the business. I joined town committees as a volunteer, and took on some responsibilities until I realized that the cognitive challenges I was facing were more than I could ignore, and I learned how to step back and let others better equipped take on those challenges. I learned to be a supporter rather than a player.
When I talked in mind mapping today about my routine day vs. my ideal day, and drew a pie graph to clarify how my days are spent and how I wish they were spent, I had a more clear self image. I understand the limitations imposed by the ‘cog fog’ I have each day. I cannot make decisions on the spot as I once did, and had to, as a teacher. I cannot multi-task and pay attention to more than one person at a time in a group. I have not yet disposed of the crates of lesson plans, rank books, spread sheets and resource folders I relied on as a teacher, though they offer nothing to me since retirement. I cannot bring myself to dispose of the hundreds of envelopes of spiritual cards and funeral blessings that continue to arrive at my address in my name, in my mother’s name, and my father’s name. I have fabric projects in process in almost every room of the house now, and the mental weight of the unfinished works paralyzes me. I have characters in a book half-written and now still waiting during more than a year of procrastination. I have books that I want to read that I cannot concentrate on and so cannot benefit from. I am humbled and yes, I am saddened. But I am not depressed enough anymore to want to give up.
Why does my energy lift when I am in the shop? The found answer to my friends’ question startled me … that the household clutter makes my home mentally exhausting to me. Clearing out is a challenge that faces all of us in retirement; recognizing that was reassuring … we each have a lifetime’s accumulation of clutter … to know that I am not the only one dealing with clutter-smothering… to know that my friends allow me to be me, to speak honestly with me about limitations without judging me as failing to do what ought to be done. My friends share their worries and self-doubts and deep wishes with me, validating that they trust me to listen well, and to make suggestions where I can and just be supportive when I can’t.
And Rick — always my best friend, now, and back during the darker times, and further back during the brighter times, but still, now, during the daunting times … Rick also listens to me with compassion, and shares my worries
and his own worries openly, validating that both of us have faced and continue to face challenges and limitations, and that we both have not given up or given in, and have much still that we want to and will accomplish in these years ahead. Together we continue, and together we will find the enjoyment in happily-ever-after-retirement. We will continue to walk upright together, with our friends at our sides sharing the sunlight and casting
shadows where we will.