Post-Retirement Work: Finding the Right Balance

It’s been awhile since I’ve blogged (other than once about the election when I couldn’t help myself). The past few months have been extremely busy and, in hindsight, another period of adjustment. I haven’t felt much like writing, so I decided to simply take a break and not force myself.

After we returned from a busy summer of traveling, I went back to work (sort of) in October. I realized that we don’t have the money or inclination to travel constantly, and, when we’re home for long stretches, I often get bored. Last spring, I devoted substantial time to the non-profit organization that I co-founded, Alive and Well Women, helping to get our business infrastructure up and running. I appreciated being back in a work environment, using my skills, and even collecting a modest paycheck.

Besides an education in the non-profit world, my stint at Alive and Well Women was a good learning experience in other ways, as I discovered:

  1. The limits of how much and when I want to work (about 10-15 hours a week, and only in the afternoons so I can exercise in the morning); and
  2. My ideal arrangement is one where I can easily take off to travel and not be responsible for things while I’m gone (I don’t mind the occasional email or question, but I spent far too much time in my former career thinking about work and checking my old BlackBerry while on vacation); and
  3. If I provide services of more than a few hours a week to an organization, I want to be compensated fairly.

In other words, I want to be mindful about how I spend my time in retirement. I don’t NEED to work, so any part-time employment should be rewarding and enjoyable and not detract from the activities that I love. I certainly don’t want to find myself back on the proverbial work treadmill.

So, also last spring, I began discussions with a friend from church about potentially doing contract work for the organization she runs. Her company provides accounting and human resource support for non-profit organizations, and my background seemed like a good fit. After a couple of conversations, her proposal was ideal – I will simply let her know when I am home and available for work, and, if they have projects for me, I will be paid on an hourly basis. We agreed on compensation that was fair (more than Alive and Well Women could afford but less than I made pre-retirement – which is the price I pay for flexibility).  When I told her my first availability wouldn’t be until October, she didn’t bat an eye!

Fast forward to October, when I showed up for my first day of work. I was fighting an internal battle, part of me excited, part of me worried I might hate working again. Part of me wanted to be as accommodating as possible (since that’s how I was conditioned as a consultant for 25 years) and part of me wanted to set very strict boundaries so as not to disrupt my lifestyle. In the end, I decided to strike a balance. I emphatically announced on my very first day that I preferred working afternoons only, and that, for this initial trial period, I was available through the week before Thanksgiving, and then not again until after the holidays (i.e., January), and that I would not be accessible in the interim. I confess I held my breath for a moment, since being so unbendable in a professional setting is totally foreign to me. To my relief, without skipping a beat, they graciously agreed to my conditions.  In return, I made myself available every afternoon as needed, giving work projects priority over personal matters.workplace-clipart

For this first foray, I decided to set firm limits for several reasons. First, to give myself (and the organization) an easy out at the end of the initial period if it wasn’t working for either of us. Second, I wanted to clearly set expectations that I would not assume on-going responsibility for projects when I’m gone (see #2 in list above). The last thing I want is a full-time job in any shape or form, and I really need to turn off the switch and do other things in between work periods.

Given my unusual situation and extensive list of demands, I was curious how this grand experiment would work out. I was given two projects, one internal and one for a client. I was able to do much of the work from home, but I was project manager for the internal assignment, which required two or three in-person team meetings a week at the office (about a 15-minute drive from home).   This proved to be a nice balance, as my time in the office gave me the opportunity to get to know the staff and enjoy some office camaraderie, while working at home afforded me both flexibility and distraction-free efficiency.focusgroup20

All in all, from my standpoint, this first round was a big success. I learned a lot from work that was challenging and gratifying. Observing the strong, assertive, yet compassionate, leadership style of my friend has been an unexpected treat. The team is very competent, incredibly nice and motivated, and the clients being supported are non-profits and faith-based organizations doing great work in the world. And, of course, the extra money in my bank account has been icing on the cake.

When I left the office on the Friday before Thanksgiving, having handed off my projects before I left, my friend (and new boss) expressed enthusiastic satisfaction with the work I completed and optimism that we could continue to find opportunities to work together. In the two weeks since, they have respected my boundary and nobody has dared contact me (even though it was a running joke in the office that they had my cellphone and weren’t afraid to use it).

Now, the downside of working is that it leaves less time and energy for other things, such as lunch dates with my husband or friends, trip planning, blogging, or doing nothing. I suspect that it will be important, in the future, to schedule non-travel/non-work blocks to give myself down time at home.

I’ve learned that retirement, like the rest of life, is a journey of self-discovery. I am continually striving for the right balance of work and rest, service and enjoyment. I am grateful for partners along the way, from my Alive and Well Women co-founder, who has been ever patient and flexible and supportive as I navigate my way through an uncharted sea of ever-changing priorities, to my friend (and new employer) who has been so accommodating and encouraging.  Most of all, I’m learning, no matter how old I am, to never stop growing!

Only in Vegas, Baby

My husband and I just returned from a whirlwind two-night trip to Las Vegas. In my corporate days, I traveled there frequently,  but this had to be my most Vegas-y experience ever.

I know they say what happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas, but, since I’m basically an open book I’ll reveal what happened. I got a “free” Vegas trip. The “free” trip required attendance at a Mandatory Presentation. We dined at two fabulous restaurants, scored front-row seats at Cirque du Soleil and tickets to Celine Dion at Caesars Palace.  We bought a time-share for a day.  And we were barely two days in Vegas.

And now the full story.   My good friend Lakita called a couple months ago to offer me a “free” Las Vegas vacation that she couldn’t use. I had just been thinking about a Vegas trip, so I saw this as an omen. When I called “Ryan” (as directed by Lakita) to schedule my “free” trip, he demanded a refundable $200 credit card deposit and said we’d be required to attend a 90-minute sales presentation to receive our free gifts and our $200 back. I  almost hung up on Ryan at least four times, but he kept adding more freebies, including meals and shows. When I finally agreed to the deal and then broke the news to my husband (who hates sales pitches), a pained look came over his face, and he unconvincingly said he thought it would all be fine and we wouldn’t get swindled. Our agreed strategy was to say no to whatever they tried to sell us, and hope they didn’t separate and lock us in windowless rooms or clean out our bank account.

There's no place like Vegas!

There’s no place like Vegas!

Fast forward to Monday, when we arrived in Las Vegas. Our “free” hotel was adequate but certainly not posh and miles from the Strip. We walked to the discount ticket booth and picked up two half-price tickets to Mystere.  Prior to the show, we enjoyed a magical sunset dinner at Bouchon, a Thomas Keller restaurant (chef of French Laundry in Napa Valley) on a rooftop patio at the Venetian by a fountain. At the show, we were upgraded to middle orchestra seats.  Acrobats were flying overhead, and we could almost touch the performers. What a wonderful, fun night. Boy, was our trip off to an excellent start!

On Tuesday morning, we arrived promptly for our Mandatory Presentation in Just Say No mode and quickly discovered the sale items were time-shares. My husband won the fun group credit card bingo game and received ANOTHER dinner gift card. Then Jeff, the head sales guy, showed slides of all the fantastic properties we would own and spoke movingly of how our lives would be enriched by the program. Then we moved to a table with our assigned sales guy, Norm, who started the conversation by telling us about his late wife who died from cancer and the son he had to raise singly, and how he recently moved to Vegas to care for his aged mother. After which he hit us with time-share numbers and dollars and figures. Jeff came back and earnestly answered our questions. I could now hear the Sirens’ Song – time-share ownership WOULD be perfect AND a good deal with all the money we’d save on hotels – but I knew I had to stay strong and disciplined. Then they left my husband and me alone to talk it over.

My husband, one of the most skeptical people I know, looked at me very sincerely, and said that he thought a time-share would be great for us. That it would give us exciting new travel opportunities and a structure through which we could make great time-share memories together. I found this somewhat preposterous but I have never loved my husband more than I did at that moment. So the two of us, three graduate degrees between us, impulsively agreed to buy a time-share. After we signed all the papers (finishing at about the three hours mark) they took our picture, had us spin a roulette wheel and gave us another $100 VISA gift certificate prize, while everybody cheered.

How did this happen? We never had the slightest interest in buying a time-share; we always research the heck out of everything we buy, and we never make spur-of-the-moment major financial decisions. It can only be that we drank the Vegas Kool-Aid. A party atmosphere with balloons and music from our youth (designed to evoke warm feelings of family vacations?) combined with the lure of a great deal and a total play on emotions. I’m pretty sure Jeff made up most of his stories about how time-shares saved marriages and families and I’m doubtful that Norm even has a mother in Las Vegas.

When I later pulled out the freebies we received for attending the Mandatory Presentation, I discovered that the “free” $200 dinner was instead a couple of restaurant.com cards that are redeemable only at limited cheapo places, and the “free” show tickets were random two-for-one coupons for completely unappealing shows. So we headed back to the discount ticket booth and found low-priced tickets to a Celine concert (hoping to get upgraded again) and used most of our $200 refund to cover the cost.

Before the show, we used the rest of our $200 refund and our $100 VISA gift certificate on Delmonico’s, another great restaurant in the Venetian, and I was rolling on a gift card high. Another great evening!

Celine Dion, from our nosebleed seats in the Coliseum at Caesar's Palace. It was still fantastic!

Celine Dion, from our nosebleed seats in the Coliseum at Caesar’s Palace. It was still fantastic!

However, while waiting for Celine to come on, I Googled time-shares and the company we now co-owned, and I wasn’t happy with some of what I found. I paused to enjoy a beautiful, passionate and poignant show (its was Celine’s first week back after her husband passed away). Later, I continued my due diligence back at the hotel, and found we had only five days to cancel under the contract. Based on some potential red flags we uncovered, our lack of adequate research, and our newfound Buyer’s Remorse, we decided to pull out, and I drafted a written cancellation notice to deliver the next day.

After a fairly sleepless night, we showed up at the time-share sales office, and they seemed to know exactly why we were there. We were quickly ushered into an office with Jeff, who irritably and rather half-heartedly tried to talk us out of cancelling. He soon realized our minds were set and he was not nearly as nice as he’d been the previous day. He even asked us to return the $100 VISA GIFT card. Really?!

After a thankfully brief 10 minutes with Jeff, we were time-share divested and on our way home. We celebrated with a grand slam breakfast at Denny’s (since we were out of cash). But you know what? We had a blast in Vegas. The only real deal we got was a $15-dollar-a-night mediocre hotel, but it was all so, you know, Vegas. We sampled world-class food and wine, we saw two unforgettable shows, I used my legal training, we came home with a pocketful of discount cards. I learned a lot about time-shares, and we even owned one for a day.

Alive and Well in Retirement!

I was recently reminded of a blog post I wrote back in January of 2014, entitled Existentialism, Disenchantment and the Six Phases of Retirement. It was written about five months after I retired. A fellow blogger who explores retirement issues found my post and used me, in a YouTube presentation, as his comic example of someone bumbling through the early adjustment phases of retirement. As I watched the YouTube presentation (slightly discomfited, listening to a complete stranger talk about the antics of “Betsy and her husband” like we were Lucy and Ricky), I was stuck by how much we’ve evolved since then.

I am quite content with my life now. Looking back, I see it really took me about two years to fully adjust to retirement. Five months after my retirement date, when I wrote that post, I was clearly in the Disenchantment Phase (Stage 4). The Honeymoon Phase (Stage 3) had worn off and I was starting to feel some loneliness, boredom, uselessness and disillusionment.

Stage 5, following Disenchantment, is described as the “Reorientation Stage,” where the retiree moves on to build a new identity in retirement. It is described as the “most difficult stage in the emotional retirement process and will take both time and conscious effort to accomplish. Perhaps the most difficult aspects of this stage to manage are the inevitable self-examination questions that must be answered once again, such as ‘Who am I, now?’ ‘What is my purpose at this point?’ and ‘Am I still useful in some capacity?’ New – and satisfying – answers to these questions must be found if the retiree is to feel a sense of closure from his or her working days. But many retires cannot achieve this and never truly escape this stage – make sure you do!” (Mark P. Cussen, “Journey Through the 6 Stages of Retirement”)

I wasn’t always mindful at the time, but in hindsight it’s clear I did go through this reorientation process, often in fits and starts. It forced me to take a hard look at myself and make some deliberate decisions about how I was going to spend the rest of my life. After all, the rest of my life could be another 30+ years! If I were to summarize my acquired bits of wisdom (and I emphasize that these are MY conclusions) they would be:

Throw out the expectations (especially of your partner) – Retirement is a wonderful and terrifying marriage laboratory, where you get one last chance to finally work out those thorny relationship issues so often ignored during the busy dual-career and childrearing years. Especially for my husband and I, polar opposites in many ways. Plus, I realized that I went into retirement with some unrealistic expectations. In my imaginary retirement la-la world, my husband (already retired) and I would be happily spending 24/7 together, having lunch dates and play dates and going to art museums. We would have an abundance of extra time, and we’d joyfully split the housework and tackle all those long-delayed projects around the house, like cleaning out the garage. We’d do all this together, with any relationship issues magically solved by the absence of work pressures.

That rose-colored bubble pretty much burst the first few weeks of retirement. We never spent that much time together, even when we were dating, so it was bone-headed to think we would start now. And my husband doesn’t even like art museums. After about a week of being together in the house, we had nothing interesting to report to each other. Plus, my homebody husband has vastly different ideas on how to spend his time, and was unwilling to give up his established and cherished routines and household chores. As I noticed my frustration and resentment start to build, I had a choice to make. I could either try to change my husband to fit my expectations, or I could respect his differences, let him be him, and focus on what I could do to structure my own life. I ultimately chose the latter, and also found it works far better to ask clearly for what I need than to expect it.

There are of course some things I still wish were different. For example, I really wish my husband would clean out the garage. I wish we entertained more, and we watched less TV (especially sports). But I finally realized there is an excellent chance our garage will never be tidy, that entertaining can be pretty stressful for us, and that watching a good football game together is a great shared activity. I had to look clear-eyed at those areas where reality and expectations collide and make some choices. If there were deal-breakers for me, I had to address them. If they were not, I had to come to peace with them. Just because Mr. and Mrs. McGillicudy down the street, also retired, work puzzles and drink Moscow Mules together every afternoon doesn’t mean we should. This process of letting go of unhelpful expectations and accepting, even embracing, the goodness in my own reality, with a spirit of gratitude, has been very liberating and my path to contentment.

Look no farther than thyself – I don’t mean this in a self-centered or narcissistic way, but I am learning that I am the one responsible for my own happiness.   It is too easy, but not helpful, to look to others or go into blame mode when I am unhappy. As it is difficult, if not possible to do on my own, there is a spiritual component integral to remaining centered and open, in removing blame and extending grace.

Eliminating unhealthy expectations freed me to look pragmatically, even creatively, at myself, my husband (and our life together), and to craft a fulfilling life. If I need more social interaction, I have a wonderful network of friends to call on. When I need more physical exercise, I hang out at the YMCA right down the street. I have a women’s study group and a book club that provide plenty of regular female companionship.

I also gradually came to the conclusion that contributing to my disenchantment was a growing and nagging feeling of uselessness. Although I initially thought I would enjoy doing more around the house, I found I was honestly just as happy letting my husband keep his chores! (And I am, BTW, the envy of my girlfriends.) I found I need more time out of the house. I was someone who worked my entire life and was used to being the breadwinner in our family and a leader in the workplace. I missed the energy and camaraderie of the office, the business travel, and being a part of teams where we solved problems for our clients. I enjoyed all the fun I was having in retirement, but I began to feel that something was missing.

For me, a providential solution was my involvement with a charitable organization. A few months after I retired, I re-connected with a friend who was long interested in starting a non-profit. She enlisted my help and together we launched Alive and Well Women. Today I am the Chair of the Board and last year volunteered to take the lead on grant writing (something I’ve never done before).

My work with Alive and Well Women has proven to be a godsend. It gives me an outlet for using my professional talents, a sense of value and accomplishment, while allowing me to give back to the community. I love the women I work with and I’m learning new skills. We are in the midst of our first capital campaign and I’m finding it a joy to raise funds for a cause I feel passionate about. And since I am a volunteer, I work when I am home but still have the flexibility to travel with my husband.

Find some things to enjoy with your partner – when we are home, my husband and I find the ideal mix of together/independent time typically skews more toward separate schedules. We have breakfast and dinner together, and go for a daily walk around the neighborhood, but the rest of the day is typically individual time (often we are both home, but separately engaged.)

The danger with our natural parallel play tendency is that we can easily become disengaged. So, we deliberately look for activities that we can enjoy together. For us, our favorite joint activity is travel. Something special happens when we are on the road. We find we love being together 24/7, we work as a team, and we create amazing shared memories. These are the moments when I am overcome with gratitude. And as soon as we’re back from one trip, we start thinking about our next, which gives us something to dream about together.

We also try to do a few things each week while we are home. We rarely miss church and brunch on Sunday. We have at least one lunch or dinner out during the week, and we recently started ballroom dancing classes. We’re still more Lucy and Ricky than Fred and Ginger, but we’re having fun with our salsa!

"Eventually the new landscape becomes familiar, and retirees can enjoy the last phase of their lives with a new sense of purpose"

“Eventually the new landscape becomes familiar, and retirees can enjoy the last phase of their lives with a new sense of purpose”

The Routine Stage (Phase 6) of retirement is when “finally, a new daily schedule is created, new marital ground rules for time together versus time alone are established, and a new identity has been at least partially created. Eventually, the new landscape becomes familiar territory, and retirees can enjoy the last phase of their lives with a new sense of purpose.” (Mark P. Cussen)

You know, I think we might be there!

What I Learned on Route 50

My husband and I recently completed our first-ever cross-country road trip together, driving eastbound on Route 50 from San Francisco, CA to Ocean City, MD.  After logging 3,889 miles (including detours) through 13 states, plus the District of Columbia, and an astonishing array of landscapes, here’s my Top Ten learnings.

Route 50 signs

U.S. Route 50 runs east-west stretching over 3,000 miles between Sacramento, CA and Ocean City, MD

#1 – Always check multiple sources before booking a hotel room.

Before our trip, I sketched out a tentative schedule for each day, including potential hotels. We then booked rooms each night on our trip for the next night. The night before we drove to Grand Junction, CO, we found a great deal on-line at the Historic Melrose Hotel, which was mentioned in my guidebook, but was not the one I chose for my itinerary. Not remembering why, we booked it.

The Historic Melrose Hotel, which looked lovely from the outside and was in the quaint Old Town section, turned out to be affordable housing for low-income residents – one step up from a homeless shelter. Which explained the great price. Had we checked TripAdvisor (or had I remembered what I learned when I checked TripAdvisor three weeks earlier) we would have been more educated consumers. Instead, we parked the car below our room and spent the night half awake listening for sounds of a break in.

#2 – iPhones are not ideal high-speed cameras

Since we were on a fixed schedule going eastbound, we didn’t make too many stops, so I became marginally competent at taking photos from inside the car through the windshield and side windows (with attendant glare and reflections), avoiding the radar detector and GPS and rear view mirrors, at 55-65 mph. My husband would suddenly blurt “There!” and I was expected to instantaneously (1) figure out what he was talking about and (2) take a great photo of it. He would often say, “Oh, you were too slow” or “Did you frame the picture with the trees?” to which I would always reply “Got it!!” (my strategy being that whether I got it or not he would never remember). I learned where the “sweet” spots were on the windows (and some contortionist positions that worked well) and learned to take multiple photos that I would go through each night to weed out the best shots. I relied heavily on the photo editing tools in the iPhone – as long as I got the subject somewhere in the photo, I could enlarge and crop and lighten. Even so, in addition to a few good shots, I have an impressive library of blurry, blank, and unidentifiable transcontinental pictures. My photo of the Iwo Jima Memorial in Washington, DC looks right out of “The Blob” (my favorite vintage horror movie).

#3 – Make lunch stops a priority 

Because we didn’t make too many impromptu stops along the way, our lunch breaks were a highlight of each day. Sometimes we were tempted to power through without lunch, but I’m glad we didn’t. First, they provided a much-needed respite from the car and driving. But more importantly, they were consistently fun. We tried to find little towns and older restaurants characteristic of Old Time America. We learned about the towns we visited by chatting with the waitresses and proprietors that we encountered. In Eureka, NV (Pop 610) our waitress told us she had 17 in her graduating class in high school. She said her school offered all the usual sports, but every student had to play most sports in order to have enough players to field teams. In Olney, IL (pop 7.994) , home to a colony of albino squirrels, our waitress instructed us that the best way to see squirrels was to visit the city park with McDonald’s French fries.

 #4 – Rest days were like a stop at the oasis

We spent 12 days traveling across country, but two of those were rest days. On one rest day, we visited dear friends in the Denver area. On the other, we visited my brother in St. Louis.

While in Denver, we had two home-cooked dinners, slept in a quiet comfortable room on a super-comfy bed, took a leisurely tour of the local area, and caught up with our friends. In St Louis, we were also fed and put up in our own cozy room, and got precious quality time with family we don’t see often. Although my husband initially questioned the need for rest days, we later agreed that they really helped us recharge and get back on the road fully energized.

#5 – You must be smarter than your GPS

Our Chevy Traverse has a built-in GPS system, which we have found to be rather clunky. We’ve had to learn multiple workarounds to get it to do what we need. Therefore, we also travel with our portable Garmin as back-up.   In a pinch, I also fire up Google Maps on my iPhone. And of course, there is the iPad.

There were many days when I joked to my husband that he was in the unenviable position of driving with 4 women (including me) telling him where to go. And even with all the help, the Navigator was still a full-time job for me and I had to know where we were at all times and not rely on GPS. Since we were trying to stay on Route 50 (not necessarily the fastest or shortest route) I had to learn tricks to outsmart the GPS (with waypoints, etc.) to get where we wanted to go and mediate disputes between the “women” (our GPS systems).  But then there was the time we drove right by the bank that was just down the street from our hotel because were so busy fiddling with the GPS rather than just looking at the address.

Even with all the gadgets….

#6 – In addition to the [multiple] GPS systems, you still need maps

Before we left on our trip, I visited the local AAA office and picked up 3 bags of maps and tour books, covering every state we intended to travel. Thank goodness, because we would otherwise have been at the mercy of our GPS systems and probably lost somewhere in Kansas. It was essential to get a sense of the route before programming the GPS, plus it was more meaningful to follow along on a map as we drove. The maps told me more details about what we were seeing (rivers, mountain ranges, etc.) so I could act as self-appointed Tour Guide.

#7 – Don’t travel with just one big heavy suitcase.

We retrieved our luggage sets from the garage before we left, and packed our big suitcases since we would be gone for an extended period. We had every intention of bringing along the smaller weekend bag or the smaller roller bag that went with our sets, but for some inexplicable reason we forgot them.

As a result, every night as we checked into a new hotel (always requesting a second floor room) we found ourselves lugging incredibly heavy suitcases with everything we owned out of the car, across the parking lot and up the stairs.   Then our room (being typically Comfort Inn rather than Ritz Carlton) was almost completely filled with suitcases. We looked like the Kardashians, or more the Beverly Hillbillies, checking into town.

After a couple nights of this nonsense, I started using an empty tote bag I’d brought along to pack one or two nights’ provisions so I wouldn’t have to mess with the Two Ton Suitcase. I will definitely bring that weekend bag along next time, in addition to the Big Suitcase, and plenty of tote bags for flexibility.

 #8 – Document the trip as you go

After about Day 4 or 5, I couldn’t tell you with any conviction where we had been even the day before for lunch. It all became a blur. I found the written itinerary listing all of the lunch and dinner stops and hotels very helpful, and I learned to note any changes or any additional sights we saw along the way. That way, between the photos and the itinerary, I should be able to reconstruct a decent memory book of our trip.

#9 – We need to find a balance of driving and stops

This trip was a little too much driving with too little sightseeing for me. Since we were on a fairly strict timetable, we didn’t have much time for spontaneous exploration of sights and attractions along the way. There were a few unscheduled stops we made – to see the remnants of an old pony express station in Nevada (or was it Utah?)- that were interesting, but for the most part we simply saw what we saw from the car along Route 50. On our next trip, along the old Route 66, we plan to meander more. The trip did give me ideas, however, of places to return to see (Kansas City, for example) in more depth.

#10 – America is a really incredible country

Driving through the entire middle of the continental United States was a thoroughly amazing experience. The vast and varied landscape, from the barren desert of Nevada to the rugged mountains of Colorado to the great plains of Kansas to the lush West Virginia countryside, simply took our breath away. There were days that we turned off the radio and sat in silence taking in the magnificent beauty of the scenery before us. We so enjoyed our encounters with the people we met in small towns across the country. We will never forget the day we smugly stopped for a photo of ourselves at Monarch Pass (elev 11,312) at the Continental Divide in CO and we met two young men who had RIDDEN THEIR BIKES from San Francisco. We emerged from our trip more in awe of the spirt and beauty of this extraordinary nation and its people.

How Our Road Trip Almost Stalled

We have been planning a cross-country road trip for quite some time.   It started with a proposed trip to my brother’s house and morphed into a Great American Road Trip. And then it almost broke down before we left the garage.

Our projected itinerary follows Route 50 eastbound and Route 66 westbound.   I initially wanted to drop some things off at my brother’s house in St Louis, and then we decided to keep going to Annapolis to visit our son. And since we have to get home, we decided to do the return trip via Route 66. Then we added a couple of stops with friends and family…and viola…our delivery trip became a national expedition.

Last month, I spent two full days sitting (without moving) at the dining room table with my laptop planning the itinerary and stops, complete with hotels and lunch and dinner spots. I scored 2 bags of maps and guidebooks from AAA, and my husband ordered me a complete Route 66 library from Amazon so I consulted piles of maps, books and guides in the process.

A small sampling of my planning tools

A small sampling of my planning tools

My husband also found some guy on-line who plotted and posted the coordinates for Route 66 on his Garmin, so my husband was in charge of plotting our exact driving route and making our hotel reservations.

As of 3 days before we were scheduled to leave, I noticed that the hotel reservations hadn’t been made. Which wasn’t critical, since we could always make them as we went.   Two days before we were scheduled to leave, I finished my packing list and all that was left for me was the actual packing. I glanced at my husband’s To Do list, and noticed it was two pages single-spaced, including the laundry.

Then disaster struck. Two days before we were scheduled to leave on our trip, we returned home late that evening from a family event. I remarked that the house seemed rather humid, and I was getting ready for bed when my husband rushed in, looking like a doctor with a grim prognosis. He stated very seriously “We may have to delay our trip. I’m serious.” He went on to explain how he had discovered a broken pipe under our house that was spraying water in the crawl space. The most worrisome part was that this probably had been going on for a while since we had heard a mysterious whooshing sound coming from below our dining room for months. We were concerned about mold. I started researching mold and water damage, and then flights to Annapolis.

My husband turned off the water (no laundry!) and decided to call the plumber first thing in the morning.   We woke up at around 6:00 AM and drove 1 block to the YMCA to use their toilets (I told you the YMCA membership was a lifesaver). After we called the plumber, the pool guy showed up. I only heard part of the conversation but some important “cell” was broken and in need of repair or replacement. At that point, I decided what would be the most helpful was for me to return to the YMCA for my Gentle Yoga class. I also did what I am getting much better at since I retired – I turned the entire situation over to God and decided I would be at peace with whatever outcome, which was looking less and less like an extended road trip.

Two hours later, I returned from yoga to discover that my heroic husband had everything under control. The pipe had been repaired, there was no evidence of mold, the pool part was ordered and the washer and dryer were going. He had made arrangements with the plumber, pool service and our house sitter to have everything handled while were gone.

When I asked if he thought we would still be able to leave, perhaps a day later (since with all the house problems I assumed the To Do list still needed tackling), my husband informed me that we would be able to leave right on schedule.   And we did – having begun our adventures before we even left the house.

Early Retirement: My Mid-year Review

Well, I’ve been doing this Early Retirement Thing for almost eight months now, so it seems as good a time as any to step back and evaluate how it’s going. I looked back at my earlier post (“The Great Experiment: Early Retirement….or Now What?”) in which I outlined my objectives for this year:

  1. To finish long-ignored cleanup projects around the house;
  2. To learn how to “do” retirement happily; and
  3. To discover rewarding activities that feed me physically, spiritually and emotionally (and perhaps financially).

In the same post, I also set up a “To Do List” for myself that I intended to complete this year:

  1. Visit Paris for the first time with my husband (a life-long dream!)
  2. Clean out the garage and a storage shed
  3.  Inventory my deceased parents’ belongings (in said garage and storage shed), work out with my brothers what to keep and what goes to who, and get rid of the rest
  4. Pack up the parental items for my brothers in our new SUV and…..
  5. Do a Route 66 driving trip with my husband (another life-long dream) to deliver the goods
  6. Determine what our next big trip will be and when
  7. Rest and recover from the corporate world!
  8. Beyond that, I will go with the flow, open myself up to new experiences, not make any commitments for a year and purposely let things evolve.
The view from my new morning commute - I walk from home to the YMCA and admire the neighbors'

The view from my new morning commute – I walk from home to the YMCA and admire the neighbors’ gardens

As I look at my lists, it’s surprisingly heartening to see that I am generally on track (since some days I don’t even know what day it is or what I am supposed to be doing).   And here’s my lessons learned so far:

Clean-up projects: I’ve done a good job of cleaning out closets and drawers inside the house and my husband and I are off to a good start on the garage. (Its now organized but we haven’t thrown much out.)  But, I will be shocked if we have the garage and storage shed completely cleaned out by the end of the year. It is highly unpleasant and emotional work and there is nothing in our immediate future (like an imminent downsizing or move) forcing us to purge. Furthermore, we have differing ideas about what to keep and what to toss, so I am finding it is best to take it slow. Life’s too short!

Family heirlooms: I have been much more successful in weeding through my parents’ stuff, deciding objectively what to keep, and we will be taking a load to St Louis to deposit with my brother. I am finding it much easier, with the passage of time, to be able to part with things that were hard to even look at a few years ago.

Travel: Our trip to France was indeed a dream come true. As expected, there were a few bumps along the way, but we saw and did everything I hoped, and we both have great memories to last our lifetimes. We also enjoyed our trips last fall to Annapolis for Navy football games. We are now planning a cross-country road trip (Route 50 eastbound and Route 66 westbound) that should be quite the adventure and have decided our next big trip will be Ireland in the fall. In general, I have found travel to be the best part of retirement. It takes my husband and I out of our normal routine, encourages us to work together on the planning and execution, and gives us a shared sense of adventure.

Home life: I have found one of the biggest adjustments has been to a 24/7 marriage relationship. When I was working, I was gone much of the day and traveling quite a bit, so it was a big change (for both of us) to suddenly be home all day, initially with nothing to do. This is one of those areas where “experts” advise extensive pre-retirement planning and communication as to post-retirement activities, expectations and roles. However, despite our best intentions, we found it difficult to anticipate exactly how things would play out until we actually found ourselves thrown together in the same house all day. I suppose those with more perfect marriages would find the adjustment effortless, but for us it has taken (and will continue to take) work to find the right balance (e.g., things like individual v. joint activities, time apart v time together).

My husband and I are very different in several key areas, which we already knew after 25 years of marriage, but it became more pronounced the more time we spent together. For example, he is more of an introvert than I. He can go hours, days (weeks!) with very little social interaction; whereas, I am quickly climbing the walls after too much quiet time. What has evolved is that I am often out of the house on my own – at exercise classes, lunches/outings with friends, book club, study groups, etc., while my husband putters around the house working on his projects. We do have some lunch or golf dates, but we have learned to give ourselves freedom to have plenty of separate time. When we are both home, we are often working in opposite ends of the house – I have taken over the den as my “office” and my husband has his “office” in the family room. Most days when we are home, we have breakfast together, go our separate ways during the day, and then come back together for dinner in the evening. I suspect other couples may have different routines that succeed for them but this seems to work for us – it gives us each space to do our own thing, and we have things to talk about when we come back together. As with so many other areas of my life, I am finding this year to be a journey of self-discovery and a time to devote effort toward deferred relationship issues (both with myself and significant others).

Friends: Unfortunately, I have not kept in touch with as many of my work-friends as I’d hoped. I suppose it was inevitable, but as time passed we had less in common without the shared workplace, and we have not put in the effort to build personal relationships. Over the years I developed many on-the-job friendships with colleagues and clients strictly over shared work projects and interactions (many of them long-distance and some of them I never or rarely saw in person). Without the daily professional exchanges, it takes time and effort to maintain all those relationships! The few work friends I do keep in touch with regularly, however, have been those with whom we reciprocate with time and energy, and who have developed into close and cherished personal friends.

Because of this, I am grateful that I maintained strong personal friendships outside work throughout my career. Post-retirement, I turned to a solid core of friends whom I am now happily spending more time with and deepening those bonds. In some cases, I reconnected with good friends from high school or those I’ve collected in the area over the past 25 years. I’ve met a few new people, but close friendships take time to develop so I’ve never been more thankful for my old friends, my golden friends.

Physical health. I have never felt better (knock on wood!) My stress level is way down, I’m exercising regularly, getting enough sleep, and I’m usually pretty happy!

Work prospects. Never say never! I am starting to feel like I wouldn’t mind holding down a job again someday. It wouldn’t be the type of work I previously did, but I do miss many aspects (going to an office, the camaraderie, challenging myself, the sense of satisfaction with the mastery of skills and accomplishment, self-esteem, and of course, the paycheck).   I can also see myself becoming bored and/or restless at some point. So, another part of my journey is to be open and imaginative about work opportunities; to find something I love that affords me flexibility for travel and other activities I enjoy.

Stay tuned!

If I’m Retired, Why Am I So Busy?

The other night as I lay in bed my head was spinning (as it regularly did at 3 AM when I was working).  The difference, thankfully, was that I didn’t have that old panicky, pit-in-the-stomach, cold-sweat, something-awful-is-going-to-happen-tomorrow type of anxiety.  But, I did realize I am dang busy!   How did that happen?!

Even though I made a promise to myself, that I have largely kept, not to make any major commitments to anyone or anything this first year of retirement, I have still found it surprisingly easy to fill up my calendar. First, there are the extra lunches, golf outings, exercise classes, cooking attempts, manicures, Bible studies, retreats, and various other adventures I am now enjoying with my husband and friends. And then there are my personal projects – all of them voluntarily and enthusiastically taken on, but time-consuming nonetheless.

Since I had so many loose ends floating around in my mind, I decided it was time for a comprehensive, detailed, official To Do list. I’m usually pretty good about keeping my calendar and To Dos mostly in my head, but when I start “brain swirling,” I have found it much more manageable to get everything down on paper.  Then I don’t have to keep it all brain-filed, and my life usually doesn’t look quite as intimidating as I feared at 3 AM.

My To Do List - it continues on the back.....

My To Do List – it continues on the back…..

This time, I surprised even myself with my To Do list. No wonder my thoughts are whirling!    I have an extended out-of-town family reunion I am organizing, a cross-country road trip I am plotting, a nonprofit organization I am helping to launch, a trip to Ireland I am planning, photo books from our Paris trip I am finishing, a son’s upcoming college graduation to manage, and some financial planning and estate planning issues to work through.  On top of that, I am taking community college classes and exploring potential second career ideas.  And those are just the major headings without all the underlying details!

The delightful part is that I’m loving all of it.   I do need to continuously monitor my busyness level so I don’t end up back on the hamster wheel, but I am incredibly grateful to have a To Do List that looks like mine.  I am increasingly mindful that our trips and activities do take time and effort to plan and execute, and I am Chief Planner in our family. (All this fun takes work!) I don’t know how I could do more than one major international trip a year.  I spent probably 4-6 almost full-time weeks planning our trip to Paris, another month away on the trip and another couple of months recovering and creating slide shows and photo books.  And all those projects I never had time for when I was working? Well, some of them I still don’t seem to have time for!

I had to laugh when, as often happens nowadays, I was being heavily recruited to take on a major job with a social club we joined a couple years ago.  The President began by saying “You’re retired now – you should have plenty of free time!”  Well, yes, and no. I should’ve showed her my To Do list. But then, that wouldn’t gain me any sympathy.

An Ode to the YMCA: Exercise to the rescue

I HEART the YMCA.  It has been a lifesaver.  Following the conclusion of our 5-month post-retirement travel blitz, my subsequent mini-meltdown over what to do with myself, and my husband’s almost tactful suggestion that I get a life, I turned to the YMCA for refuge.  Regular exercise is one of those activities that previously fell into my “Something I’ll Do When I Retire” category.  I’m finding many of those pursuits were not ignored solely due to lack of time.  They are still not appealing now that I have time.  Exercise classes at the YMCA, however, have proven to be a godsend.

Every weekday morning I now spring out of bed, excited about walking the short block to the YMCA.   I comb the schedule and try a variety of classes.   Before retiring, I was never able to make it to classes after work so I was thrilled to try some. Admittedly, I got off to a rough start with my first exercise class, on a Monday morning, called Body Works.  The class description read “The ultimate muscular challenge. This class uses hand held weights, bands, step, body bars, and resistance balls. The focus is muscle strength, endurance and body definition by using proper alignment.”  Now, at one point in my life I was an aerobics junkie, which I credit with getting me through the summer of my Bar Exam.  Obliviously assuming I have the same stamina and abilities I had in my twenties and remembering my doctor’s suggestion that I incorporate weight training in my regimen, I decided this class would be perfect.

For the livelier exercise classes, the room is brimming with mostly female energy

The Body Works class – a room full of women and barbells

The class was not perfect. It started off well enough. The room was full of women, several I knew from around town, and bustling with vivacity.  I was absurdly giddy to be out of the house, surrounded by females and the loud beat of music.  For the first 10 minutes, I jumped and hopped and lunged and ran in place with the best of them. But it soon became clear I had bitten off more than I could chew. I was gasping for air.  As the class progressed, I felt like I was going to die. I decided to dial back and go at my own pace.  I replaced jumps with toe taps and lunges with baby steps. Fortunately for my ego, there was an 80-year-old woman (who I think wandered into the class by mistake) that was having more trouble than me.  If nothing else, it was a class in humility.

Next I checked out Yoga.  I’d never done yoga, which was another thing on my Retirement List. So that Tuesday I decided on the Yoga Stretch class – mainly since, after my class in humility, it had an “E” for “Easy” next to the title. The class description read “Emphasizes physical and mental relaxation, controlled breathing, balance, proper posture and alignment and flexibility. Develop a keen sense of body/mind awareness.”  Great!  It was certainly easier than that damn Body Works class, but it was still challenging to achieve and hold the poses, particularly since I am one of the least flexible people on the planet.  But, after just one class, I could feel improvement in my joints, posture and relaxation.

My set-up for Gentle Yoga class at the Y.  Ninety minutes of bliss.

My set-up for Gentle Yoga class at the Y. Ninety minutes of bliss.

Then I tried Gentle Yoga  (“Focus on releasing tight muscles, increasing range of motion and stress relief”) with an instructor named Diane.   OMG!!!!  It was an hour and a half class, which flew by, of pure bliss and when it was over, I felt like I’d had a spa weekend.  It was divine – Diane’s soothing voice, the focus on breathing, the gentle stretching and poses, aromatherapy with lavender oil, culminating in an extended time of relaxation and mediation.  The worst part was when Diane said it was time to get up and leave.

I also tried two Zumba classes.  One was a regular Zumba class and the other Zumba Gold, which is supposedly lower intensity. The class description read “Zumba fused hypnotic Latin rhythms and easy to follow moves to create a cardio experience that is exhilarating and energizing.”  The description I would’ve written was, “Impossible to follow moves, requiring too much hips and swiveling and coordination, excessive jumping around and a cardio experience that was alarming and exhausting.” I’m certain my heart rate reached 300 and at one point I glanced around for a defibrillator.  I knew I was in trouble when I noticed women wearing Zumba belts, which are apparently designed to accentuate all that hip swiveling.  The Gold class was less jumping around, but had more complicated dance moves, and I wondered how the Zumba instructor was able to watch me without laughing.  I was that clumsy aging celebrity who is the first to go on Dancing with the Stars.

When I saw the Zumba belts I knew I was in trouble

When I saw the Zumba belts I knew I was in trouble

I have since stayed with the Body Works class on Mondays.  I’m determined to get better, and this week I kicked butt the first 20 minutes, which gave me a false sense of competence. Then the [drill] instructor barked orders to go from plank position to standing to plank position to standing, over and over, until I saw stars and heard birdies. I literally came within a resistance ball of passing out in the middle of the class.  The first week I learned humility.  This week I learned to eat breakfast before class and not show off.

What I have really fallen for is yoga.  After I get through Monday and the damn Body Works class, I love, love, love going to my yoga classes.  Yoga relaxes me, helps with my stress level, posture and flexibility.  It feels so much kinder to my body and psyche than the faster aerobic-style classes.   The meditation included gets me centered and calm. I really wish I had discovered yoga when I was working!

The YMCA provides a welcome haven brimming with positive energy.  My exercise classes give me incentive to get up and go, get me off to a good start and they impart structure to my day.  They offer a social experience where I see friends from the community and I’m meeting new ones.  Most importantly, I notice my higher energy levels, improved disposition and a decrease in various aches and pains.  I feel better, both physically and mentally.  I leave the YMCA after one of my workouts and I’m ready to take on the world. Interestingly, my husband has taken my lead and he is back at the YMCA, too.  He even came to a Gentle Yoga class with me.  Why didn’t I do this before?  When I REALLY had stress in my life?

Cleaning out the Closets

I’ve been mulling over the term “spring cleaning” lately.  I’ve decided it’s a helpful metaphor for me in my current life stage.

The phrase connotes a seasonal aspect, like my new season of life, as I leave behind a 25-year corporate career and begin early retirement and my next life phase.   Spring suggests renewal, a time of new life and new discovery.    The expression also refers to a process of cleansing – washing, scrubbing, scouring, and dusting  – that is necessary after a winter of neglect.

It’s now been six months since I retired.  The first few weeks were akin to waking up in the Recovery Room after surgery.  I was ecstatic to be done, but felt groggy and needed rest and time to heal.  In mid-September we embarked on a hectic (some say manic) travel schedule, including a dream trip to Paris and multiple visits to the east coast.  Then came the holidays and one more trip east in January.

Now we are home for a spell.  I’m rested and relaxed.  I can’t imagine returning to my former corporate job.  And it feels like springtime – besides the unseasonably warm weather we are experiencing on the west coast, it’s as if my sensation of the world around me has sprung back to life, after what I now realize was a prolonged period of stress-induced numbness.  I’m enjoying the exploration of new activities and hobbies.  Every morning I wake up excited to experience the events on my calendar.  On weekday mornings, I walk to the YMCA, filled with gratitude, and participate in exercise classes.  I’ve particularly fallen in love with yoga.  At my first yoga lesson, I could barely touch my toes and had no clue what a downward facing dog was.  Now I do a kickass cat/cow pose and I find it unbelievably relaxing. On Wednesdays, I go to golf lessons.  Sure, I hit the guy next to me on the driving range (ball to shoulder) with an errant swing, but then I occasionally drive a shot straight and clean and bask in my moment of awesomeness.   I’ve joined a Women’s Bible Study on Tuesday evenings and we are doing a study on the book of James.  I like the women in the group and the Beth Moore curriculum feels like it was written just for me.  On Wednesday evenings I plan, cook and serve dinner to my husband.  I’ve had not one culinary disaster and we are both enjoying this new tradition.  I’ve reconnected with my good friend Cissy from my women’s prayer group 20 years ago, and I’m helping her start a nonprofit corporation.  I see this as a good way to learn the nuts and bolts of nonprofits, while having regular lunches with my very entertaining friend in the process. Finally, I’m still getting kicks out of all the adult education classes I signed myself up for.

But in the midst of my excitement and renewed energy for my current and future life, I’ve realized there is some “spring cleaning” needed following a long winter season.  When I stopped and really thought about it, I was stunned to realize I endured a 12-year-long winter, that only just ended with my retirement.   It started in 2001 when we put our townhouse on the market and then bought a fixer-upper house in a new town  just a few miles away.  In the midst of the moving process, we suffered the death of my stepson.  After we moved to our “new” house, I returned to a full-time work schedule (I’d happily worked an 80% schedule for 10 years beginning when my son was born).  Soon after I went full-time, I was offered and took a challenging new leadership role with my company. I was given 2 big promotions and increasing responsibilities in the next four years.  Within a year after taking the leadership position, my father was diagnosed with cancer, which was especially tragic given he was the caregiver for my mother, who was suffering from dementia.  My father’s cancer diagnosis began an incredibly challenging five-year period (my Sandwich Generation years), ending with the death of first dad and then mom.  I was strained to navigate end-of-life issues with both parents (with minimal help from my siblings who lived afar) while balancing career and my own family.  If there was ever a time in my life I came close to cracking, it was during my Sandwich years.  And somehow, somewhere in the middle of all this, we remodeled our house, requiring us to move into a rental for 14 months, and my uncle and father-in-law also passed away.  I am shocked now as I write all this, but at the time I just tried to put one foot before the other and not think too much about what was happening in my life.

Following my parents’ deaths and the conclusion of our home remodel, I was left feeling completely disorganized and very out of control.  We moved many of our things to off-site storage during our first move in order to clean out the townhouse for showing, and then decided to just leave belongings in the storage shed until after our remodel.   Over time, possessions of my stepson and our parents were added to the mix.  Our garage was increasingly filled with clutter.  But, I still had a very stressful work life that was sapping my energy, and I was too weary and beaten-down to address the mess.  At some point, I just decided to defer cleanup to retirement.

Our garage, which is the most egregious, but emblematic of other messes in my life

Our garage, which is the most egregious, but emblematic of other messes that need sorting out

Now that I’ve retired, and our initial travel blitz is over, its time to start the cleanup!  My husband and I have taken some baby steps in the past couple weeks to attack the garage, which we’re finding a highly unpleasant and disagreeable job.  (No wonder people don’t clean out their garages!) But more than the physical cleanup, I’m discovering there’s emotional tidying to be done.  It seems I am now constantly opening closets and pulling up rugs and finding messes that I’d left for another day. The deaths of my stepson and parents recently bubbled up.  (See my  post about how these losses smacked me anew.)   As I was going through my parents’ boxes, I opened one containing my mother’s favorite china.  A rush of wonderful memories flooded me, followed by my still-confusing range of emotions surrounding my mother’s descent into dementia.  The other day I walked by my son’s empty room (he’s away at college) and felt a weighty sadness about our empty nest and my son’s absence.  Now that my husband and I are together 24/7, we’re adjusting to new rules of engagement and it’s harder to skirt those pesky relational issues we’ve artfully ignored for over 25 years. And then there are questions of my own sense of worth and ego.   If I’m not bringing home the bacon, am I still important?  My springtime renewal seems to include the entire range of emotions.

Make no mistake – this is all good stuff.   I see my heightened awareness as a positive sign that my heart, mind and body are engaged and ready to start taking on not just the good stuff but the messes.   God has faithfully placed incredible people and experiences in my path to guide me toward healing and I welcome the process, although I know I will never be “done” and I need to remember to pace myself.  I am blessed with a husband who is willing to slog through the mud with me.   I have wonderful supportive friends. It does make me wonder, however, if what I’m experiencing is common for those who slow down and experience a place of relative calm.  Could this be why some purposely stay on the hamster wheel – to avoid the messes? I believe I will be stronger and wiser as I get my house in order.  I just wish sometimes that messes weren’t quite so messy.

Honoring Losses

“Unresolved loss is cumulative and cumulatively negative.” I was recently struck by these words (from The Grief Recovery Handbook by John James and Russell Friedman).

Right smack in the middle of my current manic phase of retirement, as I was busy throwing myself into the pursuit of new and exciting opportunities for my upcoming retirement years, I experienced a profound and wholly unexpected episode of grieving for past losses.

It started a week ago on Friday, which was my stepson David’s birthday.   He would have been 43 years old, but he was killed in a snowboarding accident in 2002.  I typically don’t make any public mention of him or the circumstances each year on his birthday; rather, my husband, son and I quietly and prayerfully remember him.

David, handsome inside and out, near the ocean that he loved

David, handsome inside and out, near the ocean that he loved

This year, my niece Tamra (David’s cousin), posted a photo on Facebook of David (when he was around 7 or 8) with Tamra and Megan (Tamra’s sister), at their grandparents’ house celebrating his birthday.  Along with the photo was a touching sentiment about David’s birthday and how much he is missed in our family.   This simple act prompted an organic electronic outpouring of remembrances on Facebook, with Megan, Tamra and Kim (David’s girlfriend at the time of his death) my son and I all participating (each of us from a different city) with postings of more photos and memories.  It was a remarkable, deeply comforting and completely unanticipated community experience.

The next day I was scheduled to travel to San Diego by myself for the weekend to visit friends from high school.  I was looking forward to a fun ‘girls’ weekend, but I was still feeling raw from Friday and the long drive gave me time to reflect.  I thought about David and all he meant to me.  I was young (27) when I met my husband, who at the time was a single dad with custody of 14-year-old David (who played adorable match-maker during our courtship).  My subsequent marriage was therefore a package deal, and I became full-time stepmom (at 29) to a headstrong and spirited teenage son.  My relationship with David was one of the most challenging, but ultimately most rewarding, in my life.  With him, I learned to be a mom.  I learned about friendship and love. He could be a harsh critic, but also my most loyal steadfast supporter.   As he grew older, he became a cherished confidante. When my son was born, I wasn’t sure how David would react to a half-brother, but David loved him immediately and fervently. David couldn’t get enough of him and had great plans for the two of them. They would’ve gotten into such wonderful trouble together!

David with his little brother at their grandpa's birthday party

David with his “little bro” at their grandpa’s birthday party

When David died at age 31, he was just coming into his own.   I was looking forward with great anticipation to seeing him settle down, get married, have kids (grandkids!!!!!!!!).   People, trying to be helpful, said things like, “Feel better, he’s in a better place” or “Time heals all wounds” and there’s partial truth in those statements.  My Christian faith reassures me of his eternal life. But the dead don’t grieve; rather, grief belongs to the ones left behind.  And David’s death still hurts. My loss is a future without him.  My son, who is now 20, was 8 when David died.  I’m sad that my son grew up without his big brother – a big brother that would have been his biggest fan and so proud of his accomplishments.  For years after David died, I still looked for him to show up at my son’s sporting events, and when I saw someone that looked like David, my heart would jump and then plummet at the realization that it wasn’t him.  When the phone rang or the front door opened, I had a similar reaction.  At my son’s Induction Day at the Naval Academy, in the midst of intense pride, I felt intense sadness that neither David nor my parents were there.  I’m sad that I don’t have grandkids to help David raise.  He would’ve made an awesome dad.

My Mom, Dad and my Uncle Dick at my wedding in 1988

My Mom, Dad and my Uncle Dick at my wedding in 1988

The closer I got to San Diego, I also became melancholy about my parents.  I was starting to get annoyed at myself for all the drama, but it was rather involuntary and there wasn’t much I could do.   San Diego holds many memories, as it was there I spent my teenage years and where my parents remained until shortly before they both passed away.  For most of my adult life, my parents’ house (later condo) in San Diego was my safe haven – where I would return to visit, to rest, to drop off my son for babysitting.  My parents always gave me the space I needed, no questions asked.  If I showed up and spent four days sleeping upstairs, that was fine with them.  If I asked them to take us to Sea World, the Zoo and the Wild Animal Park (all in the same weekend), they happily complied.  When they both died, I lost my safe haven.

Fortunately, in the midst of my gloom, my visit to San Diego was exactly what I needed.   I am blessed to have close enduring friendships from my high school days that provide me with space to be vulnerable.  First I had brunch with my friend Kelly, whom I met in sixth grade, and who is one of the kindest, most compassionate people I know.  The rest of the weekend I spent with my friend Celeste, who has overcome great personal challenges with a grace and aplomb that I have long admired.  She is completely nonjudgmental and I’ve always felt comfortable talking to her about anything.  She opened up her house to me and gave me that safe haven I was missing. Being with friends who literally and figuratively embraced me for the weekend, who gave me room to talk and rest, who know me well enough to both challenge and support me, was life sustaining.

As I left San Diego for the drive home, I reflected again on loss.  I thought about how, as we get older, the losses begin to accumulate.  Throughout our lives we experience broken relationships, job loss, divorce, death, empty nest, and, most recently for me, retirement, which signals the end of a career.  I thought about how important it is to pause to recognize losses, to honor them and the attendant grief.   One of the benefits to me of this blog is that writing helps me to identify and process.  More important is the experience of being truly heard by others.  I realized how important the past three days had been, and how God placed key people and events in my path to help guide and comfort me through some unexpected but necessary grief.

I will never be completely “over” grieving my past losses and I will have new wounds to face.  As I head into retirement, I need to be aware of any grief over leaving my career and that phase of my life. But as last weekend reminded me, when I was slapped in the face with unforeseen and powerful grief, I have less to fear from sorrow and loss when I take the time to honor and recognize it, surrounded with people who know me and care for me.  Sometimes in my quest to charge forward, I need to stop and look backward.  And rest for a spell.  Time does NOT heal all wounds.